Discuss the symbolism in the story "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck.

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Elisa Allen’s frustrations about her life dominate “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck. As the protagonist, Elisa wants more from life. She has a good husband who works hard to provide a good life. As in many marriages, the communication falls short between husband and wife,


Chrysanthemums and her children

Throughout the story, Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums as a symbol. Elisa and Henry have no children. The beautiful flowers that she grows with tenderness and love have become her children. She shields them by placing a fence around them. Part of her care includes protecting them from insects:

No aphids, no sow bugs or snails or cutworms…her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started.

These vermin represent natural harm to the flowers; and, just as any good mother, she removes them before they can harm her children. 

Elisa longs for more in her life. She is sexually and emotionally unfulfilled. The chrysanthemums represent her desire for more. Her link to life has become her garden rather than her husband.

Her husband tries to communicate his feelings to Elisa but falls short.

“At it again,” he said…”I wish that you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Although her husband tries to compliment her work, Henry does not see the frustration that Eliza feels about her life and her need for intimacy.

The repairman and Elisa’s awakening

When the tinker comes in his wagon, Elisa does not want to talk to him. Cleverly, he sees her interest in the flowers and builds a rapport with Elisa in that way. As the man talks to Elisa, the repairman suggests that he take some of her seeds to one of his customers. She is delighted to provide the seeds in a red pot. Instantly, Elisa begins to feel excited and eager.

Her explanation to the repairman about growing the flowers has a sexual connotation.

"It’s when you’re picking off the buds you don’t want. Everything goes right down to your fingertips. You can feel it. When you’re like that you can’t do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that?"

As she describes her planting hands to the repairman, Elisa kneels on the ground looking up at him. Sexual feelings rise in her breasts. Everything about the man draws Elisa to him. His lifestyle, his body (she almost touches his torn trousers). This passionate connection stimulates Elisa to try to relate to her husband on their date that night.

The red pot and Elisa’s loss

Elisa delights in providing the seeds in the red pot for the repairman’s customer. She provides rigid instructions about the care for the precious cargo in the pot. All of her senses are aroused as she talks to him.

Readying herself for the night out becomes a slow, sensual experience. She is rewarded by her husband’s surprise at how pretty she looks. He uses the word "strong" to describe the change in her, and Elisa agrees with him.

As they go into town for the date, Elisa notices a "dark speck" on the road ahead. Immediately, she knows what it is. The repairman dumped out the seeds and flowers and kept her red pot. Elisa feels defeated. In her anger and hurt, she suggests that she might like to go to the boxing matches and see the violence.

The red pot was kept by the repairman, but the important flowers were dumped. To Elisa, this meant that they (the repairman and Elisa) had no connection but what was in her own mind. Symbolically, his dishonesty cancels the strength that she gained from their encounter. As the car goes down the road, Emily turns her face away from Henry and begins to cry because now she feels “like an old woman.”

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