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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Elisa Allen
Elisa Allen is the story's protagonist, a thirty-five-year-old woman who lives on a ranch in the Salinas Valley with her husband Henry. She is lean and strong, and wears shapeless, functional clothes. The couple have no children, no near neighbors, and Henry is busy doing chores on the ranch throughout the day. Elisa fills her hours by vigorously cleaning the ''hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows,’’ and by tending her flower garden. She has ''a gift'' for growing things, and she is proud of it. For the most part, Elisa seems satisfied with her life. When the traveling tinker comes along and talks about his wandering habits, she begins to think about how limited her life is, and she longs for adventure. The idea that her chrysanthemums will be shared with a stranger who will appreciate them gratifies her, makes her think that in a small way she is part of a larger world. When the man betrays her by throwing away the chrysanthemums, he makes it clear that her world extends only as far as the boundaries of the ranch.

Henry Allen
Henry Allen is Elisa's husband, a hard-working and successful small-scale rancher. As the story opens, he has completed the sale of thirty steer, and he wants to celebrate with Elisa. He suggests an evening in town, with dinner and a movie, and compliments her on her gardening skills. But there is no intimacy in his talk; the two are serious and formal with each other, and when Henry attempts a bit of humor Elisa does not understand it. As the couple prepare to leave for town, Henry can see that something is bothering his wife, but he cannot guess what it is and everything he says is wrong. In the face of her strange mood he "blunders," he is "bewildered" and speaks "helplessly." He is a good man, and he wants to make her happy, but he does not know what she needs.

The man
The man is a tinker who travels up and down the coast every year with a horse-drawn wagon bearing the legend ' 'Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.’’ He is large, with careworn face and hands and a dirty suit. Because he depends on his salesmanship to earn his living, he is skillful at bantering small talk, but his friendly laughter is only superficial. Elisa has no work for him and is about to send him away when he notices the chrysanthemums and gets her to talk about them. Instantly her tone changes. She becomes enthusiastic, and she finds some work for him to do. When she finds her discarded chrysanthemums on the road that evening, Elisa realizes that his interest in the flowers was insincere, simply a way to win her over.

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Critical Essays