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 does an old woman cry? I believe Elisa cries because she's unhappy about what her marriage has turned out to be compared to what it was in the past; however, I'm not clear why the description states she "was crying weakly--like an old woman." 

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The author states specifically that Elisa is only thirty-five years old. Life on a farm was hard for women in the 1930s. They had to work from sun-up to sundown. There was always something to do. Just doing the washing was an enormous job because there were no washing machines or dryers, and naturally the men's clothing got very dirty from the field work they did. Washing was done with a scrub board. It ruined women's hands. Clothes and linens were hung out to dry, then taken down and ironed. There was no such thing as wash-and-wear fabrics. They cooked three meals a day. Even at night they would sit darning socks and doing other repairs on clothing. When Elisa sees her chrysanthemum shoots discarded in the middle of the road, it makes her feel the futility of her whole existence. The text says she cries weakly--like an old woman. It is as if she has suddenly grown old. Ironically, her husband drives right past the "dark speck" on the road without noticing it. He wasn't told about the arrival of the traveling tinker or the mixed emotions he had aroused. She turns up her coat collar so that her husband will not see her crying silently.

The roadster turned a bend and she saw the caravan ahead. She swung full around toward her husband so she could not see the little covered wagon and the mismatched team as the car passed them.

Evidently Steinbeck took pains to describe the tinker's conveyance as unusual. He calls it "a curious vehicle, curiously drawn." It is pulled by "an old bay horse and a little grey-and-white burro." Steinbeck wanted there to be no mistake that the covered wagon they passed was the same one that had stopped at Elisa's home a short time earlier.

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