“The Chrysanthemums” has variously been praised as a masterpiece, one of the finest stories in American literature and a story that “seems almost perfect in form and style.” In a realistic style rich with symbolism, John Steinbeck captures a sense of the 1930’s in the United States in his depiction of the relationship between Elisa Allen and her husband, Henry.
Steinbeck was an immensely popular writer, but critics and scholars were not similarly enthused. Some questioned the decision to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Swedish Academy, however, praised Steinbeck’s concern with the ordinary life of the common person, and it felt that the stories collected in The Long Valley (1938), including “The Chrysanthemums,” had paved the way for his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The academy did not mention his works of the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, which were not well received by the critics. Most newspapers and periodicals responded to his award negatively or indifferently.
In “The Chrysanthemums,” the image of weather figures importantly in the story’s symbolism. For example, Elisa represses her femininity and her sexual desires in her marriage in a day in which women’s submission was often the norm. Just as the fog, described as a “gray-flannel,” has settled over the valley as if it were a lid on a pot, Elisa seems to be enclosed inside the fence that keeps animals from her garden. She feels emotionally enclosed as well. While Henry may love Elisa, he has little understanding of her needs as a woman.
The color yellow serves an important function in the story, too. The chrysanthemums are yellow, as are the willows near the river road. She notes, while waiting on the porch for Henry, “that under the high grey fog” the willows “seemed a thin band of sunshine.” Her words suggest a ray of hope amid the gloom of gray.
Elisa also is a nurturing person, and because she is childless, she may be vicariously using this trait (of being nurturant) in producing the giant flowers and transplanting sprouts. Likewise, her brief encounter with the tinker arouses her feelings of sexuality, long stifled, and awakens in her the hope of fulfilling those impulses.
The point of view of the story is limited third person. As such, although Elisa knows what the tinker is saying when he inquires about the chrysanthemums, the reader is not told that he is insincere, that he is just using her. She knows also what Henry is saying when he says that she looks “nice,” but she has to ask him what he means by the word.
Major themes related to frustration, limitation, and aesthetics are played out throughout the story as well. Even when Henry pays Elisa a compliment, he is inept and inadequate. Declaring her “strong enough to break a calf over [her] knee” does not appeal to her feminine side. The tinker, in showing even pretended interest in her gardening and in his poetic way of describing the chrysanthemums as looking like “a quick puff of colored smoke,” flatters her. She removes her old hat and her bulky work clothes, which make her look masculine, and shakes “out her dark pretty hair,” allowing her femininity to show.
After Elisa’s sexual feelings are awakened by the tinker, she goes into the house to dress for her night out with Henry, but not before she tries to remove the guilt of her fantasized adultery with the tinker by scrubbing her body with pumice until she is red and scratched. She takes pains to look her best when she and Henry prepare to go into Salinas for dinner, hoping against hope that the romance she feels will spill over into their date.
While Elisa and Henry seem to respect, and probably love, one another, the nature of their relationship makes it impossible for Elisa to release her excessive energy other than through tending her plants and house. Henry does not possess the aesthetic sense that comes naturally to Elisa; he wishes that she would use her planters’ hands in a more practical way—to grow apples as large as her flowers. As she works with the chrysanthemums, she is “over-eager, over-powerful.” She is unable to release her pent-up feelings with Henry: she sits “prim and stiffly” on the porch, waiting for him to dress, and when he compliments her on her appearance, she “stiffens.”
Elisa’s momentary interest in the details of a boxing match suggests an identification with the male spectators at the fights; however, the image of the boxers fighting causes her to recoil, and she reasserts her femininity by again declining the offer to go to the fights, settling instead for the romantic touch, in her mind, of having wine with dinner. At the end, Elisa is a woman who has succumbed to the lot to which society, and marriage, has relegated her; hence, she sheds tears “like an old woman.”