The Chrysanthemums, by John Steinbeck, is set in the beautiful valley of Salinas, California, during a time when California was the land of plenty. A place where dust storms and drought were unheard of, where water was plentiful and the air sprinkled with the sweet smell of fruit blossoms. A time when simple people farm the land and struggle to find a place for themselves in the world. Elisa Allen is at a point in her life where she has begun to realize that her energy and creative drive far exceed what life has offered her. Her husband, Henry Allen, is a well meaning and essentially good man and is quite pleased to be able to make a decent living. Her marriage is reasonably happy and there is an easy banter between the two of them. While they have settled into a fairly familiar and ordinary routine, they are still responsive to each others sense of accomplishment and agree to celebrate with a night on the town. Elisa is earthbound, rooted securely in her garden but also held down by her connection to it. Their house is described as hard-swept and hard-polished, and is the only outlet for her talents.
However, Elisa needs something more in her life than a neat house and a good garden. Their marriage is childless and conventional and she has begun to sense that an important part of her is dying and that her future will be predictable and mundane. Elisa is a barren woman who has transferred her maternal impulses to her garden, a garden full of unborn seedlings. On the other hand, Elisa would never consider a lurid affair, when a dark mysterious stranger appears at their quiet farm dwelling looking for work. A complete contrast from her husband, an adventurer who lives spontaneously, a man of the road not bound by standard measures of time or place. Since mending pots is a way of life, he has found it necessary to be able to charm potential customers into giving him work, and is very skillful at calculating a persons emotional needs.
The stranger is described as big, bearded, and graying man, who knows something about life and people. A man with a captivating presence whose eyes are dark and full of brooding. Elisa is fascinated by his spontaneous way of life. When she tries to get him to discuss his travels, he steers back to the possibility of employment. When it is apparent that she has no work to give him, he cleverly praises her flowers. Elisa is desperately eager to share in the one thing she is actually proud of, and carefully gathers some shoots to share with another customer down the road. As she disciplines the stranger on the proper nurturing of the seedlings, her passionate involvement with the process of planting becomes an expression of all the suppressed romance in her life. The stranger senses this craving, and offers just enough encouragement to lead her into a full-scale declaration of her profound love of what planting means to her. Elisa would like this moment to continue, but the stranger reminds her that hunger overcomes inspiration.
Elisa, somewhat ashamed by her openness, finds some useless old pots for him to mend. She believes that the man has given her something of value and she feels obliged to give him something in return. As the man leaves, Elisa looks away after him, whispering to herself, Thats a bright direction. Theres a glowing there. The purpose of the conversation between Elisa and the stranger is very dramatic. Elisa feels energized and appreciated, delighted by her moment to share her special skill and excited by the chance to share, at least in her imagination, a totally different kind of life. As she prepares for the evening, the effort she usually puts into scrubbing the house is redirected into her transformation to make herself as attractive as she now feels. Her husband is both surprised and pleased by her appearance, and their conversation is mixed with pleasantries and unexpected delight as they both enjoy the animating effect of Elisas encounter. Their mood remains distinctly elevated as they head for town, but then Elisa sees a small speck on the road in the distance. Instantly, she realizes that this is the treasure she so tenderly prepared. The stranger has discarded the flowers on the road to save the pot that contained them, the only object of value to him.
She weeps privately as they drive pass the stranger in the tiny covered wagon. Elisa is shattered by the heartless manner in which he has drawn something from her secret self and then completely betrayed her gift by not even taking the trouble to hide the flowers. She attempts to override her disappointment, by maintaining a mood of gaiety, suggesting that they have wine at dinner. This is not sufficient to help her restore her feelings of confidence, so she asks her husband if they might go to a prizefight. This request so completely out of character that again her husband is totally baffled. She searches further for that special feeling she held briefly, and asks if men hurt each other very much. This is part of an effort to focus her own violent and angry feelings, but it is completely hollow as an attempt to sustain her sense of self-control. In a few moments, she completely gives up and her whole body collapses into the seat in a display of defeat. As the story concludes, Elisa is struggling to hide her real feeling of pain from her husband.
She is anticipating a dreadful future in which she pictures herself crying weakly like an old woman. Clearly Steinbecks is particularly sensitive to the effect of landscape on a persons life. Because Elisa Allens sense of her own self-worth is so closely tied to the land, Steinbeck has chosen to connect her psychical existence to the season, the climate, and the terrain she inhibits. The mood of the story is set by his description of a winter fog bordered valley, a description that is also pertinent to Elisas mood. She is entering middle age, and when the valley is compared to a closed pot with no sunshine in December. There is a close parallel to the condition of her life, a sealed vessel with little light available. Steinbeck referred to it as a time of quiet and waiting, and the land, Elisas only field of action, is dormant, with little work to be done. Elisa Allen is beginning to sense that not everybody can be satisfied by bread alone.
Henrys concentration on his role as provider and decision-maker have blinded him from Elisas need for someone to understand the essential nature of her yearning. The question Steinbeck poses is whether one should settle for security and comfort, or risk ones dreams in an attempt to live more completely and intensely. The retreat from action at the conclusion suggests that the risks are great, but there is a possibility that Elisa might not be permanently beaten by her pain. In this story Steinbeck focuses more closely on character than on surroundings, though that is not to say that the naturalistic setting has a non-existing role in the story. The story develops from a dramatic point of view, as Steinbeck first describes the entire valley in a panoramic view, then moves closer to focus Elisa working in her garden. Throughout the story, the perspective shifts from Elisas narrow and cramped domain, to the entire ranch, and to the world beyond. In a final transformation, Elisas shock is thrown back by an image of multiple confinement, as she is enclosed by a wagon, surrounded by her seat and hidden within a coat that covers her face. It is not an image designed to create confidence in Elisas prospects.
Elisa is also seen alternately as a part of a larger landscape and as a small figure in an enclosed area. Her warm, three-dimensional character serves to show the human beauty beneath her rough and somewhat masculine exterior. Elisa has certain needs of the spirit, the abstract nature of which keeps happiness forever elusive. She feels trapped between societys definition of the masculine and the feminine. Elisa generally wears bland, baggy clothes that tend to de-gender her. Her husband Henry is more practical, with greater involvement in physical concern; but is confronted by a woman whose depression is partially due to a confusion of sexual identity. Henry withdraws from the masculine role of leadership, leaving Elisa to flounder between aggression and submission.
Here Steinbeck offers no solution for the psychological conflicts that plague human interactions. He does not want the readers to see Elisa change; he wants to leave it open, to make us wonder about her character. Steinbecks short story focuses on the details of the simple lives and hardships of men and women in the Salinas River Valley, bringing the reader into the characters most private lives and intimate moments. In this story, something as simple and uneventful as a visit by a traveling repairman reveals the tedious and monotonous lifestyle led by a farmers wife. The reader is drawn into the tale and vicariously experiences the suffering and longing of the lonely housewife.
This story reflects the unfulfilled longings of a country housewife, who compensates for her disappointments in her life through her garden. Steinbeck’s use of simple themes and his concern for common human values, stir the reader’s thoughts and emotions, and leave them with an awareness of life. “This story has one rare, creative thing: a directness of impression that makes it glow with life.”