“Short story writers often convey a sense of character indirectly, by suggestion, rather than by overt description.” Is this comment true for Elisa in John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums?"
Indirect characterization is description of a character without "leading" the reader. Inferences are made, but the author allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions without coming right out and telling the reader what to think. This is exactly what Steinbeck does in "The Chrysanthemums."
Elisa comes across as a strong woman in many ways. Her house is neat and well kept. Her flowers, the chrysanthemums, are expertly cared for:
She took off a glove and put her strong fingers down into the forest of the new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots...No aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started.
Elisa is an expert on these flowers; the reader learns that they are amazingly large and lush compared to those grown by others. Her husband tells her that she has a "gift" with these plants, and Elisa's attitude also infers some ego when she notes that the crop of flowers will be strong this year:
In her tone and on her face there was a little smugness.
The reader also gets a sense of strength when the peddler arrives looking for work. At first Elisa is implacable, refusing the need for any work on tools or pots—being careful not to spend on what she does not need. Notice their interaction:
"I mend pots and sharpen knives and scissors. You got any of them things to do?"
"Oh, no," she said, quickly. "Nothing like that." Her eyes hardened with resistance.
However, there are several things that belie this evidence of strength. When her husband teases her about going to the fights, we can see that Elisa is a gentle-hearted creature:
"Oh, no," she said breathlessly. "No, I wouldn't like to see the fights."
We see Elisa's softer nature eventually surface with the peddler—a sneaky man who finds it easy to read Elisa. He compliments her flowers, which are like her children. As with most parents, she cannot resist his praise of those things of which she is so proud. As soon as the peddler asks about the flowers, Elisa's attitude "softens." The peddler strikes up a conversation, soon asking for flowers for a "woman down the road"—someone he invents who he says really wants chrysanthemums for her garden if he ever finds any. Elisa eagerly and generously digs up some shoots and puts them into a brand new red flowerpot. Ultimately, she also gives the peddler some work.
Later, we sense vulnerability as she and her husband drive to town that night for dinner. Innocently, she never questioned the peddler's story or his intent. However, as they drive:
Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.
She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, "He might have thrown them off the road..."
The peddler threw away her flowers and kept the pot: the flowers had no value, for there was never "a woman down the road." He kept the pot, for he could sell that. When Elisa speaks to her husband, he senses something is wrong, but she talks of other things, and...
She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.
For the strength and pride Elisa demonstrates at the story's beginning, we discover by drawing inferences and studying Steinbeck's details that Elisa is not as strong as we first might believe—she is devastated at being lied to and in seeing her plants tossed away like trash.