In John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums,” the protagonist is Elisa, a lonely farm woman who struggles to find happiness in the isolated location where she and her husband, Henry, live. Her attempt to improve her environment is represented by the flowers that give the story its title. The couple have no children and wresting their subsistence out of the farm occupies most of Henry's time and energy.
Steinbeck creates irony in the story by introducing an outsider. A man who makes a spare living as an itinerant peddler and handyman comes by the farm while the husband is away. He seems to be friendly and genuinely interested in what the woman has to say. Through their conversation, she reveals the energy and care that she invests in growing the flowers. Part of the irony comes from the disjuncture between the peddler’s apparent attitude and his subsequent behavior. Rather than actually appreciating the flowers she gives him, he tosses them by the wayside, keeping the pot that held them.
The author presents the contrast between the harsh environment and the bright, colorful touches that the flowers impart. They function as the primary symbol of Elisa’s attitude toward her life and of her limited success. Through growing the flowers, she tries to make a positive impact, but they prove fragile and short-lived.
The author further develops the irony by showing that the peddler’s visit had a positive effect on Elisa’s permanent emotional relationship with her husband. Her mood improves after getting a break from the monotony, including male attention, and making a small gift. Another twist comes as they head out to dinner—a rare treat—and she sees the flowers tossed away, making her realize how she had misinterpreted the peddler.