The Chrysanthemums, John Steinbeck
“The Chrysanthemums” John Steinbeck
The following entry presents criticism of Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums,” first published in 1937. See also Johnn Steinbeck Short Story Criticism.
One of Steinbeck's most accomplished short stories, “The Chrysanthemums” is about an intelligent, creative woman coerced into a stifling existence on her husband's ranch. The story appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1937; a revised version, which contained less sexual imagery, was published in the 1938 collection The Long Valley. Many critics believe the story reflected Steinbeck's own sense of frustration, rejection, and loneliness at the time the story was written. Some scholars also have speculated that the female protagonist of “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen, was inspired by Steinbeck's first wife, Carol Henning.
Plot and Major Characters
“The Chrysanthemums” opens at the Allen ranch, which is located in the foothills of the Salinas Valley. Elisa works in her garden, cutting down old chrysanthemum stalks, while her husband Henry discusses business with two men across the yard. After the men leave, Henry leans over the fence where Elisa is working and comments on her gardening talents. Elisa admits to her “gift,” noting her mother also had “planters' hands.” Henry then suggests that they dine out that evening. After Elisa agrees, Henry teasingly proposes that they go to the fights that night as well. Once Henry departs, a battered covered wagon driven by a tinker pulls up to the house. The tinker asks Elisa if she has any pots to mend. She declines several times, but once the tinker notices and compliments Elisa's chrysanthemums, her mood changes from slight irritation to exuberance. The tinker tells Elisa about a woman on his route who would like chrysanthemum seeds, and Elisa happily places several sprouts in a red pot for him. She then finds two saucepans for the tinker to repair before he leaves. Elisa rushes into the house, where she bathes, studies her naked body in the mirror, and dresses for the evening. As the couple leaves for dinner in their roadster, Elisa notices the chrysanthemum sprouts she had given the tinker lying in the road and asks her husband if they could have wine with dinner. A few minutes pass before she wonders aloud whether the boxers at the prize fights hurt each other very much and whether women ever attend. Henry asks Elisa if she would like to go to the fights, but she answers no, that “it will be enough if we can have wine.” She then begins to cry, though unnoticed by Henry.
The primary theme in “The Chrysanthemums,” one that appears throughout Steinbeck's canon, is Elisa's creative frustration. Some critics have viewed Elisa as a feminist figure, while others—arguing that Elisa both emasculates her husband and engages in an infidelity with the tinker—have argued that the story is an attack against feminism.
“The Chrysanthemums” has garnered critical acclaim since publication. André Gide, who particularly admired the story, compared it to the best of Anton Chekhov. Other critics have detected the influence of D. H. Lawrence in “The Chrysanthemums.” John Ditsky called the story “one of the finest American stories ever written.” John H. Timmerman regarded the story as “one of Steinbeck's masterpieces,” adding that “stylistically and thematically, ‘The Chrysanthemums’ is a superb piece of compelling craftsmanship.” According to Mordecai Marcus “the story seems almost perfect in form and style. Its compelling rhythm underlines its suggestiveness, and nothing in the story is false or out of place.” While some critics have praised Steinbeck's objectivity in the narrative, Kenneth Payson Kempton found the story “arbitrary, self-impelled, and fuzzy work … its effect annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.” Most critics concede that it is Elisa Allen who makes “The Chrysanthemums” a memorable short story. Even so, R. S. Hughes argued that while the facets of “Elisa's personality are no doubt responsible for much of the story's appeal, ultimately Steinbeck's well-crafted plot and his skillful use of symbol make the story great.”
Nothing So Monstrous 1936
Saint Katy the Virgin 1936
The Red Pony 1937; also published as The Red Pony [enlarged edition], 1945
The Long Valley 1938; also published as Thirteen Great Stories from the Long Valley [revised edition], 1943; and Fourteen Great Stories from the Long Valley [revised edition], 1947
How Edith McGuillicuddy Met R.L.S. 1943
The Crapshooter 1957
Cup of Gold (novel) 1929
To a God Unknown (novel) 1933
Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935
In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936
Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937
Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts (drama) 1937
The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939
The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942
The Moon Is Down: A Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942
Cannery Row (novel) 1945
The Pearl (novel) 1947
A Russian Journal (travel essays) 1948
Burning Bright (novel) 1950
East of Eden (novel) 1952
Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954
The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957
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SOURCE: “John Steinbeck: Journeyman Artist,” in American Fiction, 1920-1940, The Macmillan Company, 1948, pp. 309-26.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1941, Beach compares “The Chrysanthemums” to the work of Anton Chekhov, calling the story's protagonist Elisa Allen “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book.”]
There are many of Steinbeck's short stories that remind one of the Russian writer. [Chekhov]. There is the opening story of the volume entitled The Long Valley (1938). It is called “Chrysanthemums.” It gives us the picture of a wholesome and attractive woman of thirty-five, wife of a rancher in that enchanting Salinas Valley where Steinbeck lived as a boy. This woman has what are called planter's hands, so that whatever she touches grows and flourishes. She is shown on a soft winter morning working in her garden, cutting down the old year's chrysanthemum stalks, while her husband stands by the tractor shed talking with two men in business suits. Nothing is said about the relationship of this married pair, but everything shows that it is one of confidence and mutual respect. He refers with simple pleasure to the size of her chrysanthemums. She applauds his success in selling his three-year-old steers at nearly his own price. And she welcomes his suggestion that, since it is Saturday afternoon,...
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SOURCE: “Objectivity As Approach and As Method,” in Short Stories for Study, Harvard University Press, 1953, pp. 115-52.
[In the following excerpt, Kempton asserts that Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums” lacks objectivity.]
No reader of “The Killers” will easily forget its opening sentence and paragraph: “The door of Henry's lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.” Behind this starkly matter-of-fact fluidity, one feels something impending; the objective writer gains a cumulative tension by omitting many details while confining his record to a stripped brief of action and speech. From first word to last, somebody is saying or doing something. In contrast, the first three paragraphs of “The Chrysanthemums” are static, are crowded with impressionistic detail—a description of the valley, the weather, the season, and the ranch: a vacant stage. They comprise a short essay on a scene not yet relevant to any story. The use of the word “tender” (“The air was cold and tender”) misses the mark, for no one but the author could have admitted this personal sense impression. Now Maupassant, feeling his way through the beginning of “The Piece of String,” used about three hundred words to describe a market day at Goderville; but it was a crowd of people and carts and animals his lens-diaphragm recorded, and briefly we glimpsed Hauchecorne in the mass,...
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SOURCE: “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 54-8.
[In the essay below, Marcus explores the sexual symbolism of “The Chrysanthemums,” concluding that Elisa Allen's frustration results from a longing for childbirth.]
I will risk saying that John Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums” seems to me one of the world's great short stories, reassured by the fact that though it has received only scattered critical attention, Joseph Warren Beach called its protagonist, Elisa Allen, “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book,”1 and André Gide thought that the story resembles the best of Chekhov.2 The story seems almost perfect in form and style. Its compelling rhythm underlines its suggestiveness, and nothing in the story is false or out of place. Criticism of the story, however, has only vaguely suggested the springs of its appeal.
On the simplest level “The Chrysanthemums” presents an attractive woman of thirty-five who wishes to escape from the limited domesticity of her ranch life to a world of wider experience. Joseph Fontenrose suggests that the weeping Elisa of the story's conclusion has learned to compose herself.3 More accurately, F. W. Watt thinks that the conclusion shows “that the vitality she...
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SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 453-58.
[In the following essay, McMahan identifies unfulfilled sexual desire as the source of Elisa Allen's frustration in “The Chrysanthemums.”]
Virtually every critic who has considered John Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums” has agreed that its basic theme is a woman's frustration, but none has yet adequately explained the emotional reasons underlying that frustration. In fact, Kenneth Kempton would consider such an explanation impossible. He professes his inability to find any consistent motivation for Eliza's behavior, and declares the work “annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.”1 But most critics who have examined “The Chrysanthemums” admire the story and find it meaningful. Warren French, after identifying the theme of the story as frustration, suggests that the central action concerns “the manipulation of people's dreams for selfish purposes”2—an interesting and valid idea but one which fails to incorporate the obvious sexual overtones of the story. Another critic who overlooks the sexuality is Joseph Warren Beach. He sees the conflict in the story as a contest of wits between Eliza and the pot mender; frustration results from damage to her pride when she is outwitted.3 Ray B. West sees the story as...
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SOURCE: “Ms. Elisa and Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 210–14
[Here, Sweet asserts that “The Chrysanthemums” can be read as Steinbeck's response to feminism.]
In a recent article on Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums,” Elizabeth McMahan began “Virtually every critic who has considered John Steinbeck's short story ‘The Chrysanthemums’ has agreed that its basic theme is a woman's frustration, but none has yet adequately explained the emotional reasons underlying that frustration.”1 Indeed the conflict in the story derives from the relationship between Elisa Allen's sexuality and her interest in gardening, both elements that culminate with the visit from an itinerant fixer. In a lengthy interpretation Mordecai Marcus focuses on Elisa's desire for childbirth2 as relating the elements while Elizabeth McMahan sees the motivation under the general desire for “what women's magazines vaguely call ‘romance.’”3 F. W. Watt is much too brief and ambiguous himself in deciding Elisa's is a “struggle to express and fulfil [sic] desires which are ambiguously sexual and spiritual.”4 Warren French simply notes that “Elisa Allen's passionate affection for the flowers … symbolize her feeling of closeness to a rhythm of nature.”5 Ray B. West, Jr. also...
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SOURCE: “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. VII, Nos. 3–4, Summer-Fall, 1974, pp. 102–11.
[In the following essay, Simmonds argues that Elisa Allen, contrary to popular opinion, is not a sympathetic figure.]
In recent years what has almost amounted to a small critical industry has grown up around Steinbeck's short story, “The Chrysanthemums.” It is obvious that this particular story has attracted a more than average share of expository attention due principally to the various interpretations which can be placed upon the behaviour of its central character, Elisa Allen, and upon the somewhat ambiguous relationship which seems to exist between Elisa and her husband, Henry. Surveys of these disparate interpretations have already been provided in Elizabeth E. McMahan's “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality”1 and William V. Miller's more recent essay, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in “The Chrysanthemums',”2 and it is not my intent here to go over such old ground again in detail.
This vexed question of interpretation has been complicated by the fact, as William R. Osborne established in his pioneer textual study,3 that two published versions of the story exist: the version which Osborne designates “Text 1” which appeared in the October 1937 issue of...
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SOURCE: “The Real Woman Inside the Fence in ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 305–17.
[In the following essay, Renner interprets “The Chrysanthemums” as “informed far less by feminist sympathies than by traditional ‘masculist’ complaints.”]
Steinbeck's classic short story “The Chrysanthemums” has long attracted admiration and respect from discriminating readers and eminent critics. But quite clearly the story's fame was enhanced during the last couple of decades as it was caught up in the eager discovery of works of literature dramatizing the female consciousness and was, in effect, included in the feminist canon.1 Indeed, in the criticism of this period, “The Chrysanthemums” emerges as something of a feminist tract. The keynote was sounded in the late Fifties when Peter Lisca commented on “Elisa's silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman” (95). As the woman's movement gathered momentum, critics enthusiastically followed the lead, and the standard reading developed: “The Chrysanthemums” is a story about a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman's role in a world dominated by men. Her husband, decent but dull, excludes her from the important business of the ranch. Content with the way things are in...
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SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Waiting for Rain,” in John Steinbeck's Re-vision of America, The University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 108–13.
[In the following essay, Owens correlates Elisa Allen's desire for rain with her need for personal fulfillment.]
Of the first story in The Long Valley, “The Chrysanthemums,” Steinbeck wrote: “It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what nor how” (Life in Letters, p. 91). In light of the eagerness with which critics have rushed to praise this story, calling it “Steinbeck's most artistically successful story,” and “one of the world's great short stories,”1 it seems that most critics would agree that “something profound” happens in “The Chrysanthemums.” And the great difficulty critics have encountered when trying to explain the “what” and “how” of this story suggests that Steinbeck's design has been very effective, has led, in fact, to what Roy Simmonds refers to as “a small critical industry” grown up around this story.
Like each of the stories in The Long Valley actually set in the valley, “The Chrysanthemums” is about the repression of powerful human impulses, the repression that would be...
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SOURCE: “A Kind of Play: Dramatic Elements in Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Wascana Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 62–72.
[Below, Ditsky praises the “Lawrentian values” and interpersonal drama that Steinbeck achieves in “The Chrysanthemums.”]
The longstanding critical assumption, routinely delivered and seldom questioned, that John Steinbeck represented an odd late flourishing of literary naturalism—rather than, as now seems increasingly clear, an innovative sort of romanticism—has had the predictable effect of retarding appreciation of his accomplishments. Among the latter are the ways in which Steinbeck's language emerges from his contexts: arises organically but not necessarily with “real-life” verisimilitude from situations which must therefore be seen as having demanded, and in a sense therefore also created, a discourse of a sometimes patent artificiality—of a rhetorical loftiness appropriate to the dramatic seriousness of the given subject matter, but unlikely as an instance of “observed” intercourse in English, American variety. For only from such a vantage point can we hope to make sense of many of the exchanges which animate such diverse works as Cup of Gold, To a God Unknown, The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright. Yet the sorts of usage I am referring to must necessarily give pause to the reader of even In Dubious Battle, The...
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SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’ Revisited,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1–2, Winter-Spring, 1989, pp. 8–16.
[In the following essay, Pellow calls into question the symbolic value of organic and mechanical elements in “The Chrysanthemums.”]
Scholars who have interpreted and analyzed John Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums” appear to have ignored several associations and parallels between animals and characters. These associations, and some contrasts between things organic and things mechanical, support an interpretation of the story that, while not altogether new, goes somewhat beyond previous critiques in seeing the story as radically feministic, an unusual venture for Steinbeck.
Roy S. Simmonds has stated most succinctly what has occurred to numerous other readers of Steinbeck—that “a small critical industry” has been produced by this story. Stanley Renner has summarized one reading, with the intent of debunking it. The female protagonist, in Renner's summary, is seen as prevented, by men in general and her husband in particular, from participating in important business. Then,
When an itinerant tinker happens by, Elisa's latent yearnings are awakened for the larger life that men enjoy of significant work, adventure, and sexual expression; and when she entrusts the tinker with cuttings from her...
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SOURCE: “The Chrysanthemums,” in John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 21–7.
[In the essay that follows, Hughes identifies elements responsible for the critical success of “The Chrysanthemums,” specifically plot, characterization, symbolism, and overall objectivity.]
Among Steinbeck's fifty or more pieces of short fiction, no story has been more highly praised than “The Chrysanthemums.” Steinbeck began writing it on 31 January 1934,1 and by the time he finished in February of that year, he sensed that he had created a subtly powerful work. In a letter to George Albee, Steinbeck says: “I shall be interested to know what you think of the story, “The Chrysanthemums.” It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what nor how. It has had that effect on several people here.”2
This subliminal quality sets the story apart. Critics have been responding favorably to “The Chrysanthemums” ever since Steinbeck composed it. Carol Henning Steinbeck, the author's first wife and perhaps most incisive critic of this period, said it was “the best of all [his] stories.” Brian Barbour has praised it as Steinbeck's “most artistically successful...
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SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Repression and Desire,” in The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, pp. 169–77.
[In the following essay, Timmerman contends that “The Chrysanthemums” is a classical example of Steinbeck's favored theme of artistic repression.]
During his period of intense artistic activity during the first half of 1934, Steinbeck fought almost daily against an overwhelming sense of failure. There were days when the words flowed as if some divine muse guided them; there were others during which his ledger entries consisted of little more than despondent notes lamenting his lack of success. It is not surprising, in view of this symbiosis of exhilarating effort and exhausted despair, that one theme to surface regularly in the stories is society's failure to recognize the artistic gift and its consequent repression of the creative genius. Steinbeck explored that theme in three of his stories from The Long Valley: “The Chrysanthemums,” “The White Quail,” and “The Harness.”
“The Chrysanthemums” stimulated an unusual interest for Steinbeck. It was, as he noted in a ledger entry, the story of a woman that he could not get out of his mind. Perhaps this closeness to it led to the difficulties he endured in composing the story, for none other in The Long Valley seemed to give him quite...
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SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Steinbeck's Pygmalion” in Steinbeck's Short Stories in “The Long Valley”: Essays in Criticism, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, Ball State University, 1991, pp. 1–9.
[In the essay below, Shillinglaw asserts that “The Chrysanthemums” was heavily influenced by the Pygmalion myth as utilized by Ovid and George Bernard Shaw.]
For John Steinbeck “life was not a struggle toward anything, but a constant process in it,” writes Jackson J. Benson, and “that process for man … was largely a matter of learning. It was the major ‘action’ for both his life and work.”1 It is clearly the major “action” in his two most famous stories about women, “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail.” As Steinbeck records in his journals, the germ for each is that moment when a woman learns something profound about herself, a moment of insight either grasped or denied: Elisa seeing the chrysanthemums on the road; Mary in her garden, looking in the window. Before he composed “The Chrysanthemums” in 1934, Steinbeck wrote:
I wish I could get the lady and the chrysanthemums out of my mind. If she goes much further, I'll have to write her and I haven't the least idea what she's about. I'm afraid she's going to get me and she isn't much of a story any way. But she is interesting and if she did see them along...
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SOURCE: “Longing for the Lost Frontier: Steinbeck's Vision of Cultural Decline in ‘The White Quail’ and ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, Nos. 3–4, Summer-Fall, 1993, pp. 81–90.
[In the following essay, Busch illuminates Steinbeck's preoccupation with an idealized frontier past in both “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail.”]
In the course of his forty-year career, John Steinbeck consistently integrated elements of American frontier history, mythology, and symbolism into his fiction and nonfiction. Steinbeck's fascination with the frontier past germinated during his boyhood in Salinas, at that time a cowtown described by Jackson J. Benson as “a throwback to the frontier towns of a half-century before.”1 This vital interest in the frontier West remained with him throughout his life, impelling him in America and Americans to validate traditional mythic conceptions of the nation's Western heritage. He writes:
The dreams of a people either create folk literature or find their way into it; and folk literature, again, is always based on something that happened. Our most persistent folk tales—constantly retold in books, movies, and television shows—concern cowboys, gunslinging sheriffs and Indian fighters. These folk figures existed—perhaps not quite as they are recalled nor in the numbers indicated, but...
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Gullason, Thomas A. “Revelation and Evolution: A Neglected Dimension of the Short Story.” Studies in Short Fiction X, No. 4 (Fall 1973): 347–56.
Discusses how Elisa physically and emotionally “retreats and withdraws into herself” over the course of the story.
Mitchell, Marilyn L. “Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories.” Southwest Review LXI, No. 3 (Summer 1976): 304–15.
Compares Mary Teller of “The White Quail” with Elisa Allen in “The Chrysanthemums,” concluding that both women “have certain needs of the spirit, the abstract nature of which keeps happiness forever elusive.”
Noonan, Gerald. “A Note on ‘The Chrysanthemums’. ” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 4 (Winter 1969–70): 542.
Footnote to Elizabeth McMahan's well-known article on the story, noting the use of agricultural language in the story.
Osborne, William R. “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 4 (Winter 1966–67): 479–84.
Comments on the many differences between the two versions of Steinbeck's story, specifically changes Steinbeck made to Elisa and the overall sexual content
Sullivan, Ernest W., II. “The Cur in ‘The...
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