The Chrysanthemums is a short story in The Long Valley, a collection of short stories by John Steinbeck. This story dramatizes the efforts made by a housewife, Elisa Allen, to compensate for the disappointments which she has encountered in her life. Steinbeck makes it clear that Elisa yearns for something more in her life then the everyday routines of farm life. While Elisa is portrayed as strong, in the end, her strength serves to be insufficient in having the courage to effect any real change in her life since her fragile self-esteem proves to be too susceptible to outside forces.
From the beginning of the short story, Steinbeck emphasizes that Elisa is a strong, competent woman who finds her considerable energy channeled into things, such as her garden, which never give her the sort of recognition or satisfaction that she craves. For a brief moment, she senses that she is capable of much more and feels her own strength only to, once again, have a man bring down her efforts, and her self-esteem. The story opens with Elisa working in her garden. Steinbeck makes a point of telling the reader that she is thirty-five.
Her age at once implies a woman almost at her middle-age who may be eexamining the dreams of her youth as she contemplates the second half of her life. Steinbeck emphasizes Elisas strength as he writes, Her face was eager and mature and handsome (Steinbeck 279). Her husband, Henry, comes back to the house having just completed the sell of some cattle. He is complimentary towards her gardening and comments on her talent. He suggests that she put her talent to work in the orchard growing apples, and Elisa considers his offhand comment seriously, Maybe I could do it, too (280).
Steinbeck has set the stage. Elisa clearly is feeling good about herself and her ccomplishments in the garden when an itinerate tinker pulls up in his wagon asking directions. The tinker has gotten off the main road and is looking for work. He repairs pots and pans and sharpens kitchen utensils. At first Elisa is aloof and says she has no work for him, but warms to the man when he admires her garden. He mentions that a customer of his wanted to grow chrysanthemums and asked him to bring her seeds if he ever got the chance. Elisa is thrilled to have someone who has shown an interest in her expertise.
She informs the tinker that chrysanthemums are best grown from seedlings, fter which she arranges some seedlings in a pot of sand for him to take to his customer. This changes Elisa whole orientation toward the tinker. She finds him some of her pots which need repair and engages him in conversation as she digs up the seedlings. At this point, Steinbecks narrative takes on sexual overtones as Elisa describes her feelings when she prunes the chrysanthemum buds with sure, quick fingers. They never make a mistake. Theyre with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant.
You can feel that, right up your arm (283-284). It is clear in this passage that Elisa is identifying heavily with the inker and that she images that they share the same feelings toward their individual realms of expertise. The tinker starts to comment on what she has just described, but Elisa cuts him off. She is so certain of what he was going to say, she feels that she can finish the sentence for him. She describes his solitary life living in a wagon in a very fantasized, romantic way that, here again, has sexual overtones. Every pointed star gets driven into your body.
Its like that. Hot and sharp and-lovely (284). Kneeling there beside the tinker in the dirt, Elisa almost reaches out to touch him, but then decides against t. Steinbeck writes that she was crouched like a fawning dog (284). This is a very telling line in regards to the characterization of Elisa, especially since the reader has not seen a great deal of her relationship with her husband, and what we have seen has been remarkably civil, if passionless. Elisa obviously yearns to connect with someone who can appreciate where she comes from in an aesthetic sense.
She romanticizes the life of the tinker who earns his trade based solely on his own talents and images that she would love being able to earn a living based on her own skills. For a moment, she feels an intimate connection with the tinker while she images that they have shared feelings. The fact that she withdraws from this connection like a whipped dog indicates that she has experienced pain from trying to establish such a bond in the past. As the tinker prepares to leave, Elisa jokes that he might have some competition in the future, that she could show him, what a woman might do (284).
At this point, Elisa is feeling strong and confident in her abilities. After the tinker departs, Elisa prepares to go out for the evening with her husband, Henry. Steinbeck makes it clear that the ritual of changing her clothes also produces a change in Elisa. For one thing, Elisas bath takes on the ramifications of a ritual purification ceremony. She scrubs herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red (285).
Although the obvious implication is that she is punishing herself for unclean sexual thoughts, there is an added layer of meaning in that she, for a moment, considered stepping outside the role prescribed by society, because she quickly steps back into this role. She puts on akeup and a dress which is the symbol of her prettiness (285). Through this ritual, Elisa has discarded the sensible, practical clothing of, what is really, her calling, for the traditional dress of women in a society which places a reward on youth and sexual attractiveness.
By also mentally stepping back into the passive role that places a value of the opinions of men, she makes herself vulnerable to those opinions. Her increased vulnerability shows in her conversation with Henry when he compliments her on her appearance. She asks him exactly what he means, Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean y nice ? (286). Poor, confused Henry isnt sure what to answer. He blunders on by saying I dont know. I mean you look different, strong and happy (286).
As they drive into town, Elisa sees where the tinker has carelessly thrown her wonderful chrysanthemum seedlings, which she so careful dug, into the road. She notices, he had to keep the pot. Thats why he couldnt get them off the road (286). The tinkers interest in her garden was all a pretense to incline her more favorably toward him so he could obtain work. Her imaged sharing of feelings was strictly in her own imagination and had no basis in reality. Elisa sees all this quite plainly and is hurt by it. She makes one more stab at independence and showing her strength.
For a moment, she shows an interest in going to the fights instead of the movies where she can watch men punish each other till the gloves become soggy with blood (287). However, she quickly drops this plan for the more mundane thrill having wine with their dinner. It will be enough if we can have wine (287). With this comment, she pulls up her coat collar and begins to cry weakly-like an old woman (287). To have her illusions crushed so quickly and thoroughly has robbed Elisa f her feelings of strength and independence.
Although she obviously longs for more control of her life, for meaningful work that uses her talents and capabilities, it is obvious that Elisa will never assert herself enough to obtain these things. Elisa would love to go against the restrictions imposed against women during this time in the 1930s. Although there is nothing wrong with Henry, he obviously doesnt connect with her on the sort of intimate level that would fulfill Elisas longings. The garden seems to also symbolize an aesthetic side to Elisas nature which yearns for expression.
For a moment, she feels she touched on such a shared intimacy with the tinker and it is easy to see why she could have been so easily mistaken because the tinker does imply that he also has that sort of aesthetic sensibility when he describes the chrysanthemums which will bloom later in the summer, Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke? (282). When the tinker casts her plants aside, it is almost as if he cast aside Elisas dreams as well. Its not just this brief episode that makes Elisas cry, but what is really upsetting her is the thought of a future where she feels unfulfilled and unchallenged.