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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The Chrysanthemums Summary

"The Chrysanthemums" is a short story by John Steinbeck in which a handsome drifter comes to Elisa's house and asks about her flowers.

  • Elisa and her husband live a simple life, taking pleasure in small things.

  • A dark, bearded drifter comes to Elisa's garden. Elisa and the stranger talk, and Elisa gives him seedlings from her prized flowers. Elisa feels invigorated by the conversation.

  • On the way into town for a date night with her husband, Elisa sees the flowers she gave to the stranger laying in the dirt. Elisa is overcome with grief and struggles to hide her feelings from her husband.


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Elisa Allen, a woman approaching middle age, is at a point in her life when she has begun to realize that her energy and creative drive far exceed the opportunities for their expression. Her marriage is reasonably happy—when she notices that her husband is proud of selling thirty head of steers he has raised, she gives him the compliment he hopes for, while he, in turn, appreciates her ability to grow flowers of exceptional quality. There is an easy banter between them, and while they have settled into a fairly familiar routine, they are still responsive to each other’s moods, and eager to celebrate an achievement in each other’s company with a night on the town. On the other hand, their marriage is childless, and Elisa generally wears bland, bulging clothes that tend to de-sex her. Their house is described as “hard-swept” and “hard-polished”; it is the only outlet for her talents and it is an insufficient focus for her energy. She has begun to sense that an important part of her is lying dormant and that the future will be predictable and rather mundane.

Although Elisa would never consider an actual affair, when a stranger appears at their farm offering to sharpen knives and mend pots, his singularity and unconventional appearance immediately arouse her interest. In contrast to her husband, he is a kind of adventurer who lives spontaneously, a man of the road not bound by standard measures of time and place. Because he has found it useful to be able to charm his potential customers into giving him work, he is accomplished at gauging a person’s emotional needs, and he has developed a facility for the kind of conversation that verges on the suggestive. He is described as big, bearded, and graying, a man who has been around, who knows something about life and people: a man with a captivating presence whose eyes are dark and “full of brooding.”

Elisa is fascinated by his way of life, overlooking the harshness and uncertainty of his existence in her eagerness to romanticize his style. When she tries to get him to discuss his travels, he steers the conversation back to the possibility of employment. When it is apparent that she has no work to give him, however, he cannily praises her flowers, and when Elisa responds to his “interest,” he tells her that a woman he expects to see soon on his rounds has asked him to be on the watch for good seeds. Almost desperately eager to share the one thing she is actually doing, Elisa carefully gathers some shoots, and as she instructs the stranger on the proper care of the seedlings, her passionate involvement with the process of planting becomes an expression of all the suppressed romance in her life. The stranger senses this, and to show that he shares her vision, he offers just enough encouragement to lead her into a full-scale declaration of her profound sense of what planting means to her, a declaration that is presented in powerfully sensual terms. Elisa would like this moment of intensity to continue, but the tinker reminds her that hunger overcomes inspiration, and Elisa, somewhat abashed by her own openness, finds some useless, old pots for him to mend. She believes that the man has given her something intangible but valuable and that she is obliged to give him something he needs in return. As the man leaves, Elisa looks away after him, whispering to herself, “There’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.”

The consequence of their conversation is very dramatic. Elisa feels energized and appreciated,...

(This entire section contains 965 words.)

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delighted by her opportunity to share her special skill and excited by the chance to share, at least in her imagination, a totally different kind of life. As she prepares for the evening, the power she usually puts into scrubbing the house is redirected into her preparation to make herself as attractive as she now feels. Her husband is both surprised and pleased by her appearance, and their conversation is mixed with a pleasant uncertainty and a kind of unexpected delight as they both enjoy the animating effect of Elisa’s encounter. Their mood remains distinctly elevated as they head for town, but then, Elisa sees a small speck on the road in the distance. Instantly, she realizes that this is the treasure she so avidly prepared. The tinker has discarded the flowers on the road to save the pot that contained them, the only object of value to him.

Elisa is shattered by the callous manner in which he has drawn something from her secret self and then completely betrayed her “gift” by not even taking the trouble to hide the flowers. She attempts to override her disappointment by maintaining a mood of gaiety, suggesting that they have wine at dinner, a bold gesture in the context of their lives. This, however, is not sufficient to help her restore her feelings of confidence and expectation, so she asks her husband if they might go to a prizefight, a request so completely out of character that her husband is totally baffled. She presses further, searching for that “special” feeling she held briefly, and asks if men “hurt each other very much.” This is part of an effort to focus her own violent and angry feelings, but it is completely futile as an attempt to sustain and resurrect her sense of self-control and command. In a few moments, she completely gives up the pose, her whole body collapsing into the seat in an exhibition of defeat. As the story concludes, Elisa is struggling to hide her real feeling of pain from her husband. She is anticipating a dreadful future in which she pictures herself “crying weakly—like an old woman.”