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 John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" begin? 

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The story begins with a descriptive narrative about the Salinas Valley, in which the story is set. After a couple of paragraphs about the geographical setting, Steinbeck hones in on Henry Allen's ranch, which is located across the Salinas River.

Steinbeck specifically trains the spotlight on Elisa Allen (Henry's wife), the main protagonist of the story. In this exposition section, we learn that the story is mainly set at the Allen ranch and that Elisa will be the main focus of the story. We are told that Elisa is thirty-five years old, lean, and sturdy in build. As the story begins, she is cutting down the previous year's chrysanthemum stalks. Steinbeck portrays Elisa as an accomplished gardener.

As Elisa works, she watches Henry interact with two men in business suits. After the men leave, Henry makes his way towards Elisa. He first compliments Elisa on her extraordinary work with the chrysanthemums. Then, upon Elisa's inquiry, he tells her that he just sold thirty three-year-old steers to the two men for close to the price he wanted for them.

Obviously elated by his success, Henry suggests that he and Elisa go into town for a celebratory dinner and a movie. He also teases Elisa about attending the fights, but she quickly declines his offer to do so.

So, Steinbeck's story begins with an exposition section that introduces us to the setting and the main characters.

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The story begins in the Salinas Valley, which is pretty common in several of Steinbeck's stories. Elisa is planting her beloved chrysanthemums when her husband comes to speak with her after he made a deal selling some head of cattle to the Western Meat Company. His delight at receiving "nearly his price" for the cattle is contrasted with the passion that Elisa has with her chrysanthemums. They're perfect - nearly 10 inches across - and require much attention to detail. The story states that they "seemed too small and easy for her energy," and it's clear that Elisa has bigger dreams than simply planting chrysanthemums every year - but right now, the chrysanthemums are what she pours that passion into. This brief interaction between Elisa and Henry shows the reader that Henry doesn't quite get Elisa's true desires in life - he doesn't understand that maintaining the flower bed isn't enough for her to be happy. This interaction sets the stage for Elisa's conversation with the traveling salesman and desire to speak to just about anyone about her passion.

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