For what purpose does Steinbeck provide such a detailed account of Elisa's preparations for her evening out?"The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rich in symbolism, Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums" begins with a description of the "grey-flannel fog of winter" closing off the Salinas Valley from "the rest of the world":

On every side it sat like a lid on the moutains and made of the great valley a closed pot.

On the ranch of Henry Allen, immersed in a man's world, his wife Elisa looks "blocked" and "heavy" as she wears 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....She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.

As she works, Elisa energetically breaks ground for new growth in the forthcoming Spring as the tinker and his "caravan" pull up to the fence.  In the exchange between the tinker and Elisa, something happens to her as, delighted by the tinker's interest in her chrysanthemums, Elisa's feminine passions are ignited and her "eyes grew alert and eager."  She shakes out her beautiful hair and her mouth opens slightly, her voice growing "husky."

As the tinker departs with some chrysanthemum sprouts, Elisa looks down the road romantically, whispering "Good-bye---good-bye."

Then she whispered, "That's a bright direction.  There's a glowing there."

In the house, preparing for an evening out with her husband, the glowing Elisa regards herself in the mirror as a woman.  With renewed hope and feminine passion, Elisa dresses carefully and seductively in her

newest underclothing and her nices stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.

She does this in interest of a renewed passion between herself and Henry as well as a burgeoning hope that she may be able to leave "the closed pot" of her life on the ranch and be allowed more expanse as a woman.  Henry notices the change in Elisa and remarks,

"I ought to take you in to dinner oftener.  It would be good for both of us.  We get so heavy out on the ranch."

This repetition of the word heavy from Steinbeck's description of Elisa before the tinker's arrival is truly significant.  For, again Elisa feels the heaviness of her life in a "closed pot" after she spots the cruelly discarded chrysanthemums on the roadside. All her careful preparations of the flowers, just like her careful preparations in dressing have ended again in dissatisfaction with her life.  For, her feminine experience has been but a "quick puff of colored smoke" like a chrysanthemum and the "grey-flannel fog" of repression falls again upon this woman.

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The Chrysanthemums

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