illustrated profile of a woman's head with cracks running through it set against a chrysanthemum background

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck
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What ideas about gender relations are related in the story "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck?

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The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck concerns romance and deception.  A woman who finds herself frustrated in her life may be susceptible to the deceitful talk of a man who wants something from her.  The flowers are at the heart of the story.

The narration of the story employs a third person limited omniscient narrator. The narrator portrays the story primarily through the protagonist Elisa Allen.  Her thoughts and feelings make clear that this is a woman who  needs something more in life. The story presents several intriguing gender based situations.

 Romance and sexual frustration

Elisa has a romantic disposition. Unfortunately, she lives in a male-dominated culture.  Her frustration runs the gamut: emotions, sex, money, and her lifestyle.  Her love of beauty is represented by her chrysanthemums; however, she also loves words and poetry.  When she reflects on the night and the stars, her description reveals her romantic nature:

 “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean.  When the night is dark---why, the stars are sharp pointed, and there’s quiet.  Every pointed star gets driven into your body.   Hot and sharp and –lovely.”

When the gypsy repairman responds to her flowers with a simile, she can hardly contain herself.

“Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” he asked.

His interest in her flowers and listening to her explanation about the mums draws her to the repairman.  Her sexual frustration becomes evident in her words and then her actions move toward passion when she reaches towards his trousers, almost touching the cloth.

Women in the world of men

In the world of men, Elisa has been stifled. Her chrysanthemums are pretty but worthless; now large apples are the money makers.   Her husband represents the typical male.  He is completely unaware of his wife’s frustrations. 


If the reader were able to talk Henry about his marriage and his wife, he would discuss what a good marriage that the couple has.  He is a good provider and protector.  Henry would never think to mention the sexual aspect of the couple.  He has no understanding of the hidden passion that Elisa keeps.

Elisa would present a different picture.  Their marriage lacks communication. The understanding of the other partner is represented in the first sentence of the story when Steinbeck mentions the fog that covers the area and sat like a lid over the Salinas Valley.  Their marriage seems lacking and drifting.

The Repairman and Elisa

The repairman represents a completely different kind of man.  He has the ability to adapt his banter to the situation.  To Elisa, the gypsy appears to appreciate her flowers.  He listens to her intently to her directions to for carrying for the flowers.  When the gypsy understands about her “planting hands,” her attraction to him turns passionate.

The gypsy sizes up her personality and sees the way into her heart; he immediately develops a story about another customer who wants some mum seed.  This deceit is clever; yet, in the end, it hurts Elisa and ends her romantic feelings.

The mums symbolize Elisa.  The flowers are large, blossoming and full of life.  As a result of seeing the flower dumped in the road, Elisa realizes that the gypsy was a fake.  Full of rage, Elisa directs her anger at the male world.  Her sudden interest in the fights at the end of the story reveals her bitterness. She might delight in seeing men brutalize other men. 

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