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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How do Elisa's feelings and actions toward the stranger change over the course of her conversation with him in "The Chrysanthemums"?

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Metaphorically linking Elisa with the "closed pot" of the fertile Salinas Valley, Steinbeck has both the land and Elisa existing in "a time of quiet and of waiting." After the stranger, who is "a big man," arrives with his dark and brooding eyes, he talks with Elisa about her chrysanthemums and draws her out by touching upon her passion for the flowers, causing womanly feelings in her that have been dormant to surface and become strongly aroused as she attains a new awareness of herself.

Throughout "The Chrysanthemums" there are many symbols of both sterility and fecundity. Certainly, the rich, black soil of the Salinas Valley suggests fertility. As Elisa digs in this earth with her "terrier fingers," she prepares the soil for her beloved flowers as she trims the old ones and places into the earth the green shoots. At this point, the "big, stubble-bearded man" rolls up in his wagon with "the triumphantly, definitive 'Fixed' below his sign and stops at her wire fence. He first asks the way to the Los Angeles highway. Then, he tries to engage Elisa by asking her if she needs anything sharpened, but her eyes "hardened with resistance." Realizing he cannot win her over, the man begins to speak with "a whining undertone" and feigns interest in her flowers supposedly for the sake of a woman he knows who wants to have some, and Elisa begins to respond as her eyes "became alert and eager." She tells the peddler that she will fix some for him to take to the woman:

Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair. "I'll put them in a flower pot, and you can take them right with you."

In her actions of preparing the chrysanthemums, Elisa loosens restraints upon her emotions. "The gloves were forgotten now." With naked hands, Elisa demonstrates to the man how to plant the flowers and how to prepare for the "budding that takes the most care." As she instructs the man, Elisa looks deeply into his eyes and her mouth opens slightly; then, she kneels before him "[H]er breast swelled passionately"--certainly erotic actions. After these actions, her voice takes on a huskiness and she tells the man that she can understand his life.

"When the night is dark...why, the stars are sharp-pointed....Why you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body....Hot and sharp and--lovely."

Much of that which has been dormant in Elisa in her man clothes as she digs in her garden, surrounded only by men and masculine affairs of baling hay and selling cattle, is aroused in Elisa with the peddler, who is able to awaken her emotions by talking to her about her beloved chrysanthemums that touch her sentiments to make her feel sympathetic to him, and to feel more womanly later on with her husband.

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