Describe the main symbols and how do their meanings change in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck?"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In John Steinbeck's "The Chrsanthemums," chief among the  symbols are the chrsanthemums, of course, pots, the fence, and the tinker man, but there are others, as well.  In the exposition, Steinbeck's initial description of the Salinas Valley as a "closed pot" establishes the mood as a stultifying one. In the first paragraph, there are three mentions of yellow, a color associated with death:

the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine...The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.

The "closed pot" symbolizes the limited existence of the attrative young wife of Henry Allen, Elisa.  While she and her husband seem to get along well, their conversations with one another are not in the familiar tone of lovers.  Clearly, there is no passion in Elisa's life, an unfulfillment.  Like her chrsanthemums, she has the flowering of her womanhood cut and the blooms do not come when they should naturally.  The symbolism here relates to Elisa's being childless and without fruition to her love.

When the tinker comes along with his mismatched horse and donkey and a "rangy" dog, symbolic of an unordered life, Elisa falls prey to his insincere pretense of interest in the chrysanthemums.  Having been deprived of socialization, Elisa falls prey to his lures when he feigns interest in her flowers as he leans over the fence to her.  She invites him into her yard on the other side of the barrier between them.  Having removed her hat and her gloves, symbolic of freeing herself from formality, she describes the care of the flowers in a most sensual manner:

She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him.  Her breast swelled passionately....Elisa's voice grew husky...

As she describes the night, there is a climactic passion to her words and the sexual overtones cannot be missed:

When the night is dark--why, the stars are sharp-pointed,...Why you rise up and up!  Every pointed star gets driven into your body.  It's like that.  Hot and sharp and--lovely.

Still kneeling, Elisa's hand go toward the leg of the man's trouser's, but she drops it to the ground in her frustration.  When she stands, she is ashamed at her display of sexually-charged emotion.  Then, she goes into the house to find a pot for the man to repair, closing herself to her life of routine again.  While he repairs the pot, Elisa tells him she can do the same job, hoping to reestablish her position as an equal after her having looked like "a fawning dog."

After the tinker departs with the chrysanthemums, the woman scrubs herself until her skin is scratched and red, as though to rid her thoughts of what has transpired.  She puts on "the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness," Steinbeck writes.  She is yet a woman, a woman who, waiting on her husband, looks out over the willow-line that is still

yellow with frosted leaves so that under the high grey fog....This was the only color in the grey afternoon.

Like the "closed pot," the fog does not permit any extension. For, in fog, one's view is myopic.  And, it is this myopia that her husband possesses.  When Elisa "looks different" to him, he cannot understand why.  He does not know how to react to her.  As they drive to town, Elisa spots another symbol:  the tossed chrysanthemums on the road that the tinker travels.  Symbolic of her unfulfilled passion, they are cast aside.  She turns away from the tinker as they pass him. Realizing that her life is reduced to "petty pace of day to day," she tells her husband, "It will be enough if we can have wine.  It will be plenty."  The wine is symbolic of a softening of the edges of reality, if only briefly.  Yet, she turns up her collar and cries, hiding her emotion from the man who would not understand.


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