“The Chrysanthemums” Essay, Research Paper
My Analysis of the Short Story: “The Chrysanthemums”
The short story “The Chrysanthemums” gives insight into the life of its author. John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. The locale of the story is of key resemblance to the Salinas in which Steinbeck was born and bread. “Salinas was a typical American small town, [differing] only in location and a few distinctive features” (McCarthy 3). The protagonist of this story, Elisa Allen, also resembles Steinbeck’s first wife. “Steinbeck probably based the character of Elisa Allen on his own first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck. Like Elisa, Carol was a woman of considerable talent and energy who wore ‘masculine clothes’ and was ‘strong, large-boned’ and ‘handsome rather than pretty’” (Hughes 23). Similar to the time frame in which Steinbeck lived, the theme of the story comes across as being male dominant and the rustic setting allows us to visualize this.
“The Chrysanthemums” is a good depiction of most marriages in the early 1900’s, the husband is the chief breadwinner and the wife is considered nothing more than a housewife. “The simple story outlines are enriched by irony and imagery which contrast the rich land and the sterile marriage, the fertile plants and Elisa’s inner emptiness” (McCarthy 26). The story begins by introducing the setting: “The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and the rest of the world” (Steinbeck 115). This vivid illustration unconsciously gives the reader a look into the dominating theme. However, it is not until the climax of the story that the reader begins to notice Elisa’s true pain and need for her own self-identity. The main protagonist in “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen, is a mid-aged housewife who also has a passion for growing chrysanthemums. “[Elisa’s] passionate involvement with the process of planting becomes an expression of all the suppressed romance in her life” (Lewis 393). “She is a strong, childless woman of thirty-five that has subliminated her maternal instincts by producing remarkable flowers” (French, John 83). Nevertheless, “the plants and flowers cannot compensate for the lack of understanding and affection from her husband” (McCarthy 27). In the story, Elisa plays the role of a simple-minded lady who allows her husbands thoughts and actions to dominate her. “Elisa’s marriage neither fills her time nor fulfills her desires” (Hughes 24). However, Beach concludes that Elisa without a doubt has a “soul” and is much less simple than she seems (Beach 32).
Henry Allen plays the role of a typical male, “[he is] well-meaning and basically decent.” However, “his concentration on his own role as provider, organizer, and decision maker has blinded him to the fact that [his wife] needs something more in her life than a neat house and a good garden” (Lewis 394, 394). “[The tinker] is described as big, bearded, and graying, a man who has been around, who knows something about life and people…” (Lewis 392). When the tinker begins a discussion with Elisa and discovers her vulnerability, he then uses this as a part of his scheme to manipulate her emotionally. “[The tinker] is accomplished at gauging a person’s emotional needs, and he has developed a facility for the kind of conversation that verges on the suggestive” (Lewis 392). There are several differences found between these two men. “In contrast to [Elisa’s] husband, [the tinker] is a kind of adventurer who lives spontaneously, a man of the road not bound by standard measures of time and place” (Lewis 392). Hughes also makes a comparison between Henry and the tinker: “compared to Henry Allen, the tinker is, indeed, an exciting and romantic figure” (Hughes 25).
The conversation between the tinker and Elisa sets the rising action and the eventual climax of the story. During their conversation, the tinker repeatedly asks Elisa for something to mend, each time being turned away. ‘No,’ “she said shortly.” ‘I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do’ (Steinbeck 119). However, the tinker finally discovers Elisa’s soft spot and deliberately takes advantage of her. The tinker begins discussing Elisa’s chrysanthemums and how beautiful they are, this makes Elisa feel like she is valued (Lewis 393). He then tells her that he had done some work for a lady who had wanted some chrysanthemum seeds. “[The lady] said to [the tinker], ‘If you ever run across some nice chrysanthemums I wish you’d try to get me a few seeds’ (Steinbeck 119). Elisa is overjoyed by any outside interest in her flowers and tells the tinker that she will give him some sprouts to take to the lady. After going over directions for the care of the precious sprouts, she gives the tinker a “bid red flower pot” filled with the chrysanthemum sprouts (Steinbeck 120). Elisa in the meantime finds some pots for him to mend. As the tinker begins to leave Elisa reminds him for the final time to keep the
soil damp for the sprouts, she hands him fifty cents, and bids him fair well. “As [Elisa] prepares for the evening, the power she usually puts into scrubbing the house is redirected into her preparation to make herself as attractive as she now feels” (Lewis 393). Finally Elisa and Henry are ready to go into town for dinner. The climax occurs as they drive closer into Salinas; Elisa notices a “dark spec” in the middle of the road, at this time she subconsciously knows what the spot is and is disgusted with the tinker; “she whispered to herself sadly,” ‘He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot…’(Steinbeck 123). “Elisa is shattered by the callous manner in which [the tinker] had drawn something from her secret self and then completely betrayed her ‘gift’ by not even taking the trouble to hide the flowers” (Lewis 393). It is at this point in the story that Elisa truly recognizes her place in society. Elisa now sadly realizes that she can never fulfill her wish to be anything more than what she is already, a housewife.
Many obstacles have been overcome in the past seven decades, one in particular being the fight for women’s rights. In “The Chrysanthemums” the theme of male dominance shines through clearly. The behaviors and descriptions of each of the characters allows the reader to envision Elisa’s hunger for her own self worth, Henry’s role as the man of the house and the tinkers position of being a man of the road, out to do whatever he can to make a penny. However, Steinbeck’s descriptions of these characters are not just words, they are words with feeling. Elisa is a housewife and a gardener but she is also a lady of dignity who wants to rise above and be more than what everyone expects of her or of any woman in general. “Steinbeck’s characters, like Henry Allen are quite pleased to be able to make a decent living, but equally important, like Elisa Allen, they are beginning to sense that not everyone can be satisfied by bread alone” (Lewis 394). It is not until the climax of the story that Elisa begins to give up on her goal to be free from a male domineering society. The tinker truly misleads her into believing that for once someone was interested in her life, for once someone actually thought of her as being brilliant. “John Steinbeck creates a moment of anger and hurt in “The Chrysanthemums” when Elisa sees her flowers dumped out onto the road. Her feelings illustrate the deep and authentic nature of her soul” (Beach 26). The characters’ thoughts, words, and actions make this story amazing. “Among Steinbeck’s fifty or more pieces of short fiction, no story has been more highly praised than “The Chrysanthemums” (Hughes 21).
Beach, Joseph. “John Steinbeck’s Authentic Characters.” Readings on John Steinbeck.
Ed. Swisher, Clarice. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1996. 30-39.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck. Second Ed. Twayne’s United States Author Series.
Boston: Twayne, 1975.
Hughes, R.S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short
Fiction Series, No.5. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Lewis, Leon. “The Chrysanthemums.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Ed. Frank N.
Magill. Vol. 1. Pasadena: Salem, 1986.
McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Unger, 1980.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Fiction: A Longman Pocket Anthology. Ed.
R.S. Gwynn. Second Ed. New York: Longman, 1998. 115-124.