How do the chrysanthemums connect to Elisa's isolation that is ultimately hopeless/hopeful? John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums"

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Living in the "closed pot" of the Salinas Valley, Elisa Allen spends her days in which she has an exuberant energy by digging with her "terrier fingers" in the earth as she works in her flower garden.  And, although her husband Henry displays a respect for Elisa by commenting upon her "strong new crop," Elisa finds herself desiring more than her passive role as his wife on the ranch, a passivity that is not assuaged by her vigor in growing chrysanthemums.

So, when the tinker arrives, Elisa tells him they have nothing for him to fix; however, when he expresses some knowledge of chrysantheums and keen interest in her activity, Elisa's repressed emotion becomes effluent:

Her eyes shone.  She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair....Elisa ran excitedly along the geranium-bordered path....

....She looked deep into his eyes, searchingly.  Her mouth opened a little, and she seemed to be listening.....

Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his leg...Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth.....

By preparing a pot for one of the tinker's customers, Elisa hopes to extend her artistic and passionate efforts beyond the ranch. Looking at the wagon in which the tinker rides and sleeps, Elisha expresses an envy for the tinker's adventurous existence,  "I wish women could do such things."  But, the tinker tells her, "It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman"; to this, then, Elisa raises her upper lip, showing her teeth, again similar to the "terrier" to which she has previously been compared.  Defiantly, Elisa contends, "I could show you what a woman might do."

Nevertheless, as the tinker drives away, Elisa is encouraged, whispering, "That a bright direction.  There's a glowing there."  Her romanticism continues as she bathes and dresses for her dinner date with Henry that evening, hopeful that their evening will be meaningful. But, on the road she "saw a dark speck.  She knew." Yet, she clings to her hope for romance as she asks Henry, "...could we have wine at dinner?" although she relinquishes her thoughts on being strong:

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

Clearly, having seen the discarded chrysanthemum causes Elisa's anguish as she realizes that her dream of independence and equality in her life has again been defeated. However, this chrysanthemum is but a "dark speck" and the tinker "kept the pot." There is still hope if they "can have wine," and she and Henry can relax and enjoy each other; for, there is, then, the opportunity for romance and the expression of desires in their marriage of mutual respect and confidence. While yet sensing her isolation, Elisa can resign herself to this limitation:  "It will be plenty." Elisa has not given up on romance even though she has abandoned hope for the freedom of independence, "crying weakly--like an old woman."


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial