In John Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums," Elisa Allen's life as a ranch wife is often monotonous. She works hard caring for the house and the garden and her husband, Henry, but there is little of lasting interest for her, except for her chrysanthemums. Elisa has a knack for growing things, and the flowers are her passion.
Unfortunately, Henry doesn't appreciate them as Elisa would like. He comments that she has a strong crop started and that she has a "gift with things" that grow, but he wishes that she would apply that gift to something useful, like the apples in the orchard, for instance. At least those could be eaten or sold. Flowers are pretty to look at, but they aren't very useful, Henry implies.
Elisa says nothing in response to her husband. Perhaps she doesn't even consciously realize how condescending he is being toward her, for when he offers her an evening in town, she is glad to accept. Henry goes off to handle some business about the stock, and Elisa returns to her flowers.
Just then, something happens that brings Elisa a new realization of her position as a woman in her environment. A traveling peddler enters the farmyard, and the man and Elisa strike up a conversation. The peddler is obviously trying to drum up some business, and at first Elisa resists. She has nothing for him to do, she says. Yet as they talk more, Elisa discovers that one of the peddler's customers has always wanted some chrysanthemums.
This slight show of interest in her passion sets Elisa off on a detailed explanation of how to grow the flowers, and she sends some sprouts with the peddler. Elisa also explains how her "planting hands" know exactly how to tend the flowers. She is so excited as she speaks that something strikes a chord in the peddler, and he begins to understand what she is saying.
Elisa then allows the peddler to fix some saucepans, and as they continue to talk, she wonders what her life would be like if she could travel like he does. The peddler assures her that "It ain't the right kind of life for a woman," but Elisa asks him how he knows, and he admits that he doesn't. She can imagine herself out on the road, traveling, meeting new people, never staying in the same place very long.
Her fancies give her energy to get ready for the evening, and she does so with extra care, seeking at least a little novelty from the trip into town. She dresses up and teases her husband. She has had a taste of something different, something interesting and new, and she doesn't want to let go of it. She has stepped out of her daily routine as a farm woman.
As Elisa and Henry are driving into town, however, Elisa sees the chrysanthemum sprouts she has so carefully planted for the peddler lying ruined beside the road. Elisa is angry, and part of her wants to go to the fights her husband has teasingly mentioned. Yet when Henry asks her if she really wants to go, she says she does not. Then she turns away from her husband and starts to cry silently. Elisa has thought that she found a kindred spirit in the peddler, someone who understands her, yet she has now realized that to him, she is just another farm wife that he can con into doing business.