By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Chrysanthemums’ (1937) is probably John Steinbeck’s best-known and most highly regarded short story. But although his novels such as Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath are widely read and studied, the plots of Steinbeck’s short stories are not quite so firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness. Let’s take a closer look at ‘The Chrysanthemums’ and discover more about it.
You can read ‘The Chrysanthemums’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Chrysanthemums’: plot summary
The story is set during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s. Elisa Allen is a 35-year-old wife of a rancher in Salinas Valley in California (the setting for many of Steinbeck’s short stories). The action of the story takes place on a single Saturday right at the end of the year.
Elisa has a talent for growing things, and is proud of her ability to cultivate the biggest chrysanthemums in the whole valley. Chrysanthemums are famously the last flowers to bloom in the year before winter fully takes hold. Elisa’s husband, Henry, has negotiated the sale of some ‘steers’ (most likely oxen or cattle) and goes into the fields with their helper, Scotty, to fetch the animals ready for the sale.
Not long after her husband has left, a travelling tinker arrives in a wagon and asks if he can repair anything for Elisa. He offers to sharpen tools or mend old pots and pans for her. She initially says no, but when the tinker takes an interest in her chrysanthemums, she lets down her guard.
The tinker wins his way into Elisa’s good books by claiming that he knows a lady further down the road whose garden lacked chrysanthemums. She had expressed an interest in growing some, and Elisa readily offers to place some sprouts into some soil in a flowerpot, for the tinker to give to the lady when he visits her.
Elisa allows the man to come into the yard so she can give him the pot. She gives him instructions for how to grow the flowers, for him to pass on to the lady.
She has become very eager and excited and in her passion she almost touches the man’s trousers as she kneels in front of him. The tinker then brings the conversation back to his trade, subtly hinting that he won’t be able to eat supper tonight unless he makes some money. Ashamed by her behaviour, she finds him two saucepans to fix. She pays him for his work, but counters his assumptions about women (he tells her that the tinker’s itinerant lifestyle is no life for a woman) by telling him that she could do his job just as well.
The tinker, promising to deliver the flowerpot of Elisa’s chrysanthemums to the lady who lives further along the road. As soon as he has gone, Elisa goes into the house and strips off all of her clothes, scrubbing herself clean and examining her body in the mirror. She then spends a long time making herself look pretty before her husband returns and they head out to town for dinner and a movie.
But as they drive into town, Elisa spots what appear to be the chrysanthemum sprouts which she gave to the tinker: he has thrown them out of the pot and into the road. She asks her husband if they can have wine with their dinner, and then enquires about the boxing fights and whether the man who take part really hurt each other. The story ends with her crying like an old woman.
‘The Chrysanthemums’: analysis
The idea of using chrysanthemums and their associated symbolism in fiction was not new when Steinbeck did it, and even in the twentieth century there were important precursors in stories like D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911), in which Lawrence actually subverts the usual expected symbolism by having the flowers mean something very different to the female protagonist.
But Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums’ focuses on the latent sexual symbolism within the flowers blooming and the imagery that Elisa uses to describe their growth is clearly intended to suggest an erotic subtext.
When she talks about the ‘hot and sharp’ and ‘lovely’ sensation of the stars driving their points into the body, it is obvious that she is thinking of other things which the tinker – first in being a variation on the character type known as the romantic dark stranger (as Abby H. P. Werlock notes in her analysis of the story in her American Short Story (Companion to Literature Series)) and second in taking an interest in her pride and joy, the chrysanthemums – has aroused within the mind (and body) of this repressed farmer’s wife.
The chrysanthemums represent Elisa herself: she, like them, is a ‘late bloomer’, a woman in her mid-thirties who has, we infer, led a rather sexually repressed life as a dutiful wife until now. When she gives the tinker the flowers and he accepts them, this symbolises his recognition of her as a beautiful ‘bloomer’, much like the flowers; his rejection and abandonment of the flowers in the road symbolises his rejection of her as a woman deserving of romantic interest.
Steinbeck quickly paints a picture of the tinker as a dark stranger: he is a big man, described as ‘brooding’, dressed in a black hat and suit, and with callused hands whose lines are black.
It is clear that the tinker is merely using Elisa: like many a hardened salesman, when he is faced with failure as he tries to persuade her to give him some trade, he exploits her passion for growing flowers in order to coax some business out of her.
Steinbeck shows this to us in little telling flashes, such as when he describes the smell of chrysanthemums as ‘nasty’, only to go back on this statement immediately, declaring that he likes the smell, when he realises his comment has annoyed her.
Similarly, in Elisa’s first exchange with her husband, Henry, it is clear that he would much prefer them to go and watch a boxing fight after dinner when they travel into town that evening, but when she flinches from such an idea he claims the suggestion was a joke. Through some exchanges, Steinbeck shows Elisa to be a woman with little in common with either man. The only thing she has any real kinship with is her chrysanthemums.
When her husband returns and compliments her appearance, she can only respond by questioning what he means by words such as ‘nice’ and ‘strong’: her encounter with the tinker has awakened something within her, but it has been suppressed for so long that she is unable to identify what it means.
However, she does assert that she has realised just how strong she is: something she had never fully grasped before. But we, in turn, are left wondering what she means by describing herself as ‘strong’: the implication is that the word no longer merely denotes her skills planting flowers and tending the land.
But what makes ‘The Chrysanthemums’ Steinbeck’s greatest short story is his masterly use of symbolism. The valley is figured as a female space, a dip in the land that is mirrored by the pots and pans which are a symbol of the tinker’s trade.
Indeed, in the opening paragraph of the story, Steinbeck describes the valley as resembling a closed pot, an image which at once summons the idea of Elisa’s body as well as the sexual repression she feels as Henry’s wife. The flowerpot which she gives to the tinker and which he empties out onto the road is another loaded symbol, since it represents the female form, but emptied of its flourishing beauty and, with it, its ability to grow and flower.
Another key symbol in the story is the contrast between clarity and vagueness, between Elisa’s eyes (as ‘clear as water’, we are told) and the fog that envelops the valley. As if to bring home the incompatibility between Elisa and her surroundings, Steinbeck even reminds us that fog and rain don’t go together: Elisa’s water-clear eyes are at odds with the foggy valley in which she is enclosed.
The implication is that whilst Elisa’s own desires are clear, her oppressive surroundings make it difficult for her to express these through anything other than coded symbolism (that talk of the starlight hitting the body) and through her work tending the flowers.
The ending of ‘The Chrysanthemums’ leaves us, as readers, with some questions to ponder. The implication of Elisa crying ‘like an old woman’ is clear: middle-aged and married, with the dark stranger having symbolically rejected her through her flowers, she is destined to become an old woman whose bloom will now wither and fade.
In this connection, her quizzing of her husband over the fighting men suggests that she is simultaneously intrigued and even aroused by such exciting masculine behaviour while also wishing to recoil from it in horror. She is clearly not a timid or delicate flower herself – she is, as she asserted, ‘strong’ – but she is also all-too-aware that her life has become clearly demarcated and enclosed, much like the valley in which she lives.
Having wine with dinner, with the prospect of getting slightly drunk and letting her hair down, is now the height of excitement in her life, and her encounter with the travelling tinker has led her to realise this sad fact.