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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Discuss the main character in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck.  

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John Steinbeck’s artistry encapsulates one day in the life of a woman who finds herself yearning for more in the story “The Chrysanthemums.”  The engaging story involves only three characters whose interactions are both hopeful and hurtful. 

Elisa Allen, the protagonist is a married woman who loves her husband.  She is intelligent, but unfulfilled in her life.  She wants excitement and actual intimacy.  Her life is on the farm with her husband Henry, who has made a comfortable living for both of them.  Her husband is unaware of her feelings.

On this wintry day, Elisa is working with her passion: her chrysanthemums.  She is preparing the flowers for winter.  She watches her husband who is talking with some strangers. 

Her husband compliments her by saying that she has a gift of growing things.  Elisa labels it “planter’s hands.” Henry wants Elisa to go with him to the fights but that really is not “her cup of tea.” He tells her that they will go out tonight and to the movies. She agrees.  They seem to be a happy couple.

As she works, Elisa hears a wagon pull up with a strange man.  He is a tinker, who travels around sharpening knives and fixing pots.  This man is never given a name.  He has learned how to manipulate women, so they allow him to do some work for them.  

Elisa tells him that she has nothing for him to do. The man chats and jokes with Elisa. When he presses for a small job, she becomes annoyed and tries to send him away.

Suddenly the man’s attention is caught by the chrysanthemum. When the man takes an interest in her flowers, Elisa’s attitude changes. The man tells her about one of his customers that always has work for him.  This other lady also has a garden and wants some chrysanthemum seeds if he ever comes across any.  The man has done it.  He has manipulated himself into Elisa good graces.

Now Elisa is captivated. She finds two pots for him to fix.  While he is working, she prepares a pot of chrysanthemum cuttings for the other lady’s garden. She also gives the man full instructions for taking care of them.  The man describes the chrysanthemums: ‘Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?’ Elisa loves the description.

Even more important, it is obvious that Elisa envies the man’s life.  He is able to travel where he wants, and his freedom is unlimited. 

'I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean.  When the night is dark--why the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet.  Hot and sharp and --lovely.'

Strangely, she feels an attraction for the man because he appears to have a love of flowers.  She almost reaches for his hand with this new emotion welling up inside of her.  Instead, she pays him fifty cents for fixing the pots, gives him the pot of chrysanthemums, and sends him on his way.

Elisa goes to the house to ready herself for the night out with her husband.  She takes special care to look  nice.  Her husband compliments her and tells her that she looks different: strong and happy.

As they go down the road toward town, Elisa sees on the side of the road that the man has tossed out the cuttings of her flowers. This hurts her tremendously, and this strong woman turns her head and cries. 

The final dialogue ends with Elisa asking Henry if women really went fights.  She asks if there really is a lot of blood.

Yet, they end up going to the restaurant and having an extra glass of wine.



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