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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In “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, how does the setting of the Salinas Valley affect or inform the possible themes of the story?

In Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” the setting of the Salinas Valley symbolizes the story’s theme of confinement.

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The Chrysanthemums” represents how Elisa is restrained by the cultural forces that limit a woman’s agency. From the opening lines of the story, we get a sense of Elisa’s confinement in the description of the setting:

The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the 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.

The word “closed” appears twice in the first two lines, reinforcing the sense of confinement. We are introduced to Elisa, who is further enclosed “in her flower garden” inside a “wire fence,” symbolically cutting her off from the rest of the ranch where she and her husband Henry live. Inside the fence she is tending to her chrysanthemums, which, though beautiful, are not part of the economic revenue of the ranch.

Though Elisa finds value in her chrysanthemums, she longs for them (and her abilities, by extension) to be valued in the larger public world, beyond the boundaries of her husband’s property. In contrast, Elisa’s husband, Henry, is free, outside the fence and making deals with “two men in business suits,” earning monetary compensation for his labor.

Later, the symbol of the fence is further reinforced when the Tinker arrives. Though Elisa is guarded at first, she eventually allows the Tinker past her fence once he feigns interest in her gardening abilities:

“While the man came through the picket fence Elisa ran excitedly along the geranium-bordered path to the back of the house.”

In this moment we see that as Elisa receives the respect and admiration from the outside world she so greatly desires, her symbolic confinement starts to break down. Furthermore, as the tinker drives away, she frees herself from the symbolic confines of the fence:

Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progress of the caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently, forming the words “Goodbye—good-bye.” Then she whispered, “That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.”

Later, when she discovers that the tinker was disingenuous with his respect and admiration, she becomes disempowered: “She relaxed limply in the seat” and “turned up her coat collar so [Henry] could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.”

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