John Steinbeck published “The Chrysanthemums” in a collection of stories called The Long Valley (1938). They are set in the Salinas Valley in California where he was born, the fertile farmland that the “Okies” settled after their flight from the Dust Bowl. Freed from the crushing burden of absolute poverty and social disintegration, Steinbeck’s characters, like Henry Allen, are quite pleased to be able to make a decent living, but equally important, like Elisa Allen, they are beginning to sense that not everybody can be satisfied by bread alone.
In a subtle prefiguration of feminist philosophy, Steinbeck challenges the tradition of woman’s “place”; although Henry Allen is well-meaning and basically decent, his concentration on his own role as provider, organizer, and decision-maker has blinded him to the fact that Elisa needs something more in her life than a neat house and a good garden. He is ready to offer what he can (a share in the work; brighter lights and bigger cities for occasional recreation), but Elisa’s urgent need for someone to talk to who can understand the essential nature of her yearning for a poetic vision of the cosmos is, unfortunately, beyond Henry’s range and insight. The question Steinbeck poses is whether one should settle for security and a lack of pain, or risk one’s dreams in an attempt to live more completely and intensely. The retreat from action at the conclusion suggests that the risks are high, but there is a possibility that Elisa might not be permanently crushed by her pain.
The situation recalls D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Shades of Spring,” in which a woman reconciles herself to a steady man when the sparkling boy of her youth goes off to seek his fortune. However, she knows what she misses, and tells him on his return, “The stars are different with you.” Elisa Allen is not ungrateful for her husband’s kindness and for his provision of security, but the dark stranger brings thoughts of a life she has only sensed she was missing, and her response to his vague romantic encouragement startles her in its suddenness and its force. The paradox here is that the stranger has actually lost his spontaneity and manipulates her emotions not to satisfy his own romantic longings but to earn the money he needs for survival: money with which she no longer has to be concerned.