The Chrysanthemums What were Elsa's strengths & weaknesses?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Significantly, author John Steinbeck introduces his setting of the Salinas Valley as a "closed pot."  This description may well fit Elsa, as well.  For, her passionate nature has been repressed, although she longs for it to be released.  Like her flowers, Elsa longs to be opened to all that life offers, but her husband is "bewildered" and "blunders" when given the opportunity to experience Elsa's passion.  For the most part, the rancher, intimidated by intimacy, uses formal tones to talk with his wife lest her passionate nature be released.

That Elsa has a nature whose emotion is ready to overflow from its "closed pot," is evident in her encounter with the tinker.  When he seems to possess an artistic nature as he inquires about her chrysathemums, Elsa overeagerly reacts.  Her impassioned explanation of the flowers, her over-eager energy as she cuts the old stalks, her "terrier fingers" indicate a nature ready to be exerted.  Believing that the tinker possesses one similar to hers, Elsa releases her inner self:

Her eyes shone....Her mouth opened...Her breast welled passionately...her hesitant finger almost touched the cloth [of his trousers].

After she finishes potting the flowers, Elsa--her name suggests that she has sought someone else--resumes her usual behavior:"She stood up then, very straight, and her face was ashamed."  Then, she resorts to the conversations that she has with her husband:  "I could show you what a woman might do."  But, as the tinker leaves, Elsa thinks to herself that with her encounter with this man, "That's a bright direction.  there's a glowing there," and the sound of her own whispering voice startles her; embarrassed, she looks around to see if anyone has listened.

That night as she prepares to go out to a celebratory dinner with her husband, Elsa hopes the evening can be romantic, that some of her passion can be satisfied.  However, her husband blunders when he compliments her appearance, explaining it as "strong"--perhaps, a complimentary word for his cattle, but not his wife!  In an awkward moment after Elsa agrees that she never knew how strong she is, Henry goes for the car.  As they drive to town, Elsa spots the tossed chrysanthemums:

In a moment it was over.  The thing was done.  She did not look back.

Elsa's hope that there could be more to her life than that of the strong partner at the ranch is dashed along with the chrysanthemums.  Finally, and with strength of mind, she realizes that the extent of the romantic in her life will be having wine with the dinner:

She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly--like an old woman. 

The "closed pot" of passion--her "weakness" of an artistic personality bounded by the fences of a ranch--is again sealed, for Elsa.


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The Chrysanthemums

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