"The Chrysanthemums" how does Elsa act differently with her husband and the stranger?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Elisa Allen and her husband have a certain barrier between them in their relationship that prevents intimacy and stimulation, whereas with the stranger, Elisa seems to subtly seek an intimacy and challenge of sorts.

John Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums," a clear departure from his other narratives," is one about which Steinbeck himself commented, "It is entirely different and designed to strike without the reader's knowledge." Elsa Allen seems to put much of her energy and passion into the fertile dirt of her chrysanthemums that she plants as her "terrier fingers" destroy the snails and worms that will interfere with the growth of her beloved flowers. But, when her husband approaches, she "started at the sound of [his] voice." as though there is a distance, a lack of rapport between them. Strangely, after the tinker pulls up with his wagon and is refused work, he asks Elisa what the flowers are, and the shortness with which Elsa has spoken changes to one of emotional involvement as she speaks of her beloved chrysanthemums and how to plant them. Further, her explanation of the method of planting acquires a tone suggestive of the suppressed romance in her life. Sensing her passion, the tinker teases her into a more overt expression when he tells her he would like some for a woman down the road,

"Beautiful," she said. "Oh, beautiful." Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair....Elisa ran excitedly along the geranium-bordered path to the back of the house....She knelt on the ground and dug up the soil with her fingers....Her breast swelled passionately....She crouched low like a fawning dog.

Further, with the tinker Elisa expresses her independent spirit, saying that she wishes women could have a job like his in which they were so unattached, "I wish women could do such things." But the tinker replies that his is no job for a woman, and he departs with her flowers, Elisa watches him, whispering, "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there."

Later, as she dresses to go to town with her husband, an emotionally charged Elisa looks in the mirror at herself after she has bathed. She puts on new underclothes and "the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness." When Henry comes out the door, he stops abruptly, "Why--why, Elisa. You look so nice!" Then, as they drive down the road, they both revel in the unexpected delight they have with each other, but when Elisa sees her chrysanthemums tossed upon the side of the road, Henry detects a difference in her, "Now you've changed again," he complains. She turns so that he cannot see her cry, her sense of romance gone. She is no longer strong, as her husband has remarked earlier, for she feels defeated by the callous tinker, and her rejuvenated romantic feelings about Henry cannot be sustained.

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