The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

The Chrysanthemums book cover
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What happens in The Chrysanthemums?

In "The Chrysanthemums," a strange, handsome drifter comes to Elisa's house and asks about her flowers. She feels invigorated by their conversation, but later becomes depressed when she sees the flowers she gave him lying on the roadside.

  • Elisa and Henry live a simple little life, taking pleasure in small things and occasionally going out for a night on the town.

  • One day, a dark, bearded drifter comes to Elisa's garden. Sensing that she wants to talk about her flowers, he tricks her into giving him some. This encounter leaves her feeling invigorated and leads her to dress up for her husband that night.

  • On the way into town, she sees the flowers she gave the stranger lying in the dirt. Unable to drown her grief in wine and entertainment, Elisa struggles to hide her feelings from her husband and feels, suddenly, old.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,525 words.)