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Identify and explain one symbol in "The Chrysanthemums."

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arecl | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted July 18, 2013 at 5:29 PM via web

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Identify and explain one symbol in "The Chrysanthemums."

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 19, 2013 at 7:49 AM (Answer #1)

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The dominant symbol in this excellent short story is of course the symbol that gives it its title: the chrysanthemums that Elisa invests so much time and effort into. These flowers are so much a part of Elisa, as we are told that she is the one who works so hard on cultivating and nurturing them. There seem to be many parallels between Elisa and these flowers, as the following quote suggests:

She was cutting down the old year's chrysanthemum stalks with a pair of short and powerful scissors... Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissors was overeager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed to small and easy for her energy.

Later on, Henry praises her for the strength and vitality of her chrysanthemums, and we can see how much of her own energy and character Elisa pours into her flowers. Elisa even goes as far as to say that when she looks after her flowers she becomes one with them, and the tidiness of the flowerbed corresponds with the tidiness of Elisa's house.

However, at the same time, the chrysanthemums are also a powerful symbol of Elisa's limited life with all of the restrictions she has to face with. When the tinker rejects the chrysanthemums that Elisa offers to him, he is also rejecting Elisa herself, and this act represents how society as a whole treats women as nothing more than domestic workers and mothers. The flowers, like Elisa, are treated as being nothing more than decorative without any importance. Elisa is so identified with her flowers that the way they are thrown on the floor represents how both Elisa and women in general feel treated by society.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:28 AM (Answer #2)

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Since the original question is "Name ten objects in the chrysanthemums that symbolize something [sic]," here are other symbols that John Steinbeck employs in his short story in addition to the chrysanthemums that are symbolic of Elisa's appreciation of aesthetic and natural beauty. 

  • the chrysanthemums also symbolize Elisa's frustration and desire to be tended and appreciated as she does the flowers. Her "strong new crop" are her renewed desires.
  • the "grey-flannel fog of winter [that] closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world," symbolizes the life of Elisa Allen, who is isolated from other women.
  • "a closed pot" that the Salinas Valley becomes symbolizes Elisas isolation, as well, and suggests that she holds much passion inside her.
  • the river that separates Henry Allen's "foothill ranch" symbolizes the divide of life between him and his wife.
  • "a man's black hat pulled down over her eyes" suggests that Elisa is prevented in this man's world that she dwells from seeing and sharing in other facets of life.
  • the scissors that are "over-eager" and "over-powerful" suggest Elisa's desire for new life as she cuts the old stalks of the chrysanthemums. The blades suggest legs; the scissors can be symbolic of Elisa's rebellion against the passive role she has been assigned.
  • Her "terrier fingers" that dig quickly in the dirt of her garden suggest, again, her liveliness and her lively desires along with her rebellion against the passive womanly role she must assume.
  • the "ten parallel trenches" dug to receive the chrysanthemums represents a certain perfection--10 is the perfect number representative of the universe  and of human knowledge.
  • the "pale yellow hillside" that her husband rides up with another man represents how separate their lives are. Yellow is usually a symbol of evil or foreboding, as well.
  • the red flower pot that Elisa places the chrysanthemum and the "gloves that were forgotten now" represent Elisa's passion that beats within her


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