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

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

Start Free Trial

In "The Chrysanthemums," how does Steinbeck characterize Elisa?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this excellent short story by John Steinbeck, Elisa is the main protagonist. She is thirty-five and married to Henry Allen. They live together without any children on a ranch in the Salinas valley. Note the following physical description that we are given of her:

Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trower and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with.

Note how she wears clothes that seem to mask her femininity. Gardening is something that is obviously very important to her, and what is more, it is something that she has a gift for. It is only when the tinker arrives and she begins talking to him, that Elisa realises how profoundly trapped she is in her life and how limited that life is. This is shown by her intense desire to reach out and grasp the tinker. The idea that she can share her chrysanthemums with the tinker and thus be part of a wider world is what sustains her, until she sees that they have been discarded and she remains isolated and trapped, just as the Salinas Valley is trapped in the first paragraph of the story:

The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from teh sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.

It is this "closed pot" that is the sum of Elisa's experience and life, and it is this that she rails against with her tears at the end of the story.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team