The Chrysanthemums Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Chrysanthemums

Elisa Allen, a woman approaching middle age, is at a point in her life when she has begun to realize that her energy and creative drive far exceed the opportunities for their expression. Her marriage is reasonably happy—when she notices that her husband is proud of selling thirty head of steers he has raised, she gives him the compliment he hopes for, while he, in turn, appreciates her ability to grow flowers of exceptional quality. There is an easy banter between them, and while they have settled into a fairly familiar routine, they are still responsive to each other’s moods, and eager to celebrate an achievement in each other’s company with a night on the town. On the other hand, their marriage is childless, and Elisa generally wears bland, bulging clothes that tend to de-sex her. Their house is described as “hard-swept” and “hard-polished”; it is the only outlet for her talents and it is an insufficient focus for her energy. She has begun to sense that an important part of her is lying dormant and that the future will be predictable and rather mundane.

Although Elisa would never consider an actual affair, when a stranger appears at their farm offering to sharpen knives and mend pots, his singularity and unconventional appearance immediately arouse her interest. In contrast to her husband, he is a kind of adventurer who lives spontaneously, a man of the road not bound by standard measures of time and place. Because he has found it useful to be able to charm his potential customers into giving him work, he is accomplished at gauging a person’s emotional needs, and he has developed a facility for the kind of conversation that verges on the suggestive. He is described as big, bearded, and graying, a man who has been around, 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 way of life, overlooking the harshness and uncertainty of his existence in her eagerness to romanticize his style. When she tries to get him to discuss his travels, he steers the conversation back to the possibility of employment. When it is apparent that she has no work to give him, however, he cannily praises her flowers, and when Elisa responds to his “interest,” he tells her that a woman he expects to see soon on his rounds has asked him to be on the watch for good seeds. Almost desperately eager to share the one thing she is actually doing, Elisa carefully gathers some shoots, and as she instructs the stranger on the proper care 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, and to show that he shares her vision, he offers just enough encouragement to lead her into a full-scale declaration of her profound sense of what planting means to her, a declaration that is presented in powerfully sensual terms. Elisa would like this moment of intensity to continue, but the tinker reminds her that hunger overcomes inspiration, and Elisa, somewhat abashed by her own openness, finds some useless, old pots for him to mend. She believes that the man has given her something intangible but valuable and that she is obliged to give him something he needs in return. As the man leaves, Elisa looks away after him, whispering to herself, “There’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.”

The consequence of their conversation is very dramatic. Elisa feels energized and appreciated, delighted by her opportunity 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 power she usually puts into scrubbing the house is redirected into her preparation 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 a pleasant uncertainty and a kind of unexpected delight as they both enjoy the animating effect of Elisa’s 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 avidly prepared. The tinker has discarded the flowers on the road to save the pot that contained them, the only object of value to him.

Elisa is shattered by the callous 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, a bold gesture in the context of their lives. This, however, is not sufficient to help her restore her feelings of confidence and expectation, so she asks her husband if they might go to a prizefight, a request so completely out of character that her husband is totally baffled. She presses further, searching 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 futile as an attempt to sustain and resurrect her sense of self-control and command. In a few moments, she completely gives up the pose, her whole body collapsing into the seat in an exhibition 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.”

The Chrysanthemums Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Elisa Allen is at work in the garden on the grounds of a neat farm house she shares with her husband, Henry Allen. It is December, and there is no sunshine. Rather, a “high, gray-flannel” fog hovers over the mountains, causing the valley to seem covered like a lid on a pot. Henry’s fall fieldwork is done, and now begins the time of waiting for rain to rejuvenate the ground. Elisa, however, is cutting back the old chrysanthemum stalks, inspecting the plants for pests, and transplanting sprouts for a new crop.

Elisa, who is thirty-five years old, has a slender and “strong” face with clear eyes. In her work clothes, she seems“heavy” because of their bulkiness. As she works, she is “over-eager, over-powerful,” suggesting masculinity and more energy within her than the tasks at hand require. Even the house is “hard-swept” and the windows are “hard-polished.” Occasionally, Elisa looks at the tractor shed, where her husband is talking business with two men.

Henry’s voice startles Elisa, as he notes the new sprouts and compliments her on having a green thumb—which she acknowledges, believing that she has inherited planters’ hands. Henry reveals that he has sold thirty of his three-year-old steers for a good price and suggests that they celebrate by going into Salinas for dinner and a movie. Perfunctorily, Elisa accepts the invitation, and he teasingly asks her if she would prefer to go to the fights.

Henry rounds up the steers, and Elisa transplants chrysanthemum sets. The sounds of squeaky wheels and the clop of hoofs cause her to look up. She sees a wagon drawn by a mismatched team. The driver is a tinker, or mender of household items. He is a large man with a stubble beard that, though partially gray, does not make him look old. He has dark, brooding eyes and calloused hands, and is wearing a wrinkled black suit with grease spots, and a worn hat. When asked for directions, Elisa suggests a faster way to the highway to Los Angeles, but the man volunteers that time is no concern; he travels from San Diego to Seattle and back annually, allowing himself six months each way. His apparent carefree attitude appeals to Elisa, who comments that his life must be a nice life to live.

The tinker calls attention to the crude lettering on the wagon that advertises his trade of mending pots and sharpening knives and scissors. He asks for work twice, but Elisa assures him that she has none. He appeals to her sympathy by saying that, with no work all day, he may not have an evening meal. Taking another approach, he asks Elisa about her plants. By noticing the flowers, he immediately causes her irritation to fade, leading her to eagerly tell him about the chrysanthemums that she takes pride in growing.

The tinker claims that a neighboring woman, also an avid gardener, has no chrysanthemums, and that she has asked him to be on the lookout for some seeds. He asks Elisa if he can take some of the sprouts to the woman. Delighted with having met someone who seems to show interest in her flowers, Elisa invites him into the yard while she prepares some sprouts for him. She gives directions for their care, adding that it is difficult to do so, for if one has “planting hands,” they know what to do automatically. She wonders if he understands her. Now self-conscious, he agrees that perhaps he does understand, but only when he is in the wagon at night with the stars above. He tries to bring her back to matters at hand, that is, that he will not be able to eat if he cannot find work. Now feeling ashamed, she finds him some pots that she no longer uses.

While the tinker works, Elisa asks about life in the wagon and reiterates her wish to be able to live that way. He says, “It ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman.” She pays him fifty cents and reminds him that she, too, can repair pots and sharpen scissors. As he prepares to leave, she repeats her instructions for the plants. He has clearly forgotten about them, but then catches himself. The tinker starts down the road, and Elisa mouths the words “Good-bye, good-bye.”

Once inside the house, Elisa scrubs her body with pumice and, dressing in her best clothes, lays out Henry’s best suit and shoes. She then sits “primly and stiffly” on the porch, reflecting on what has taken place. When Henry comes out, she stiffens as he tells her how “nice” she looks. He blunders through, explaining what he means by “nice.”

While traveling toward Salinas, Elisa sees a “dark speck” in the road and realizes that the tinker has discarded the chrysanthemums; he had been merely toying with her. She comments to Henry that dining out will be good, and he suggests that they should do so more often. Elisa asks if they can have wine with dinner and, after a bit, asks what goes on at the fights and if women ever go. Surprised, he offers to take her there is she really wants to. She declines, saying that having wine is enough. She then turns up her coat collar so Henry cannot see her weeping.

The Chrysanthemums Summary

The story opens with a panoramic view of the Salinas Valley in winter, shrouded in fog. The focus narrows and finally settles on Elisa Allen,...

(The entire section is 560 words.)