First published in the October, 1937 issue of Harper's, ''The Chrysanthemums'' was included in John Steinbeck's 1938 short story collection, The Long Valley. In several significant ways, this story of an unhappy marriage is typical of Steinbeck's fiction. It takes place in the Salinas Valley of California, the ''Long Valley'' named in the title of his first short story collection. It concerns a married couple and examines the psychology of the unhappiness their marriage causes. Finally, it contains many vivid images of the seasons, weather, plants, and animals, all of which fascinated the writer his entire life.
One of Steinbeck's biographers, Jackson J. Bennett, has suggested that the character of the protagonist, Elisa Allen, was based on Steinbeck's first wife, a bright and energetic woman who gave up her career to follow her husband. Whatever her origins, Elisa is a woman who loves her husband, but whose life is narrow and unexciting, limited in what she can become by geography and opportunity. When a strange man passes through, a wanderer who travels up and down the coast sharpening scissors and repairing pots, her conversation with him leaves her feeling frustrated and dissatisfied.
From the beginning, this story has been regarded as one of Steinbeck's finest pieces of fiction—indeed, some have called it one of the best short stories ever written. More than sixty years later, it is still the author's most widely anthologized story, and one of his most debated. Critics are divided, for example, over whether Elisa is sympathetic or unsympathetic, powerful or powerless. Few modern short stories have built up such a body of criticism as ''The Chrysanthemums,'' as readers have tried to establish Elisa's reasons for her dissatisfaction with married life.