(Short Story Criticism)

“The Chrysanthemums” John Steinbeck

The following entry presents criticism of Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums,” first published in 1937. See also Johnn Steinbeck Short Story Criticism.

One of Steinbeck's most accomplished short stories, “The Chrysanthemums” is about an intelligent, creative woman coerced into a stifling existence on her husband's ranch. The story appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1937; a revised version, which contained less sexual imagery, was published in the 1938 collection The Long Valley. Many critics believe the story reflected Steinbeck's own sense of frustration, rejection, and loneliness at the time the story was written. Some scholars also have speculated that the female protagonist of “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen, was inspired by Steinbeck's first wife, Carol Henning.

Plot and Major Characters

“The Chrysanthemums” opens at the Allen ranch, which is located in the foothills of the Salinas Valley. Elisa works in her garden, cutting down old chrysanthemum stalks, while her husband Henry discusses business with two men across the yard. After the men leave, Henry leans over the fence where Elisa is working and comments on her gardening talents. Elisa admits to her “gift,” noting her mother also had “planters' hands.” Henry then suggests that they dine out that evening. After Elisa agrees, Henry teasingly proposes that they go to the fights that night as well. Once Henry departs, a battered covered wagon driven by a tinker pulls up to the house. The tinker asks Elisa if she has any pots to mend. She declines several times, but once the tinker notices and compliments Elisa's chrysanthemums, her mood changes from slight irritation to exuberance. The tinker tells Elisa about a woman on his route who would like chrysanthemum seeds, and Elisa happily places several sprouts in a red pot for him. She then finds two saucepans for the tinker to repair before he leaves. Elisa rushes into the house, where she bathes, studies her naked body in the mirror, and dresses for the evening. As the couple leaves for dinner in their roadster, Elisa notices the chrysanthemum sprouts she had given the tinker lying in the road and asks her husband if they could have wine with dinner. A few minutes pass before she wonders aloud whether the boxers at the prize fights hurt each other very much and whether women ever attend. Henry asks Elisa if she would like to go to the fights, but she answers no, that “it will be enough if we can have wine.” She then begins to cry, though unnoticed by Henry.

Major Themes

The primary theme in “The Chrysanthemums,” one that appears throughout Steinbeck's canon, is Elisa's creative frustration. Some critics have viewed Elisa as a feminist figure, while others—arguing that Elisa both emasculates her husband and engages in an infidelity with the tinker—have argued that the story is an attack against feminism.

Critical Reception

“The Chrysanthemums” has garnered critical acclaim since publication. André Gide, who particularly admired the story, compared it to the best of Anton Chekhov. Other critics have detected the influence of D. H. Lawrence in “The Chrysanthemums.” John Ditsky called the story “one of the finest American stories ever written.” John H. Timmerman regarded the story as “one of Steinbeck's masterpieces,” adding that “stylistically and thematically, ‘The Chrysanthemums’ is a superb piece of compelling craftsmanship.” According to Mordecai Marcus “the story seems almost perfect in form and style. Its compelling rhythm underlines its suggestiveness, and nothing in the story is false or out of place.” While some critics have praised Steinbeck's objectivity in the narrative, Kenneth Payson Kempton found the story “arbitrary, self-impelled, and fuzzy work … its effect annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.” Most critics concede that it is Elisa Allen who makes “The Chrysanthemums” a memorable short story. Even so, R. S. Hughes argued that while the facets of “Elisa's personality are no doubt responsible for much of the story's appeal, ultimately Steinbeck's well-crafted plot and his skillful use of symbol make the story great.”

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Nothing So Monstrous 1936

Saint Katy the Virgin 1936

The Red Pony 1937; also published as The Red Pony [enlarged edition], 1945

The Long Valley 1938; also published as Thirteen Great Stories from the Long Valley [revised edition], 1943; and Fourteen Great Stories from the Long Valley [revised edition], 1947

How Edith McGuillicuddy Met R.L.S. 1943

The Crapshooter 1957

Cup of Gold (novel) 1929

To a God Unknown (novel) 1933

Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935

In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936

Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937

Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts (drama) 1937

The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939

The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942

The Moon Is Down: A Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942

Cannery Row (novel) 1945

The Pearl (novel) 1947

A Russian Journal (travel essays) 1948

Burning Bright (novel) 1950

East of Eden (novel) 1952

Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957

Once There Was a War (nonfiction) 1958

The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961

Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature (speech) 1962

Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962

America and Americans (travel essay) 1966

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (letters) 1975

Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath” (journal) 1989

Joseph Warren Beach (essay date 1941)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “John Steinbeck: Journeyman Artist,” in American Fiction, 1920-1940, The Macmillan Company, 1948, pp. 309-26.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1941, Beach compares “The Chrysanthemums” to the work of Anton Chekhov, calling the story's protagonist Elisa Allen “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book.”]

There are many of Steinbeck's short stories that remind one of the Russian writer. [Chekhov]. There is the opening story of the volume entitled The Long Valley (1938). It is called “Chrysanthemums.” It gives us the picture of a wholesome and attractive woman of thirty-five, wife of a rancher in that enchanting Salinas Valley where Steinbeck lived as a boy. This woman has what are called planter's hands, so that whatever she touches grows and flourishes. She is shown on a soft winter morning working in her garden, cutting down the old year's chrysanthemum stalks, while her husband stands by the tractor shed talking with two men in business suits. Nothing is said about the relationship of this married pair, but everything shows that it is one of confidence and mutual respect. He refers with simple pleasure to the size of her chrysanthemums. She applauds his success in selling his three-year-old steers at nearly his own price. And she welcomes his suggestion that, since it is Saturday afternoon, they go into town for dinner and then to a picture show. But she wouldn't care to go to the fights. The feminine note is sounded in the unaffected shrinking of the refined woman from the brutality of a sport which men enjoy. "Oh, no,” she said breathlessly, “I wouldn't like fights.” And he hastens to assure her he was just fooling; they'll go to a movie. It is not the author who tells us that he is making a sacrifice, and that he is glad to do so, for he likes his wife better thus than if she wanted to go to the fights. The beauty of this kind of storytelling is that the author does not waste words and insult his reader with that sort of explanation. He gets his effects with an elegant economy of words, and leaves some scope for the reader's imagination.

And now is introduced a third character, picturesque and individual, and a new balance of forces in human relations. The new character is an itinerant tinker who comes driving up in his queer covered wagon from the country road that runs along the bank of the river. He is a big stubble-bearded man, in a greasy black suit, graying but not old-looking, with dark eyes “full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors.” He is a shrewd, dynamic personality. And there ensues between him and Eliza Allen a combat of wits in which she shows herself a person of right feeling, one who...

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Kenneth Payson Kempton (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Objectivity As Approach and As Method,” in Short Stories for Study, Harvard University Press, 1953, pp. 115-52.

[In the following excerpt, Kempton asserts that Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums” lacks objectivity.]

No reader of “The Killers” will easily forget its opening sentence and paragraph: “The door of Henry's lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.” Behind this starkly matter-of-fact fluidity, one feels something impending; the objective writer gains a cumulative tension by omitting many details while confining his record to a stripped brief of action and speech. From first word to last, somebody is...

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Mordecai Marcus (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 54-8.

[In the essay below, Marcus explores the sexual symbolism of “The Chrysanthemums,” concluding that Elisa Allen's frustration results from a longing for childbirth.]

I will risk saying that John Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums” seems to me one of the world's great short stories, reassured by the fact that though it has received only scattered critical attention, Joseph Warren Beach called its protagonist, Elisa Allen, “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a...

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Elizabeth E. McMahan (essay date 1968–69)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 453-58.

[In the following essay, McMahan identifies unfulfilled sexual desire as the source of Elisa Allen's frustration in “The Chrysanthemums.”]

Virtually every critic who has considered John Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums” has agreed that its basic theme is a woman's frustration, but none has yet adequately explained the emotional reasons underlying that frustration. In fact, Kenneth Kempton would consider such an explanation impossible. He professes his inability to find any consistent motivation for Eliza's...

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Charles A. Sweet, Jr. (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ms. Elisa and Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 210–14

[Here, Sweet asserts that “The Chrysanthemums” can be read as Steinbeck's response to feminism.]

In a recent article on Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums,” Elizabeth McMahan began “Virtually every critic who has considered John Steinbeck's short story ‘The Chrysanthemums’ has agreed that its basic theme is a woman's frustration, but none has yet adequately explained the emotional reasons underlying that frustration.”1 Indeed the conflict in the story derives from the relationship between Elisa Allen's...

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Roy S. Simmonds (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. VII, Nos. 3–4, Summer-Fall, 1974, pp. 102–11.

[In the following essay, Simmonds argues that Elisa Allen, contrary to popular opinion, is not a sympathetic figure.]

In recent years what has almost amounted to a small critical industry has grown up around Steinbeck's short story, “The Chrysanthemums.” It is obvious that this particular story has attracted a more than average share of expository attention due principally to the various interpretations which can be placed upon the behaviour of its central character, Elisa Allen, and upon the somewhat...

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Stanley Renner (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Real Woman Inside the Fence in ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 305–17.

[In the following essay, Renner interprets “The Chrysanthemums” as “informed far less by feminist sympathies than by traditional ‘masculist’ complaints.”]

Steinbeck's classic short story “The Chrysanthemums” has long attracted admiration and respect from discriminating readers and eminent critics. But quite clearly the story's fame was enhanced during the last couple of decades as it was caught up in the eager discovery of works of literature dramatizing the female consciousness and was, in effect,...

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Louis Owens (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Waiting for Rain,” in John Steinbeck's Re-vision of America, The University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 108–13.

[In the following essay, Owens correlates Elisa Allen's desire for rain with her need for personal fulfillment.]

Of the first story in The Long Valley, “The Chrysanthemums,” Steinbeck wrote: “It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what nor how” (Life in Letters, p. 91). In light of the eagerness with which critics have rushed...

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John Ditsky (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Kind of Play: Dramatic Elements in Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Wascana Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 62–72.

[Below, Ditsky praises the “Lawrentian values” and interpersonal drama that Steinbeck achieves in “The Chrysanthemums.”]

The longstanding critical assumption, routinely delivered and seldom questioned, that John Steinbeck represented an odd late flourishing of literary naturalism—rather than, as now seems increasingly clear, an innovative sort of romanticism—has had the predictable effect of retarding appreciation of his accomplishments. Among the latter are the ways in which Steinbeck's language emerges from...

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C. Kenneth Pellow (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’ Revisited,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1–2, Winter-Spring, 1989, pp. 8–16.

[In the following essay, Pellow calls into question the symbolic value of organic and mechanical elements in “The Chrysanthemums.”]

Scholars who have interpreted and analyzed John Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums” appear to have ignored several associations and parallels between animals and characters. These associations, and some contrasts between things organic and things mechanical, support an interpretation of the story that, while not altogether new, goes somewhat beyond previous critiques in seeing the story as...

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R. S. Hughes (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Chrysanthemums,” in John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 21–7.

[In the essay that follows, Hughes identifies elements responsible for the critical success of “The Chrysanthemums,” specifically plot, characterization, symbolism, and overall objectivity.]

Among Steinbeck's fifty or more pieces of short fiction, no story has been more highly praised than “The Chrysanthemums.” Steinbeck began writing it on 31 January 1934,1 and by the time he finished in February of that year, he sensed that he had created a subtly powerful work. In a letter to George Albee, Steinbeck says: “I shall be...

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John H. Timmerman (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Repression and Desire,” in The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, pp. 169–77.

[In the following essay, Timmerman contends that “The Chrysanthemums” is a classical example of Steinbeck's favored theme of artistic repression.]

During his period of intense artistic activity during the first half of 1934, Steinbeck fought almost daily against an overwhelming sense of failure. There were days when the words flowed as if some divine muse guided them; there were others during which his ledger entries consisted of little more than despondent notes lamenting his lack of...

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Susan Shillinglaw (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Steinbeck's Pygmalion” in Steinbeck's Short Stories in “The Long Valley”: Essays in Criticism, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, Ball State University, 1991, pp. 1–9.

[In the essay below, Shillinglaw asserts that “The Chrysanthemums” was heavily influenced by the Pygmalion myth as utilized by Ovid and George Bernard Shaw.]

For John Steinbeck “life was not a struggle toward anything, but a constant process in it,” writes Jackson J. Benson, and “that process for man … was largely a matter of learning. It was the major ‘action’ for both his life and work.”1 It is clearly the major “action” in...

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Christopher S. Busch (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Longing for the Lost Frontier: Steinbeck's Vision of Cultural Decline in ‘The White Quail’ and ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, Nos. 3–4, Summer-Fall, 1993, pp. 81–90.

[In the following essay, Busch illuminates Steinbeck's preoccupation with an idealized frontier past in both “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail.”]

In the course of his forty-year career, John Steinbeck consistently integrated elements of American frontier history, mythology, and symbolism into his fiction and nonfiction. Steinbeck's fascination with the frontier past germinated during his boyhood in Salinas, at that time a cowtown...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Gullason, Thomas A. “Revelation and Evolution: A Neglected Dimension of the Short Story.” Studies in Short Fiction X, No. 4 (Fall 1973): 347–56.

Discusses how Elisa physically and emotionally “retreats and withdraws into herself” over the course of the story.

Mitchell, Marilyn L. “Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories.” Southwest Review LXI, No. 3 (Summer 1976): 304–15.

Compares Mary Teller of “The White Quail” with Elisa Allen in “The Chrysanthemums,” concluding that both women “have certain needs of the spirit, the abstract nature of which...

(The entire section is 298 words.)