In John Steinbeck's short story, "The Chrysanthemums," Elisa, the protagonist, is characterized at first as a woman who find pleasure in what she does on her husband's ranch. She especially loves her garden, particularly her chrysanthemums.
She is described as as follows:
Her face was learn and strong and her eyes were as clear as water.
The reader gets the sense that she is an attractive woman, but it is difficult to get a better sense of her physical stature as she is dressed in bulky gardening clothes, with a hat one, and an apron for her tools. She is serious about her work, and the house and yard reflects her efforts. (She and her husband have no children.)
On this day, Elisa watches her husband conducting business with men off to the side. When they leave, her husband comes to her where she is diligently working, as with infants, on her flowers: doing away with the old and making a place for new growth. As they speak, her husband exposes his wife's gift with plants, something she says she got from her mother. (This aspect of herself brings her a sense of pride.)
In all of this, Elisa seems to be a strong woman, satisfied with her lot in life: she and her husband are comfortable with each other and he seems to care about her.
However, when a tinker arrives on his wagon to find work—repairing scissors or pots, etc.—Elisa resists. She has no work for him. Then he begins, intuitively, to ask after her chrysanthemums—once again they are described like her children. Her pride in them takes over and she becomes quite animated. When he asks for some of the "babies" to give to a friend, Elisa generously complies. When he speaks about needing to eat, feeling guilty, Elisa finds work for him to do.
However, in the exchange between the tinker and Elisa the reader sees a deep desire in the woman to be able to go off on her own, something only men can do...
'You sleep right in the wagon' Elisa asked.
'Right in the wagon, ma'am. Rain or shine I'm dry as a cow in there.'
'It must be nice,' she said. 'It must be very nice. I wish women could to such things...'
In these words, we get the sense that Elisa may not have everything she wants. She infers that she would like to travel about freely, but realizes that society would not allow such a thing—especially when the tinker reminds her it isn't "the right kind of life for a woman." Eventually he goes on his way, with the transplanted plants in a pot beside him.
Elisa and her husband go out for the evening, but as they drive to town, she notices her plants (without the plot) lying abandoned in the road. The tinker did not had a friend who wanted flowers: he was manipulating Elisa into giving him work. This betrayal brings tears to her eyes.
Steinbeck characterizes Elisa as a strong and gifted woman who seems happy enough, but she is vulnerable (as seen by the disposal of her flowers, in essence, the tinker's betrayal), and she has wishes that would take her away from the life she knows, but it is open only to men, and this may make her feel controlled and repressed, even though it is done gently. Elisa seems strong and satisfied, but she has dreams she will never be able to realize.