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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Joseph Warren Beach (essay date 1941)

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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 doesn't let her charitable instincts run away with her, but who has at the same time a soft side where you can get round her. That is her love of flowers, and the pride she takes in her way with chrysanthemums. The author says nothing of this tug-of-war, nor of the shrewdness of the tinker, nor of the quality in Eliza Allen that makes her a victim. All these things he shows us in the brief dialogue—again with a richness of reference which makes us feel the whole quality of these two by no means commonplace lives. Among other things he makes us feel how, beneath her brisk and contented exterior, this woman harbors an...

(This entire section contains 1160 words.)

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unsatisfied longing for some way of life less settled than that of the rancher's wife, something typified by the shabby tinker camping nightly in his wagon underneath the stars.

Eliza Allen has nothing that needs mending, but the tinker does not want to leave without something to feed his hungry frame. He has the inspiration to take an interest in her chrysanthemums; he begs her for some of the shoots to take to a lady down the road who has asked him to bring her some. The upshot of it is that she finds some old pans for him to mend and he goes away with fifty cents in his pocket and a pot of chrysanthemum shoots. She watches him go down the road by the river, and is filled, as the author manages to make us know, with a kind of troubled joy at the thought of him on his vagabond trail.

And now she turns to the bustle of washing up and dressing for the trip to town. I wish I knew how the author manages here to convey the sense he does of the energy and well-being of this rancher's wife moved by thoughts unnamed and perhaps not brought above the level of consciousness. Her husband observes how “strong” she seems, but has no notion of the special occasion for it.

But Eliza Allen has a grief in store, and we have still the pleasure of seeing how mad and hurt she can be when she realizes that she has been outwitted by the man who means so much to her in the obscure places of her imagination. As she drives along to town with her husband she discovers a dark spot on the pavement where the tinker had thrown her chrysanthemums the moment he was out of sight of the ranch. The pot he kept. The thing remains a secret with her. She says nothing of it to her husband. We know it only by the tone she takes in asking him again about the fights. She asks him if the fighters do not hurt each other very much. “I've read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests. I've read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood.” He is surprised and rather shocked that she should ever have thought of things like that; but he is willing to take her to the fights if she really wants it. “She relaxed limply in the seat. ‘Oh, no. No. I don't want to go. I'm sure I don't.’ Her face was turned away from him. ‘It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.’ She turned up her coat collar so that he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.”

This is no tragic grief. But it does assure us that Eliza Allen is very much of a woman, and of the same flesh and blood with ourselves—that she shares with us our sensitive pride, our reluctance to let someone get the best of us, and more than that, our secret romantic longing for something more than “human nature's daily food.” She is one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book. There is no doubt that she has a “soul.” And she is much less simple than she seems.


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“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.”

Kenneth Payson Kempton (essay date 1953)

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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 saying or doing something. In contrast, the first three paragraphs of “The Chrysanthemums” are static, are crowded with impressionistic detail—a description of the valley, the weather, the season, and the ranch: a vacant stage. They comprise a short essay on a scene not yet relevant to any story. The use of the word “tender” (“The air was cold and tender”) misses the mark, for no one but the author could have admitted this personal sense impression. Now Maupassant, feeling his way through the beginning of “The Piece of String,” used about three hundred words to describe a market day at Goderville; but it was a crowd of people and carts and animals his lens-diaphragm recorded, and briefly we glimpsed Hauchecorne in the mass, only to lose him again. The objective writer clings to persons, to humanity, in the mass or individually—to flesh and blood and spirit; he begins there, goes on there, ends there, the talk and behavior illuminating motives; he knows that to spend space on weather and scenery and season—unless these affect or are affected by persons—is to tax the reader's patience and give him time to question the impersonality of the method.

Once we see Elisa Allen, the rancher's wife (she has been waiting in the wings while her creator wrote the essay), the story overcomes its self-imposed inertia and begins to move. And it seems at first to move in a single direction. Here, at least, is a person, a woman in the prime of life, happy and busy in her flowerbeds. Interest picks up as we welcome her appearance and hope for a motive to follow; a strong motive in this strong, brisk woman, and some almost equally strong (or perhaps still stronger) yet understandable opposition. There may be, we feel, a story here after all.

We remember, though, that by the terms of objectivity the author will not have recourse to his own interpretation or to a character's thoughts for presenting and shifting or sustaining motives, he will do this only indirectly, by recording speech and behavioristic details that will create the motivating undertone and make drives and pressures, as well as the surface record, clear. So we must watch Elisa closely, stay alert, wait for small signs and portents, and be sure to catch each as it comes along.

Instead of catching, we are caught and misled. Elisa casts a frequent glance toward her husband and the two businessmen across the yard. Is this merely curiosity, is she fearful lest the two men somehow cheat Henry, or is she perhaps interested in one of those strangers? “Elisa started at the sound of her husband's voice,” as he neared her, the men gone. (She feels guilt, then. The last inference was right.) At her husband's praise, “Elisa straightened her back and pulled on the gardening gloves again. … On her face there was a little smugness.” (A sly one, she knows she can fool him.) But we learn later that this, if not a blind alley, is a crooked one. There is nothing between Elisa and either of those two men from town. The most we can say, after reading the entire story, is that perhaps Elisa, sexually frustrated, is interested in any man who comes along. But objective writing should not permit several possibilities held in abeyance; behavioristic detail should imply motive at the moment of reading. Hide-and-seek is easy for the author, hard on the reader.

Inferential alertness having failed us, it holds a weaker promise and we slack off somewhat. The author does too, using more and more behavioristic details that carry no certain undertone or those whose undertone he must all but state. In the first class: “Elisa looked up,” “Elisa laughed,” “her breast swelled passionately,” “Elisa's voice grew husky,” “Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth.” (In context, this facial contortion may have been intended to indicate doubt, scorn, or disbelief.) “She sat unmoving for a long time,” while Henry was changing his clothes. “Her eyes blinked rarely.” (This I believe gets across; she is scheming something.) In the second class: “The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa's face,” “Elisa's eyes grew alert and eager,” “She stopped and seemed perplexed,” “Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight”; then at Henry's repeated praise, “For a second she lost her rigidity,” “She grow complete again.” And finally, “She relaxed limply in the seat.” No prize fights for Elisa. She weeps. The story ends.

Dimly through these behavioristic and almost expository tags one can perceive a broad motive (frustration) but only one that shifts before clear establishment and splits into five or six, none of which seems either comprehensible or dominant. Except for the tinker's treachery and her disillusionment in him, one can discover no opposition except of course what is provided by Elisa's mysteriously erratic nature. She is constantly defeating herself in one way or another, but why and over what issue only God and Mr. Steinbeck know. Everything is done for her, almost everything outside her goes right and gives her a chance to be happy; but, insisting on her neurosis when, as it were, rejected by the tinker, she refuses happiness. We know, at least, that she longs for something. But whether it is the freedom suggested by the nomadic life of the tinker, or children symbolized by her care of the young plants, or manliness as indicated by her delight in her strength and her masochistic scrubbing of her body in the bath, or a normal sex life hinted at by her tenseness when with her possibly impotent husband, or merely her lost youth as implied at the end—who can say? Ignorant of the desire that opposes her and creates frustration, we can't know what the story means. A conceivably premeditated idea—that Elisa wants something that she, therefore the author, therefore the reader can't identify—we must reject in deference to Mr. Steinbeck's known ability as a storyteller: such a meaning would make Elisa scarcely worth the reader's attention. The author has been commended as a symbolist. But surely, here, we are confronted with a mass of conflicting, disestablished symbols, and casually invited to take our choice. If we glance back at the title, often a key to comprehension in tough cases, “The Chrysanthemums” is of little help. Elisa's behavior with and relation to her plants follows the pattern of all the other symbols of her unmotivated personality—mention without clarifying stress; and her varying emotions about the plants are all finally negated by her behavior toward the tinker, which is itself negated by what follows his departure. She is hurt by his act of throwing away her slips, yet at once seems to understand and forgive his keeping the pot. Again, we must discard as too far-fetched and fantastic the possibility that the source of Elisa's frustration lies in her compulsive behavior toward plants (nipping, cutting, rooting only to nip and cut again) carrying over into her behavior toward persons: with plants she is notably adjusted, uninhibited, not frustrated at all.

Thus, by any possible route we can take, we reach the same group of vague conjectures; and must reluctantly conclude that this is arbitrary, self-impelled, and fuzzy work, a disservice to the method under consideration, its effect annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.

Fortunately for beginning writers, a younger generation has done better with objectivity.

Principal Works

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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

Mordecai Marcus (essay date 1965)

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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 book,”1 and André Gide thought that the story resembles the best of Chekhov.2 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. Criticism of the story, however, has only vaguely suggested the springs of its appeal.

On the simplest level “The Chrysanthemums” presents an attractive woman of thirty-five who wishes to escape from the limited domesticity of her ranch life to a world of wider experience. Joseph Fontenrose suggests that the weeping Elisa of the story's conclusion has learned to compose herself.3 More accurately, F. W. Watt thinks that the conclusion shows “that the vitality she feels within herself will remain frustrated,” and Watt earlier observes that Elisa's desires are “ambiguously sexual and spritual.”4 This ambiguity combined with Elisa's pervasive combination of femininity and masculinity, rather than the mere masculine rebellion against the passivity of her role as a woman suggested by Peter Lisca,5 is central to the story.

Although the story's rich suggestiveness may call for a full analysis, I will concentrate on its sexual symbolism, especially as it suggests the elusiveness of various meanings. I will give Freud's theory of bisexuality6 and Freudian views of sexual symbols only passing attention, for carried too far they lead away from the story's humanly felt experience to a forcing of ideas. I will not explore inherent bisexualty, penis-envy, or the idea that individuals desire to be self-created, though evidence of these ideas may be found in the story.

The story opens with a description of the surrounding Salinas Valley and Henry Allen's ranch, in December. Although harvest is over, the valley and the Allen ranch have been plowed and are waiting for a rain which is unlikely to come in time of fog. The plowed and waiting earth symbolize Elisa Allen's desire for fructification, for she has no child and her devotion to her chrysanthemum bed is at least partly an attempt to make flowers take the place of a child. Elisa's masculine dress; the strength of her hands; her exertions to plan, protect, and nurture her gigantic chrysanthemums; and her pride in their size and beauty suggest that circumstances have made her play both a feminine and a masculine role, though both roles merge at times, particularly in her protectiveness. The fog probably symbolizes her inability to see the nature of her dilemma. Denied a child, a wider world of experience, and that projection of oneself into the world of fresh and broad experiences which possessing a child fosters, she finds a substitute in her flowers, though she yearns for something more. The intensity of her pride in her ability to make things grow reinforces the likelihood that the flowers are a substitute for children.

At this point, however, her pride is much stronger than her sense of loss, and so when her husband proposes an evening in town as a celebration for his successful cattle sale, she can exclaim “Oh yes. That will be good.” A similar exclamation towards the end of the story suggests that Elisa tends to accept conventional social pleasures as satisfying rituals because she feels that her most personal accomplishments and her husband's business acumen are authentically fulfilling. She has confused her strength and her husband's success with human completion. The second section of the story shows Elisa further convinced that her accomplishments are deeply fulfilling, but it moves her slowly to the realization that she does not possess much of what she wants.

The earlier suggestions that the chrysanthemums are her children expands in the second section to the feeling that the flowers are also a substitute for herself—just as a beloved child is. As the tinker first appears, there is nothing explicitly sexual about him. Despite his shabbiness, shallowness, and deceptivity, he clearly represents an independent and partially poetic life that Elisa yearns for, though this independence is painfully ambiguous. Elisa at first deals with the tinker as though she were a man—to reinforce her resistance against giving him work, to maintain a distant camaraderie with him, and because she feels—as he declares—that his mode of life is, if not impossible for a woman, certainly difficult. As her childlessness has made Elisa's strength both feminine and masculine, her social situation makes her desire for freedom both feminine and masculine. But interspersed with this ambivalence is her clearly feminine passion for flowers, reinforced by her reference to tending sprouts, by description of her shining eyes and pretty hair, and much more strongly by her assertion of how her planting hands make her one with her plants, which situation suggests seeds, children, and sexual organs.

The tinker is puzzled and embarrassed by her talk, but he senses at least part of its meaning. Her passion for her plants leads him to comment on nights in the wagon, and when Elisa eagerly responds: “When the night is dark—the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why you rise up and up,” the images suggest sexual excitement and fulfillment, both masculine and feminine, as well as spiritual aspiration. Her hesitant reaching towards the tinker's legs extends the sexual aura, which almost immediately melts into a maternal feeling as Elisa places the pot of chrysanthemums “gently in his arms.” Her dreamy condition as he departs to what she calls “a bright direction” is movingly ambivalent. He is carrying off a symbol of the child she does not have—a substitute for it—and he moves towards the expanded world that such a child symbolizes.

As the story moves from its second to its final section, Elisa is exultant, for she feels the sexual and maternal triumph of having created her chrysanthemums and sent them out into the world. But she is clearly unconscious of the full meaning of her joy, for that joy leads to an ambivalent purification ritual and a continuing misunderstanding of the meaning of her strength. As she discards her clothing and scrubs herself with pumice, she is casting off the earth that—she ambivalently feels—makes her maternal, asserting a kind of masculine strength, and perhaps enjoying a quasi-sexual self-punishment; for this brief passage is intensely and subliminally suggestive. As she dresses, she tries to restore her femininity by thinking that her clothing and makeup emphasize her woman's role, but she is still confused about her sexual role, and her strange transformation is partly motivated by her entering a new social situation. She has tried to move from one kind of femininity to another, but neither is quite right. Both tend to be substitutions for biological femininity. In the garden her frustrated femininity has tended to become masculine. In the home she strains herself to assume social femininity.

Elisa's stance as her husband emerges dressed for the evening out—“Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight”—begins the most difficult sequence in the story. Her action suggests feelings of superiority over her husband, a sudden distaste for someone to whom she must play the woman, and on the deepest level the ambivalence of her desire to be seen as a woman. Her husband's painfully inadequate and puzzled “Why—why Elisa. You look so nice!” suggests that he has not perceived her adequately as a woman, has probably been blind to her needs as a woman. In a complex but brief dialogue, we see him perceive her strength as somehow masculine, to which observation she replies with violent ambivalence, asserting her strength but shocked at the implications that it is masculine. Surely Henry has little understanding of her needs or dilemma.

As Elisa sees her discarded chrysanthemums on the roadway, she reacts at first with an assertion of social norms: “It will be good, to-night, a good dinner,” which shows that she is denying her real feelings and pretending that marriage, husbandry, and entertainment are part of a naturally fulfilling cycle. But as she turns from the quest for sensation in wine and in the spectacle of the violent prize fights, to pleasure in the thought of vindictive assault on men, we see that she is reacting to knowledge of her failure. Her feminine self, her capacity for fructification and childbearing, the very offspring and representative of her body, have been thoughtlessly tossed aside (just as they probably have been unrecognized by the man at her side), and the power in which she rejoiced is revealed to be a futile substitute for the power of being a woman which lay at the center of her aspirations.

Her sudden interest in the details of the boxing matches suggests many things. In proposing that she attend the fights she is again retreating from her failure as a woman, to an identification with men—the spectators at the fights. But her combination of horror and vindictiveness about the boxers shows a reassertion of her hurt femininity. She dreams of seeing men, who have failed her, punished, and she also wants to punish herself for her failure as a woman. As she abandons her interest in the fights and comforts herself with the thought that wine at dinner will be enough, she accepts her failure to be fully successful as a woman and again comforts herself with a mild symbol of extra-domestic excitement. At the end we see her as a woman, but only that ghost of a woman which nature and society have permitted her to be. She cries like an old woman because she has given in to passivity and potential desiccation, though tears like hers are shed by many a young girl.

It is unlikely that Steinbeck was generalizing about a masculine protest in woman, and unthinkable that he was suggesting that woman's role must be passive, but he has created an extraordinary portrait of a woman whose strength seems both masculine and feminine but who cannot center her power on what alone would help her to reach beyond a limited condition to an expansive happiness, though doubtfully any final one. Joseph Warren Beach's allusive suggestion that Elisa years for something more than “human nature's daily food” (p. 314) is perhaps unintentionally reminiscent of the Wordsworthian desire for the life of the child whose gates of the senses—or so we think—are open. In ways perhaps beyond our understanding, the desire for sexual mergence, the possession of children, and our repossession of the world through both of these conditions may underlie much of the power of this story.


  1. American Fiction, 1920–1940 (New York, 1941), p. 314.

  2. The Journals of André Gide, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York, 1951), IV, 79.

  3. John Steinbeck, An Introduction and Interpretation (New York, 1963), p. 63.

  4. John Steinbeck (New York, 1962), pp. 42&-43.

  5. The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick, N. J., 1958), p. 95.

  6. Freud confessed that he could not place his theory of bisexuality on a coherent biological or social basis. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. W. J. H. Sprott (New York, 1933), pp. 155-158.

Elizabeth E. McMahan (essay date 1968–69)

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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 behavior, and declares the work “annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.”1 But most critics who have examined “The Chrysanthemums” admire the story and find it meaningful. Warren French, after identifying the theme of the story as frustration, suggests that the central action concerns “the manipulation of people's dreams for selfish purposes”2—an interesting and valid idea but one which fails to incorporate the obvious sexual overtones of the story. Another critic who overlooks the sexuality is Joseph Warren Beach. He sees the conflict in the story as a contest of wits between Eliza and the pot mender; frustration results from damage to her pride when she is outwitted.3 Ray B. West sees the story as “based on the assumed relationship between the fertile growth of plant life and physical violence and sexuality in human beings.”4 Peter Lisca explains Eliza's frustration as stemming from an unsuccessful “silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman”5—an excellent idea but his treatment is too brief to account for all the elements of the story. F. W. Watt is on exactly the right track when he states that the story concerns Eliza's “struggle to express and fulfill desires which are ambiguously sexual and spiritual.”6 Unfortunately Watt, like Lisca, has not sufficient space in his book to give this story the thorough discussion that it deserves. The only such examination thus far is that of Mordecai Marcus.7 But his interesting and persuasive argument that Eliza's frustration results essentially from a longing for childbirth is not entirely satisfactory. Marcus encounters difficulties with the story which I think disappear if we do not equate sexual fulfillment with a yearning for motherhood. Eliza's need is definitely sexual, but it does not necessarily have anything to do with a longing for children.

In order to understand Eliza's emotions, we first should look closely at the relationship between her and her husband. Beach, somewhat surprisingly, observes that “Nothing is said about the relationship of this married pair, but everything shows that it is one of confidence and mutual respect” (p. 311). Partially true, certainly, but confidence and mutual respect are not the only qualities that Eliza Allen desires in her marriage. The evidence points to an outwardly passive, comfortable relationship between the two which satisfies Henry completely but leaves Eliza indefinably restless with excessive energy which she sublimates into the “over-eager” cultivation of her chrysanthemums, and the care of her “hard-swept looking little house with hard-polished windows.” Henry is a good provider, we can be sure; he has just received a good price for thirty head of cattle. He is also thoughtful; he invites his wife to go into town that evening to celebrate the sale. A good provider, a thoughtful husband. But what else? There is a distinct lack of rapport between these two, despite all that mutual respect. And the confidence which Beach observes is an assurance of each other's capability; it is not a warm mutual confidence of things shared.

We see this lack of rapport demonstrated early in the story as Henry makes a suggestion for their evening's entertainment:

Henry put on his joking tone. “There's fights tonight. How'd you like to go to the fights?”

“Oh, no,” she said breathlessly. “No, I wouldn't like fights.”

“Just fooling, Eliza. We'll go to a movie.”

The fact that husband and wife do not share an interest in sports is not remarkable, but the fact that Eliza responds seriously to Henry's “joking tone” suggests either that she lacks a sense of humor or that for some reason she is not amused by Henry's teasing. We discover later that she has a ready sense of humor when talking to someone other than Henry. Unmistakably, Henry has no gift with words. When he compliments his wife on her chrysanthemums, he praises their size not their beauty and does so in the most prosaic terms. When he wants to compliment his wife on her appearance, he stammers, as if in surprise—and Eliza is hardly elated by the banal adjective:

“Why—why, Eliza. You look so nice!”

“Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by nice?”

Henry blundered on. “I don't know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.”

Henry's word choice here is particularly unfortunate since his wife has just devoted her entire attention to heightening her femininity. She has put on her “newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.” “Strong” is the way she least wants to appear. But Henry manages to make matters even worse. Bewildered by Eliza's sharp retort, he is inspired to his only attempt at figurative language in hopes of making himself clear: “‘You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.’” It is hard to fancy the woman who would be pleased by Henry's agricultural comparison. Eliza is not amused.

We begin to sense the source of Eliza's discontent. She is a woman bored by her husband, bored by her isolated life on the farm. When the itinerant tinker arrives at Eliza's gate, we see that she is a woman who longs for what women's magazines vaguely call “romance.” She wants, among other things, to be admired as a woman. The chrysanthemums that she cultivates so energetically produce great soft blossoms shaped like a woman's breasts. If one wishes to see the flowers as a symbol, they suggest the voluptuous softness of a sexually mature woman. There is no evidence to suggest that Eliza is a sex-starved female, that her husband is perhaps impotent, as Kempton suggests (pp. 122–123). Henry's placidity would seem to indicate the contrary. But neither is Eliza a sexually satisfied woman. Something is lacking in her relationship with Henry, and this something has a great deal to do with sex, but it is not as simple as a need for the sex act alone. This undefined longing becomes more clear as we examine her reaction to the tinker.

Unlike Henry, who has trouble finding the right words to please his wife, the tinker seems to know them intuitively. His greeting to Eliza is a mildly humorous remark about his cowardly mongrel dog: “‘That's a bad dog in a fight when he gets started.’” Eliza gives no dead-pan response as she did to Henry's feeble joke. Instead, “Eliza laughed. ‘I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?’ The man caught up her laughter and echoed it heartly. ‘Sometimes not for weeks and weeks,’ he said.” In contrast with Henry's uninspired comment on the size of her flowers, the tinker remembers that chrysanthemum blooms look “‘like a quick puff of colored smoke.’” Eliza is obviously pleased. “‘That's it. What a nice way to describe them,’” she says.

The man's physical appearance has little about it to warrant such a friendly response: “Eliza saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were greying, he did not look old.”8 His clothes are grease-stained and disheveled, his hands are cracked and dirty. But there is one physical characteristic which would make the man appealing to Eliza: “His eyes were dark, and they were full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and sailors.” Obviously he lacks the honest, dependable virtues of Henry, the virtues a woman should cherish in a husband. But the important thing he has that Henry lacks is an aura of freedom, unpredictability, perhaps adventure, maybe even poetry, which his gypsy life produces. It has got to be this element of the man that attracts Eliza to him. His first reference to his wandering, carefree existence produces an unconscious feminine response from her. The tinker says, “‘I ain't in no hurry ma'am. I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather.’” Eliza removes her unfeminine heavy leather gloves and “touched the under edge of her man's hat, searching for fugitive hairs. ‘That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live,’” she said. But instead of continuing to talk about his roving existence, the tinker begins giving her his sales pitch about mending pots and sharpening knives and scissors. Eliza becomes suddenly distant: “Her eyes hardened with resistance.” She is fast losing patience with him when, in an inspired move, he inquires about her chrysanthemums. She warms towards him again almost at once: “The irritation and resistance melted from Eliza's face.” After the man shrewdly asks her if he can take some sprouts to a customer down the road, she becomes enthusiastic. “Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair”—a movement entirely feminine and essentially seductive. She immediately invites him into the yard.

Eliza is now clearly excited. She scoops up the soil into a flower pot, presses the tender shoots into the damp sand, and describes for him how the plants must be cared for. “She looked deep into his eyes, searchingly. Her mouth opened a little, and she seemed to be listening.” She tells him about her “planting hands,” which pluck buds instinctively and unerringly. But the reader is aware that such emotion could scarcely be generated solely by an enthusiasm for the care and clipping of chrysanthemums. Eliza, kneeling now before the man, “looking up at him,” appears to be experiencing sexual excitement. “Her breasts swelled passionately.” Not breast, but breasts. Not heaved, but swelled. The man is suspicious of her strange behavior, perhaps embarrassed: his “eyes narrowed. He looked away self-consciously.” She has asked him if he understands her feelings, and he begins a response so in keeping with Eliza's mood that she quite forgets herself.

“Maybe I know,” he said. “Sometimes in the night in the wagon there—” Eliza's voice grew husky. She broke in on him. “I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.”

The sexual implications of her last four sentences are unmistakable, yet the sexual impact lies just beneath the surface level of meaning in the phallic imagery. Eliza is, more than likely, unaware of the sexual nature of her outburst, but her next action, while probably still unconsciously motivated, is quite overt. “Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.” The tinker's matter-of-fact comment jolts her at once back to her state of natural reserve: “‘It's nice, just like you say. Only when you don't have no dinner it ain't.’” She is aware that he does not understand after all the feeling of erotic mysticism that she is trying to communicate. “She stood up then, very straight, and her face was ashamed. She held the flower pot out to him and placed it gently in his arms.” To avoid further embarrassment, she goes at once to find some old saucepans for him to fix. After regaining her composure, she returns with the battered pots and chats with him as he works. She pays him for the repairs, and as he is leaving, calls out a reminder to keep the plants watered. She stands watching him go. “Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently, forming the words ‘Good-bye—good-bye.’ Then she whispered, ‘That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.’ The sound of the whisper startled her. She shook herself free and looked about to see whether anyone had been listening. Only the dogs had heard.”

After this the story returns to the portrayal of the relationship between Eliza and her husband, and in the final scenes her feelings toward Henry are clearly revealed. As the tinker's wagon moves out of sight, Eliza quickly returns to the house. The next scene portrays Eliza performing a purification ritual. She felt shame after her display of passion before the stranger. Now she cleanses herself before returning to her husband, the man to whom she should lawfully reach out in desire. “In the bathroom she tore off her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red.” The abrasive action of the pumice suggests expiation for her imagined infidelity. Eliza then studies her naked body in a mirror: “She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest”—movements of a woman who wants to see her figure at its best, but also of a woman gathering resolution. The ceremonial preparation for her evening with Henry also has about it an element of resolve: “After a while she began to dress slowly. … She worked carefully on her hair, pencilled her eyebrows and rouged her lips.” She is steeling herself for the coming evening. “She heard the gate bang shut and set herself for Henry's arrival” (Italics mine). Eliza, ready early, goes out onto the porch and sits “primly and stiffly down” to wait for her husband. “Henry came banging out of the door, shoving his tie inside his vest as he came. Eliza stiffened and her face grew tight.” There follows the passage examined earlier in which Eliza bridles at each of Henry's inept attempts to compliment her. The scene culminates in his ill-chosen simile describing her in her carefully chosen finery as looking strong enough to break a calf over her knee. “For a second she lost her rigidity. ‘Henry! Don't talk like that. You didn't know what you said.’” She seems to lose heart, to wonder if she can abide this insensitive man, but her resolution returns: “She grew complete again. ‘I'm strong,’ she boasted. ‘I never knew before how strong.’”

In the final scene we see this strength tested to the breaking point, finally giving way and dissolving into despair. As the two are driving into town for their festive evening of dinner and a movie, “far ahead on the road Eliza saw a dark speck. She knew.” The tinker has discarded her chrysanthemums, symbol of the femininity which she hopes will inspire the excitement she longs for. But he has kept the pot—an insult on any level of interpretation, to discard her treasure and keep its utilitarian container.

This symbolic rejection produces a need for female revenge in Eliza. The idea of attending a prize fight which was repugnant to her a few hours earlier has its appeal now. She asks Henry whether “the men hurt each other very much” and speculates on “how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests.” But as her anger cools, she realizes the futility of vicarious vengeance. It can do little to salve her damaged ego or save her dying dream. Henry has promised her wine with dinner, and she tries to console herself with this small romantic touch. “‘It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty,’” she tells Henry. But she knows it will not really be enough. She knows that she will always have good, dull, dependable Henry, but how will she keep her mind from whispering, “There has got to be something more exciting, more beautiful in life than this”? No, wine will not be plenty. “She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman”—like an old woman for whom all hope of romance is a thing of the past.


  1. Short Stories for Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), p. 124.

  2. John Steinbeck (New York, 1961), p. 83.

  3. American Fiction: 1920–1940 (New York, 1941), pp. 311–314. Beach was no doubt using the early version of the story which appeared in Harper's in October of 1937, which would account for his having missed the sexuality. The most explicitly sexual passage was added when the story was revised for publication in The Long Valley (New York, 1938). William R. Osborne pointed out the problem in “Texts of Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums' ” in Modern Fiction Studies, XII (Winter 1966–67), 479–484. He may be glad to know that Steinbeck has indicated that the text as published in The Long Valley should be considered the correct version. All references to the story in this paper are, of course, to the revised version.

  4. The Short Story in America: 1900–1950 (Chicago, 1952), p. 48.

  5. The Wide World of John Steinbeck (Brunswick, N.J., 1958), p. 95.

  6. John Steinbeck (New York, 1962), p. 42.

  7. “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies, XI (Spring 1965), 54–58.

  8. Even though this line clearly states that “he did not look old,” West refers to him as “the old man” (p. 48), and Lisca calls him “the old potmender” (p. 95).

Further Reading

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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 keeps happiness forever elusive.”

Noonan, Gerald. “A Note on ‘The Chrysanthemums’. ” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 4 (Winter 1969–70): 542.

Footnote to Elizabeth McMahan's well-known article on the story, noting the use of agricultural language in the story.

Osborne, William R. “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Modern Fiction Studies XII, No. 4 (Winter 1966–67): 479–84.

Comments on the many differences between the two versions of Steinbeck's story, specifically changes Steinbeck made to Elisa and the overall sexual content

Sullivan, Ernest W., II. “The Cur in ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Studies in Short Fiction XVI, No. 3 (Summer 1979): 215–17.

Examines dog imagery in the story.

Thomas, Leroy. “Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” The Explicator XLV, No. 3 (Spring 1987): 50–1.

Brief discussion of the sexual symbolism that accompanies Elisa's encounter with the tinker in “The Chrysanthemums.”

Additional coverage of Steinbeck's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929–1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4, 25–28; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 35; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, 21, 34, 45, 75; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9, 212; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Dramatists Module; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Novelist Module; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 11; Something about the Author, Vol. 9; and World Literature Criticism.

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

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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 sexuality and her interest in gardening, both elements that culminate with the visit from an itinerant fixer. In a lengthy interpretation Mordecai Marcus focuses on Elisa's desire for childbirth2 as relating the elements while Elizabeth McMahan sees the motivation under the general desire for “what women's magazines vaguely call ‘romance.’”3 F. W. Watt is much too brief and ambiguous himself in deciding Elisa's is a “struggle to express and fulfil [sic] desires which are ambiguously sexual and spiritual.”4 Warren French simply notes that “Elisa Allen's passionate affection for the flowers … symbolize her feeling of closeness to a rhythm of nature.”5 Ray B. West, Jr. also sees this story in terms of an “affinity between human passion and the rich soil of the land.”6 Joseph Fontenrose only mentions that the tinker has “awakened dormant urges within her, so that she felt like breaking away from her secure domesticity and taking to the open road.”7 Kenneth Kempton almost gives up, complaining “one can perceive a broad motive [frustration],” and then finds that this motive deteriorates into “symbols of her unmotivated personality.”8

There is motivation here but the majority of critics have so centered on the psychology of Elisa that they have neglected her relationship to the structure of the story and at least a semi-sociological approach that explains the relationship between the sexuality, the garden, and the fixer. In 1958 Peter Lisca dropped a hint (though he never elaborated) about the direction of future interpretation when he noted that “Elisa's silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman (symbolized by her masculine manner of gardening) is triggered by the old pot-mender. …”9 Yet, in 1965 Marcus probably summarized the critical reception by dismissing Lisca's observation as “It is unlikely that Steinbeck was generalizing about a masculine protest in woman. …”10 Often contemporary situations shed new light on old problems, and so it seems that the best way of understanding Elisa Allen, her garden, and her sexuality can be accomplished by regarding her as an embryonic feminist, as Ms. Elisa Allen. In fact, “The Chrysanthemums” can then be read as Steinbeck's response to feminism.

In order to understand this idea fully, it is first necessary to note that Steinbeck has juxtaposed two parallel situations. Henry Allen is the successful owner of a ranch while Elisa Allen works her garden; that is, Elisa's garden functions as a microcosm of Henry's ranch. When the story opens, Elisa's attention and ours focuses on Henry Allen's conversation with two strangers. When Elisa inquires about the purpose of the meeting, Henry explains “They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too.”11 Thus, in the initial section of the story Henry Allen completes a successful business transaction.

The second section of the story likewise pivots around a business deal, Elisa's with the fixer. In fact, an understanding of Elisa is predicated upon seeing the relationship between the results of the two deals. First, however, the initial section has also provided an insight into Elisa's personality. Like her rancher-husband Elisa is always described as working. Furthermore, she is dressed in a masculine manner: in a “man's black hat,” heavy gloves, and a big corduroy apron obscuring the dress which connotes her feminine identity. The Allen home has also been transformed into a masculine structure looking “hardswept” and “hard-polished.” Elisa's lack of satisfaction with the female role is indicated also by her complacency in her ability and desire to extend these abilities into heretofore masculine areas. When Henry notes she has a “strong” crop on the way, Elisa likes the word for its masculine implications and Steinbeck adds, “In her tone and on her face there was a little smugness.” When Henry jokes with her about working in his orchard, Elisa not only knows she is capable of doing it but also boasts about her “planters' hands.” Henry undercuts her response by offering her a typical feminine evening—since she doesn't want to attend the fights—and reminds her he has been “Just fooling.”

In the second section the business transaction begins with the arrival of the fixer who becomes for Elisa what the meat buyers were for Henry. Ms. Allen has learned from Henry how to conduct herself and so she begins by joking with the fixer, who like Elisa is dressed in masculine black. When the fixer asks for directions, Elisa not only gives them but makes a value judgment about his team and again jokes with him.

So far all of Elisa's actions have been conscious and calculated to operate in a masculine world, but after the fixer speaks, her actions becomes less conscious and more feminine. Unconsciously she removes the masculine work gloves and straightens her hair-do. Suddenly the fixer becomes more confident and tries some of his typical, sympathetic appeals to women. But Ms. Allen is ready for traditional approaches. So the fixer, realizing her self-assurance, alters his attack to the point of her expressed pride. But for Elisa her connection with flowers goes deeper than Henry's pride with his cattle.

While the cattle represent successful masculine strength, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa's masculine endeavors that are as illusory as the flowers—“like a quick puff of colored smoke.” In the opening paragraph Steinbeck noted “the yellow-stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December.” Interestingly the fixer is also stubble-bearded and hence illusory in appearance. Furthermore, Steinbeck has Elisa place the chrysanthemums in a pot. In so doing Elisa runs “excitedly” and tears “off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.” Emerging femininity then begins to thwart Elisa's attempt to operate in a masculine society and the main ingredient of Elisa's emotion is, as the pot foreshadows, her basic feminine sexuality. This embryonic sexuality colors and hinders her progress. In fact, as she kneels before the fixer reduced to a “fawning dog,” her speech reveals the inherent weakness of her drive for equality in a masculine world. “I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.”

Elisa is limited by her own feminine self which inextricably couples sexuality with equality. Therefore, Steinbeck seems to indicate that the sexuality inherent in woman prevents her from attaining equality. The fixer's response corroborates this notion. Confronted with a sexually excited woman, the fixer's mind is engaged, not his emotions; in fact, he is able to use Elisa's emotions against her. Initially he responds to her invitation very practically: “It's nice, just like you say. Only when you don't have no dinner, it ain't.” Thus, his appeal is wrapped in sympathy, but unlike Elisa he is not involved with or completely unaware of the emotion. So when Elisa returns with materials to be repaired and her face “ashamed,” she has become her own victim, not really that of the fixer who is now completely “professional.” Caught up in the emotionality of her situation, Elisa's desires for equality are now bathed in failure; “It must be very nice,” Elisa notes, “I wish women could do such things.” After having watched the flaw in her scheme unveil itself, the fixer denies the possibility. Elisa ironically responds “How do you know?” Immediately afterwards she continues her delusion with “I could show you what a woman might do.” But alas, she has already shown what a woman has done when activated by a male.

After the fixer's departure Elisa engages unconsciously in ritualistic purification. However, rather than cleansing herself of released emotion she is unawarely retreating further into pure femininity. Rebuffed in the masculine world she actually cleanses herself of the masculine situation by turning to the feminine world in which she best functions. Putting on her dress and her “newest underclothing” as well as making up her eyes and lips is a total withdrawal from equal competition and an unconscious admission that in her basic feminine nature is her power, not as a fawning supplicant but as an attractive, seductive female.

Upon returning Henry immediately notices her transformation which he so indicates by using the feminine adjective “nice” rather than the more masculine “strong.” Although Elisa prefers “strong,” for her the word's meaning has obviously shifted from “masculine equal” to “feminine overlord” and a false pride in her strength that Henry immediately undercuts. For when he describes her ability in a masculine manner as seeming “strong enough to break a calf over your knee,” she momentarily looses her rigidity and composure. But if equality is impossible, dominance looms as better than suppression. So when Henry goes for the car, she waits until he not only brings it but also tires of waiting before she joins him.

Even before Elisa can discern the true shape of the dark speck, she knows what she has already unconsciously assimilated. In her business deal, which is the true test of her desired equality, she has been less successful than her huband. Where Henry had received almost his price for the cattle, Elisa has received nothing for her chrysanthemums. Instead she has paid the fixer fifty cents to perform a task she admittedly could do. She has failed to communicate with the fixer as he has taken her pot and thrown away the chrysanthemums; more importantly he has stripped her of her dignity and dreams of equality. And finally when he was faced with a fawning, sexually-aroused woman, he rejected her for that, too. Elisa can not even take refuge in her basic sexual femininity. And so she is even further reduced to the wife whose hard work is rewarded simply with a token Saturday night out. She accepts this lesser role by mentioning “It will be good tonight, a good dinner.” Her desires for revenge are useless as she doesn't even want to go to the fights. And in the end her dreams of feminine equality are so shattered that her former state is impossible; she accepts her social role and turns the corner at thirty-five; now she is only “an old woman.”

Mordecai Marcus, trying to negate the feminism in the story, has commented it is “unthinkable that he [Steinbeck] was suggesting that woman's role must be passive. … ”12 Yet, that is exactly what a close analysis of “The Chrysanthemums” reveals. Elisa Allen is no Myra Breckinridge wishing to be Myron but instead the representative of the feminist ideal of equality and its inevitable defeat. The point of the story is not, as previous critics have stressed, that Elisa possesses an unfulfilled sexual need, but rather that the feminist is still a woman and women are fundamentally emotional, as evidenced by tears or sexual arousal. Whereas a man can function unemotionally in the masculine business world and receive nearly his own price, a woman soon operates at less than a rational level and is victimized both by her basic nature and by others. There is nothing to suggest that Elisa's relationship with Henry is sexually inadequate. But Mailer and Miller aside, a woman has other dimensions than the sexual.

However, for Steinbeck a masculine-dominated society has so conditioned a female's basic emotional response that in such situations it is inevitably released. Thus, the fixer is only generically guilty. Moreover Elisa's frustration is compounded by being faced with an unfamiliar situation; a male has aroused her but does not want her—she has become a pure object. Though not to the degree of Hemingway, Steinbeck's world is a man's world, a world that frustrates even minor league women's liberationists.


  1. “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of A Woman's Sexuality,” Modern Fiction Studies, 14 (Winter 1968–1969), 453.

  2. “The Last Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 11 (Spring 1965), 54–8.

  3. McMahan, p. 455.

  4. John Steinbeck (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p. 43.

  5. John Steinbeck (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961), p. 83.

  6. The Short Story in America: 1900–1950 (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1952), p. 48.

  7. John Steinbeck (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963), p. 62.

  8. Short Stories For Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), p. 124.

  9. The Wide World of John Steinbeck (Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 95.

  10. Marcus, p. 58.

  11. All quotations come from The Long Valley (New York: Viking Press, 1958), the revised text Steinbeck designated as proper.

  12. Marcus, p. 58.

Roy S. Simmonds (essay date 1974)

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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 ambiguous relationship which seems to exist between Elisa and her husband, Henry. Surveys of these disparate interpretations have already been provided in Elizabeth E. McMahan's “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality”1 and William V. Miller's more recent essay, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in “The Chrysanthemums',”2 and it is not my intent here to go over such old ground again in detail.

This vexed question of interpretation has been complicated by the fact, as William R. Osborne established in his pioneer textual study,3 that two published versions of the story exist: the version which Osborne designates “Text 1” which appeared in the October 1937 issue of Harper's Magazine and “Text 2” which was first published in the collection The Long Valley (Viking Press, 1938). Osborne regretted that the author had not declared which of the two versions he himself preferred.

According to McMahan, however, Steinbeck “indicated that the text as published in The Long Valley should be considered the correct version.”4 We were thus given an authoritative opinion on the matter and this would seem, on the face of it, to have established a certain sequence of events. Indeed, both McMahan and Miller state that “Text 2” was the version Steinbeck revised for The Long Valley, in the process of which, according to McMahan, the “most explicitly sexual passage was added”5 and, according to Miller, Steinbeck “stressed the sexual imagery”6 of the story. Both these statements unfortunately contain a basic misconception of the true facts, as an examination of the original manuscript of “The Chrysanthemums” will reveal.

It is my purpose in this article to achieve two main objects: firstly, to suggest that the long-accepted view of Elisa as a wholly sympathetic character may possibly be open to question; secondly, to contend that a textual study of the original manuscript of the final version of the story makes it patently obvious that Steinbeck was obliged to tone down some of the sexual implications in the work to mollify the editors of Harper's Magazine.

The manuscript is in the Pascal Covici-John Steinbeck Collection at the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and forms part of the material in a notebook which contains, among other items, the manuscripts of the novel Tortilla Flat and of the short stories “The Murder” and “A Leader of the People.” The manuscript of “The Chrysanthemums,” written in Steinbeck's small but extremely legible handwriting, occupies seven and a half sides of the 33cm. by 21.5cm. white blue-lined paper.

There is ample evidence to demonstrate that Steinbeck experienced some difficulty in getting the story off the ground. A few pages before the full manuscript version there is an earlier abortive version. For ease of reference I shall refer to the first, incomplete, version as “Manuscript A” and the second, complete, version as “Manuscript B.” Steinbeck completed only the first paragraph of “Manuscript A” before he broke off and began setting down his random musings concerning both the story and the current circumstances of his life. He was apparently going through an unhappy period generally. It is possible to fix accurately the date on which he began working on the story for he mentions the date “Wednesday the 31st. January.” The 31st. January fell on a Wednesday in the year 1934.

Steinbeck in these musings endeavours to reassure himself: “This is to be a good story. Two personalities meet [,] cross, flare, die and hate each other. Purple, if it were a little bit stronger, would be a good color for the story.” The mention of the color purple relates to the color of the ink with which he was briefly experimenting. By the following day, he had abandoned the purple ink. “What is there about this story which makes it almost impossible for me to write it[?] There is a section of great ecstasy in it. It is a good story as I see it. I'm having a terrible time writing it. And I should get it done for I suspect I shall get a beastly reception for T.F. [Tortilla Flat] and much as I fight against it, I shall be upset by that reception.” And later: “Now the story of the Chrysanthemums is to go on and may the [L]ord have mercy upon it. A story of great delicacy [,] one difficult to produce. I must do this one well or not at all. I'm getting the feel back.” But he obviously was not. After two more pages, the second of which is impatiently scored through, the text breaks off again. “There's no sureness of touch in me today. I don't seem to be able to get to this story. I shouldn't be writing this story this way at all.”

“Manuscript A” opens with a description of Elisa washing the noonday dishes at the kitchen sink. Her husband, Henry, is in the dining room and she knows he is waiting to tell her something. He is described as a “strange ceremonious man” who needs to arrange things exactly the way he wants before embarking on any announcement. Elisa plainly finds this attitude of his intensely irritating. She deliberately takes her time over the dishes. “She would wear down his patience and then start him wrong. It amused her to do this and it gave her a nice secret sense of power with which to combat the fact that she, Elisa, valedictorian of her class at the Salinas High School, winner of two State wide essay contests was the wife of a fairly successful farmer. She wiped the bottoms of the pans with the dishrag and put them away under the sink. She was not unhappy[,] only, [sic] the essay contests had placed her high, and sometimes this marriage with a farmer seemed to place her rather low.”

When eventually she does go into the dining room she carries out her plan to “start him wrong” by immediately upbraiding Henry for not wiping the soles of his boots properly and, due to his carelessness, treading manure into the house. He protests against this false charge, but she presses the accusation and then further confuses him and ruins his little “ceremony” by asking him what is the “secret” he wishes to tell her. “How did you know?” he asks. “I wish you wouldn't do it. It makes me nervous to have anybody know what I'm thinking. It would make anybody nervous.” He then informs her that he has completed an agreement with a seed company to plant twenty acres of sweet peas on his land. Elisa is delighted when she hears this and is a little ashamed of the way she has treated him. “Why the whole ranch will be perfumed. It will be beautiful. I'm terribly glad[,] Henry.” There then follows a conversation more or less similar to the one in the published version when Henry proposes that they should celebrate by going into town for dinner and jokingly suggests that she might like to go to the fights. After he has left the house to attend to his afternoon's work, she daydreams about the fields of sweet peas in terms which contain explicit phallic imagery: “Twenty acres of sweet peas, solid squares of color and solid columns of scent, big towers of perfume if only you could see them.”

In “Manuscript A,” Henry's personality is more fully delineated than it is in “Manuscript B” and in the published version. He is presented in this earlier version as an unsympathetic and slightly ridiculous character. Elisa's reaction to him also makes her appear somewhat unsympathetic. There is very little subtlety inherent in the marital relationship Steinbeck here describes. Fortunately Steinbeck realized this comparatively early: “I had a story … and on a day I did not feel like writing, I sat down to write it. Two days of work passed before I realized that I was doing it all wrong. And now it must be done again. Subconsciously I knew it was wrong from the beginning. But I blundered on, putting down words every one of which had an untrue ring. …”

A day or so later, he commenced the second—this time successful—attempt to write the story. On the next recto page of the notebook following that on which he recorded his admission of initial failure, the title “The Chrysanthemums” again appears, followed on that page and the ensuing six and a half pages by the first complete draft of the story. The opening sentence differs only very slightly in detail from the opening sentence of the published version: “The high grey flannel fog of winter close[d] off the Salinas valley from the sky and from the rest of the world.” It is remarkable that Steinbeck could, after all the problems he had been encountering, produce in what appears to have been one flowing surge of creativity the short story which Andre Gide compared favorably with the best of Chekhov and which Mordecai Marcus unequivocably regards as “one of the world's great short stories.”7

There are, naturally, considerable differences of detail by way of elaboration, deletion and refinement between “Manuscript B” and the published text. But the progression of the narrative line and the overall construction of the story are identical from one version to the other. A good example of the way in which Steinbeck carried out his revisions to the text is provided near the beginning of the story by comparing the introductory description of Elisa in the “Manuscript B” version with the description in the published version.

The description in “Manuscript B” reads:

Elisa was thirty-five, but she looked older in her gardening costume, a man's hat pulled down on her head, clodhopper shoes and a big corduroy apron, littered with pockets, for snips, a little trowel, and seeds. Elisa wore leather gloves to protect her hands.

The published version is very much expanded:

She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.

This description of Elisa is in fact the passage which has undergone the most considerable elaboration from “Manuscript B” to published version. Steinbeck clearly wished to establish Elisa's physical appearance very carefully. It is surely not without significance that she evolves from the rather shadowy figure of the manuscript version into the almost masculine figure of the published version with her “lean and strong” face, her “blocked and heavy” figure and the “heavy leather gloves” she is wearing. Certainly, from the physical aspect she seems to exude precious little female sexuality. A little later, too, her face is described as “eager and mature and handsome,” which again does not suggest a personality endowed with fragile feminine grace and beauty.

Indeed, as has already been mentioned, it is precisely this question of Elisa's sexuality and the ambiguity of the implied relationships in the story which have so fascinated scholars and commentators. D. H. Lawrence's influence on Steinbeck has often been noted,8 and it is possible to regard Elisa and the tinker as representative Lawrentian characters: Elisa the sexually unfulfilled woman, the tinker the romantically virile man of nature who (only symbolically in this story however) seduces her.

Most scholars to date have postulated the theory that Elisa is a similarly frustrated woman, that her husband is unable to satisfy her sexual hunger. It has even been proposed that Henry is impotent. I would however suggest that there is a case for suspecting that Elisa is the one who is unable or unwilling to satisfy her partner sexually. All her sex drive seems to be directed towards the care and propagation of her flowers, the phallic symbols over which she exercises complete mastery. This feeling that Elisa has for her flowers is perhaps more forcibly expressed in the original wording of the “Manuscript B” text, which is reproduced below, rather than it is in the published text. The words in italics represent Steinbeck's above-the-line revisions and/or additions, and the words in parentheses represent deletions.

It's [w]hen you're budding (your mind and your soul and your love) everything go[es] right down into your finger tips. You watch your fingers work (and) [word illegible] you can feel (the joy in them) how it is.

Elisa's carelessness in the matter of her everyday attire, her obvious reluctance to accept the fact of her femininity—exemplified by the manner in which she scrubs her body after the tinker has left (perhaps an over-reaction to his comment that his sort of existence was not “the right kind of life for a woman” as well as being the symbolic act of purification it is popularly accepted to represent) and by the belligerent manner in which she again over-reacts to her husband's surprised comment on how “nice” she looks dressed up for the trip to Salinas—indicates a personality who rejects the submissive female role, who even finds the act of love wholly distasteful and to be avoided whenever possible. “I'm strong,” she boasts to Henry. “I never knew before how strong.”

In the published version of the story we are given very little information about Henry. Not even the merest mention is made of his physical appearance. He remains a shadowy figure throughout the story and because of this indistinctness it is possible to regard him more sympathetically than the Henry of “Manuscript A.” He is patently the weaker of the two personalities, as indeed he is unequivocably presented in “Manuscript A.” In that first version, as we have seen, Elisa rejoices in her sense of dominance over her husband. Whilst I would agree that there could be considerable dangers in linking characterizations drawn in that first version with the protagonists as presented in “Manuscript B” and the published version, I would nevertheless submit that Eliza's behavior in “Manuscript A” goes some way towards explaining much of her behavior in the published version. The manner in which she mocks her husband when he compliments her upon her appearance and her perverse action in keeping him waiting while she puts on her coat, forcing him to idle the car motor, and then going out the moment he switches off the motor have tended to be regarded as simply her reaction to the tinker's visit and a manifestation of the feeling of discontent he has engendered in her. To my mind, however, these actions are more indicative of what is probably the normal pattern of Elisa's and Henry's married life.

Elisa's need for this sense of dominance over the male is not confined solely to her feelings towards her husband. She experiences this need to assert her superiority over all men, contriving always to keep them at arm's length. Her flower garden is surrounded by a protective wire fence ostensibly to keep out animals, but the fence also serves to exclude her husband and the tinker. It is not until the tinker has verbally seduced her with his assumed interest in her chrysanthemums and is admitted to her side of the fence that Elisa finds her defenses in danger of collapsing to the extent that she almost allows herself to succumb to male dominance. Almost, but not quite. “Kneeling there, her hand went toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.” When eventually she rises to her feet there is a look of shame on her face. Again, the general interpretation has been that her shame is the shame of a married woman briefly tempted by thoughts of possible clandestine sexual adventure. I would alternatively suggest that her shame is the shame of a woman who realizes that she has momentarily lowered her defenses and all but offered herself to the male dominance she so greatly despises. It is significant that for all the sexually-charged atmosphere that exists between Elisa and the tinker during the short time of his visit they never at any point make actual physical contact. She does not touch his trousered legs. She does admittedly hand him the flowerpot and the two saucepans and takes the saucepans back from him, but there would be no touching of hands in doing this. When she comes to pay him, she avoids physical contact by dropping the fifty cent piece into his hand.

Apart from the one little lapse, Elisa maintains, at least in her own mind, her dominance over the tinker. When the man first arrives, she deprecates (in semi-humorous fashion) the prowess of his dog and then of his mismatched team. Later she insists that she would be equal to living his rough open-air life with all that it entails and finally she challenges his own prowess, claiming that she could sharpen scissors and mend pots just as efficiently, if not better, than he.

An examination of the two original manuscript versions of the story thus provides further possible insights into Elisa's true nature and dispels some of the ambiguity that surrounds her. Additionally, such examination does to some extent resolve the confusion that has been generated by the two differing published texts. Even the most superficial examination of “Manuscript B” will show that the “most explicitly sexual passage” added, according to McMahan, when Steinbeck revised “Text 1” to produce “Text 2” for the Viking edition did in fact exist from the very beginning. The “Manuscript B” text reads:

Elisa's voice (was) grew husky. She broke in on him. “I've never lived as you do but I know what you (want to say) mean. When the night is dark—(and) why the stars are sharp pointed and there's quiet. Why you (seem to) rise up and up[.] Every pointed star gets driven into you, into your body. It's like that, hot and sharp and—all lovely.” Kneeling there her hand went out toward his legs in the (dirty) greasy black trousers[,] almost touched the cloth. (Then h) Her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low (and clamped her throat on the rising sobs felt that) like a fawning dog.

The inference is, of course, that the above passage was modified for consumption by the readers of Harper's Magazine and that Steinbeck simply restored the cuts (totalling four sentences) when the story was reprinted in The Long Valley the following year.

Similarly, the Viking text most closely follows the “Manuscript B” text in the passage describing Elisa's sighting of the discarded chrysanthemum shoots. Obviously, the perfect pithiness of the passage as originally written was gauged to be confusing to the magazine's readers and had to be made more expository. The “Manuscript B” text reads:

When far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck (far ahead on the road,)[.] (s)She knew. She tried not to look as they passed it but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself. [“]He might have thrown them off the road—that wouldn't have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot—[“]her throat tightened, [“]he had to keep the pot. That's why he couldn't get them off the road. [”]

And later:

In a moment the thing was done. She did not look back.

In thus establishing firmly the correct sequence of the various texts some doubts must be cast on the validity of the additional expository material contained in “Text 1.” It must be assumed that Steinbeck himself did write it, but reconsidered in the light of what the examination of the manuscripts reveals the description of Elisa's reactions in the Harper's text do not somehow ring true. “She felt ashamed of her strong planter's hands, that were no use, lying palms up in her lap.” The Elisa who comes so clearly into vision, personality-wise in “Manuscript A” and by description in “Manuscript B” and the published versions, would never have been “ashamed” of her planter's hands. Her tears at the end of the story are the tears of a bitter, defeated woman. They stem not from the recognition that the tinker had tricked her into giving him work or from any hurt she might be suffering because he had discarded her precious chrysanthemums almost the moment he was out of sight of the farm. Rather her tears stem from her painful and reluctant acceptance of the fact that the tinker had, by that one action of throwing the flowers away, symbolically re-established the position of male dominance she imagined she had wrested from him, in exactly the same way as over the years she had deprived, emasculated, her husband. This interpretation surely provides a very different reading—though to my mind an equally valid one—from that based on Joseph Warren Beach's early assessment of Elisa as “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book.”9


  1. Elizabeth E. McMahan, “The Chrysanthemums': Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” Modern Fiction Studies, 14 (Winter 1968–69), 453–8.

  2. William V. Miller, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Steinbeck Quarterly, 5 (Summer-Fall 1972), 68–75.

  3. William R. Osborne, “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Winter 1966–67), 479–84.

  4. McMahan, 454.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Miller, 73.

  7. Mordecai Marcus, “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in “The Chrysanthemums',” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring 1965), 54–8.

  8. See Richard F. Peterson's “The God in the Darkness: A Study of John Steinbeck and D. H. Lawrence” in Steinbeck's Literary Dimension: A Guide to Comparative Studies, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973), pp. 67–82 and Reloy Garcia's Steinbeck and D. H. Lawrence: Fictive Voices and the Ethical Imperative (Steinbeck Monograph Series, No. 2, 1972).

  9. Joseph Warren Beach, “John Steinbeck: Journeyman Artist,” in Steinbeck and His Critics, ed. E. W. Tedlock, Jr. and C. V. Wicker (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1957), p. 83.

    Quotations from the unpublished manuscripts of “The Chrysanthemums” are used by courtesy of the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.

Stanley Renner (essay date 1985)

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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, included in the feminist canon.1 Indeed, in the criticism of this period, “The Chrysanthemums” emerges as something of a feminist tract. The keynote was sounded in the late Fifties when Peter Lisca commented on “Elisa's silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman” (95). As the woman's movement gathered momentum, critics enthusiastically followed the lead, and the standard reading developed: “The Chrysanthemums” is a story about a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman's role in a world dominated by men. Her husband, decent but dull, excludes her from the important business of the ranch. Content with the way things are in their marriage, he ignores her lack of fulfillment in keeping house and raising flowers. When an itinerant tinker happens by, Elisa's latent yearnings are awakened for the larger life that men enjoy of significant work, adventure, and sexual expression; and when she entrusts the tinker with cuttings from her chrysanthemums, she, in effect, reaches out to the wider world. But the tinker dumps her flowers in the public thoroughfare, thus rejecting her gesture toward a larger life, and she remains a pitiable victim of male domination and female disadvantage.2

I must make it clear at the outset that I have no objection to stories such as the one I have summarized. I simply want to question whether the story as it appears in the criticism is the one Steinbeck wrote. He himself implied that “The Chrysanthemums” might have a delayed and surprising impact on the reader (Steinbeck and Wallsten 91). The closer one looks at the story, the more one sees that the prevailing interpretation fails to square with its figurative design and structure, in which the female protagonist appears to be less a woman imprisoned by men than one who secures herself within a fortress of sexual reticence and self-withholding defensiveness. For one thing, Elisa Allen is a good deal more like the monstrously narcissistic Mary Teller of “The White Quail,” companion piece to “The Chrysanthemums,” than has yet been perceived. For another, the story's central image and its main and recurring action are a virtual obverse of the feminist view of a woman smothered by male domination. Finally, although, of course, biography need not inevitably determine a writer's perspective, Steinbeck's feelings about his marriage at the time the story was written were far from those of the implied author who would have written the essentially feminist version of the story.

As they are juxtaposed in The Long Valley, “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail” are also often juxtaposed in discussions of Steinbeck's short fiction. Because of the presumption that the former is sympathetic to the female protagonist's plight and the latter is clearly not, Elisa Allen and Mary Teller are customarily discussed in terms of contrast.3 In balance, I believe the story far more strongly supports the opposite conclusion: although there are minor differences between Elisa and Mary, physically and emotionally they are very much the same woman presented in different fictional contexts. “The White Quail” is something of a fable about a narcissistic female withholding herself from the grossness of physical intimacy in a marital relationship. To a significant extent “The Chrysanthemums” puts a quite similar female protagonist into a different kind of story, one more balanced and realistic.

Both Elisa and Mary, for example, are named after women famous for their virginity: Mary, of course, after the Madonna, whose virginity bespeaks her deeply spiritual calling, and Elisa for the Virgin Queen, whose virginity is associated with sexual reticence and fear. Both are married to men named Henry (Harry is a diminutive of Henry), meaning “ruler of a home or enclosure.” The husband's name is ironic in both cases: Elisa and Mary are both associated with enclosures, but they control the enclosures, rejecting their husbands' attempts to enter. In physical terms both women are attractive. Mary is repeatedly described as pretty, while Elisa, perhaps because she is older, is described as “handsome” (10). Both, we are to understand, have a good deal of sex appeal. Mary makes her husband “kind of—hungry” (29); Elisa, with her “dark pretty hair” (16), green thumb, and aura of glowing health and physical vitality, seems ripe for sensual enjoyment and sexual completion. Yet both women are childless. Both have their own room and presumably sleep apart from their husbands. Both women repulse the amorous advances of their husbands. Mary occasionally lets Harry kiss her, but when, night after night, he tries the door of her bedroom, he always finds it locked. Elisa, as we shall see, characteristically stiffens and turns cold at the approach of Henry, even as they prepare for a romantic evening in town.

Both Elisa and Mary are almost compulsive gardeners. Both grow flowers that, by universal agreement, symbolize themselves, their beauty, their femininity, and their sexuality. The gardens are carefully protected from natural intruders, Mary's by a cordon of fuchsias, Elisa's by a chicken-wire fence. In their gardens both women wear clothing that protects them from injury and contamination by the earth from which their flowers grow and from the insidious crawling predators that threaten their flowers. In “The White Quail” these predators have been recognized as suggestive of the sexual threat to Mary's fastidious sensibilities. In fact, both Mary and Elisa manifest an aversion to things such as “dirt, rust, disorder, and slimy things like the slugs” that represent the grosser implications of sexuality to their refined, carefully cultivated femininity symbolized by the flowers (Mitchell 308). Elisa's house is a virtual fortress—“hard swept” and “close-banked” all around with “red geraniums”—against the muddy earth and animal predators that threaten Elisa as flower (10). And in both cases the delicate, untouched flowers, associated with their femininity, stand as a sterile substitute for the children they do not have.

These extensive and detailed likenesses indicate not merely the close similarity between the two characterizations but a certain kind of similarity. In the paradoxical asexuality of these sexually appealing women we see the figure of woman rejecting her natural biological role in marriage. This is clearly true of Mary Teller, who has determinedly contrived to secure herself within a protective fortress of idealism, symbolized by the garden, which is pointedly identified as “herself” (28). In “The White Quail” Steinbeck attacks the idealization of love, woman, and marriage that has troubled Anglo-American culture since Victorian times.4 As Mary withdraws from the sexual component of the marital relationship into her garden of the ideal, her husband, who in his conscious mind supports his wife's idealism, experiences a growing unconscious sexual frustration, which explodes in unintended violence in the story's striking climax. The figurative structure of “The Chrysanthemums” suggests that the problem in the Allens' marriage is an extension of the conflict in “The White Quail,” but with the emphasis on the consequences to the woman in such a sterile relationship instead of to the man.

The central image of “The Chrysanthemums” is that of a woman inside a fenced-in enclosure, cultivating flowers that symbolize her femininity. The central action of the story is that of men coming up to the fence and either inviting her to come out of the enclosure or endeavoring to be admitted inside the fence. The action unfolds in three movements. First, Elisa's husband, Henry, comes up to the fence to invite his wife out for an evening in town. She accepts his invitation, but he remains outside the fence, and she remains inside. Next, an itinerant handyman, an utter stranger, comes up to the fence and after some maneuvering is welcomed inside the enclosure. He carries off cuttings of her prized flowers, generally recognized as symbols of her vibrant, but somehow unfulfilled, sexuality. In the third movement, actually a continuation of the first, Elisa comes out of her garden and the couple get ready for the evening; but, curiously, she acts as though she is still inside her wire fence, and as the couple head for town it remains unclear, perhaps doubtful, whether her husband will be admitted inside her enclosure.

The focus of the action is the garden, a rich and complex symbol of Elisa's strong and healthy female potentiality. The flowers, as Elisabeth E. McMahan observes, suggest her ripe, glowing sex appeal: with “great soft blossoms shaped like a woman's breasts … they suggest the voluptuous softness of a sexually mature woman” (455). The descriptions of Elisa's skillful and productive gardening show that she is indeed a woman with capabilities far beyond those engaged by her flowers. Readers have been quick to note that at thirty-five she is still childless; thus, when the story states that the flowers “seemed too small and easy for her energy” (10), the rich sexual implications of the figurative context immediately call attention to the paradox of Elisa: here is a woman characterized as the epitome of sexual ripeness, a woman who seems to have been created in every way for reproduction—with the sex appeal to attract fertilization, the physical vitality to produce healthy offspring, and the strength, skill, and temperament to nurture living things through the growth cycle—but who, though she has been married presumably for several years, has no child. It is a major function of the figurative design of “The Chrysanthemums” to raise and answer the question “why?”

But the standard explanation, that Elisa's rich potential is being denied by the limiting conception of what a woman is and can do in a man's world, simply does not square with the figurative design of “The Chrysanthemums.” The central figure of the story that emerges from the criticism is that of a woman imprisoned by men—the disadvantaged female fenced inside a garden of feminine triviality by a nexus of attitudes and circumstances by which men have asserted and maintained dominance over women. But in the actual story the central figure is that of a woman who has secured herself inside her own protective garden, fenced in against the unwelcome intrusion of men. Far from fencing Elisa inside the garden, the men in the story try to get her out from behind her fence or to open her fence to let them in.

In the story's terms there can be little doubt that the garden and fence are Elisa's own rather than imposed on her by her husband, men, or society. We first see her “working in her flower garden” behind a protective “wire fence” pointedly identified as “Elisa's wire fence” and “her wire fence” (9, 11, 13, 20). After the introduction, which establishes the natural setting to suggest a potential fertility not being fulfilled, the action begins. Elisa is in her garden, dressed in clothing that hides and protects her femininity, engaged in cultivating her flowers; Henry is across the yard selling the steers. The first movement of the action dramatizes Henry's approach to Elisa's fence and her response. Henry's approach is gentle, considerate—anything but that of the dominant male: “He had come near quietly, and he leaned over the wire fence” behind which Elisa and her flowers are protected from predators. In response Elisa “straightened her back and pulled on the gardening glove again” (11), behavior that seems natural enough but through repetition will come to suggest that she characteristically stiffens, puts on protective clothing, and erects defenses against her husband's approach.

What follows does not support the prevailing view of Elisa as relegated to the triviality of gardening and to “the passive role required of her as a woman” (my emphasis). Quite the contrary. In this scene she is extended two invitations to come out from behind her fence and join her husband in a more productive life: first to work in the orchard and “raise some apples” and then to go out with him for an evening in town. To grasp the full implications of the story's botanical symbolism, it is useful to remember Steinbeck's keen interest in biology, which began in the early Twenties.

Elisa's flowers are generally understood in the broad sense as evidence of her rich potential to take a more meaningful place in society and in a narrower sense as symbolic of her “very earthy sensuality” (Mitchell 305), her blooming but unrealized fertility, her “sublimation of powerful sexual desires” (Miller 70). In the light of Henry's invitation to raise apples, however, it is important to note that growing flowers is a fruitless occupation. In the life cycle of plants the flower stage is intermediate: a seed is planted and germinates, a plant grows and flowers, the flower is fertilized and develops into fruit containing the seeds of the next generation. If Elisa grows nothing but flowers, her life will remain sterile. But now it is vital to note how she grows flowers—asexually. The point of Steinbeck's elaborate descriptions of Elisa meticulously perpetuating her chrysanthemums by transplanting cuttings taken from the old stalks is that she methodically subverts the sexual method of reproduction in which the male stamen deposits pollen on the female pistil, fertilizing the flower and completing the reproductive cycle. Thus Elisa's garden will never bear fruit because her flowers will never be fertilized. Furthermore, her “over-eager” wielding of “powerful scissors,” “cutting down the old year's chrysanthemum stalks” (10) standing erect, one may presume, to fulfill their reproductive purpose, is full of ominous sexual portent. William V. Miller has observed that “the flower stems can be regarded in the story's context as phallic,” but he sees them as representing the masculine side of Elisa's ambiguous sexuality (70). It is far more faithful to the story's figurative logic to see her cutting down the phallic stems as an emasculation of the male principle. One must therefore question the view that the Allens' marriage “satisfies Henry completely” (McMahan 454) or that “there is no convincing evidence that their marriage fails in the sex act” (Miller 74).5 Analyzing the curious infertility of a voluptuous female such as Elisa, McMahan finds no evidence of impotence in Henry (455). But as the natural image most closely associated with Elisa is the flower, so the natural image associated with Henry is the steer. It is an interesting measure of the urbanization of American life that even in the middle of Illinois very few of my students (and no critics of the story, to my knowledge) are aware that a steer is a castrated male cow. Very far from representing “successful masculine strength,” then, as Charles A. Sweet, Jr., declares (212), the cattle in “The Chrysanthemums” suggest instead the extent to which Henry has been unmanned in his marriage to Elisa.6

Both Elisa and Henry are associated with images of sterility; small wonder their marriage remains infertile. But it does not appear in the terms of the story that, as Shigeharu Yano asserts, Elisa's “husband is the cause of her frustration” (56). It is she who has fenced herself inside her own garden. In keeping with traditional symbolism, both the woman herself and her sexual organs may be represented in the flower image. Thus Elisa is the sterile flower: avoiding completion of the reproductive cycle, she will produce no new life, only the perpetuation of her sterile beauty and pointless sex appeal. Thus, also, the flower of her sexual enclosure is fenced off, like the garden, against entry and fertilization by the male. Thus, finally, although Henry is not technically impotent, as we shall see, he has been rendered effectively sterile by Elisa's subversion of the natural sexual process.

Approached through the story's figurative design, Henry's invitation to Elisa to come out of her garden and to produce fruit should be understood as an appeal for her to join him in a procreative conjugal relationship. In perhaps the most thoughtless application of the feminist approach to the story, “Henry jokes with her about working in his orchard”—merely mocking her frustrated feminist “desires for equality” with men (Sweet 211, 212). But it is not until sixteen lines later in The Long Valley, that “Henry put on his joking tone.” Although he keeps his feelings under control, except momentarily in the third movement, his veiled plea for a sexually productive marriage is in utter earnest. To judge the precise emotion informing Henry's invitation, it may be well to remember that Steinbeck himself wanted children and that his first marriage, which remained childless, was several years along when “The Chrysanthemums” was written.7

Henry's second invitation may now be seen as a logical continuation of the first: he asks his wife, in effect, for a date, thus initiating a time-honored ritual of courtship leading, especially for a married couple, toward culmination in sexual intimacy. Presumably, Saturday night in Salinas, dinner at the Cominos Hotel, and a movie afterwards are the best within reach of this ranch couple in the way of a romantic evening. But in this story replete with sexual imagery, both overt and oblique, the sexual implications of the invitation must be recognized. Henry is wooing his wife in the best tradition of the marriage manuals of the era: to enjoy a successful sexual relationship, because of the woman's more diffuse, more reticent, more emotional sexuality, the husband must continue to court his wife as a romantic lover. Although Elisa accepts Henry's invitation, she remains inside her fence; and her response to the erotic implications of his invitation is unpromising: “It's good,” she says only, “to eat away from home” (12).

In the second movement of the action the tinker “pull[s] up to Elisa's wire fence” (13) and maneuvers to get inside. The explicit and oblique sexual imagery in this episode indicates pretty clearly that what is taking place is another implied sexual encounter between male and female, its successive stages marked by the tinker's progress through Elisa's fence. It is a classic confrontation between the hungry male and the reluctant female, who has no complementary hunger to satisfy. The tinker is the man with a sexual need, with brooding eyes like those “of teamsters and sailors” (13–14)—wandering men without women. Elisa is the woman who feels no sexual need, aloof and wary in her protective clothing behind her wire fence. What takes place, on the figurative level, is oblique sexual sparring as the tinker maneuvers to penetrate the enclosure of the female, discovers a weakness in her defenses, exploits it, and wins admittance inside Elisa's fence. First he rests his hands “on the wire fence”; then “He drew a big finger down the chicken wire” as if testing the fence. As he communicates his need to Elisa, “He leaned confidentially over the fence”; however, needing nothing from him, Elisa's “eyes hardened with resistance” (14). Getting nowhere, the tinker enjoys a flash of intuition. He has assumed in the female a physically oriented sexuality complementary to his own, symbolized by the pots—the containers—he is proposing to service; but Elisa's is an emotionally oriented sexuality, inner and spiritual, symbolized by the flowers that are contained in pots. When the tinker begins to court Elisa through her flowers instead of her pots, even making her a poem with delicate sexual implications about the flower she is protecting (“‘Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?’”), she immediately begins to dismantle her defenses, removing her protective clothing (“The gloves were forgotten now”) and admitting the tinker “through the picket gate” and “into the yard” (15–16).

Although what happens may be only fantasized sexual surrender on Elisa's part, the imagery implies that, in the vernacular, she goes all the way. In explicit terms she voices her sexual arousal, describing the sensations of penetration somewhat ambivalently as “‘Hot and sharp and—lovely’” (18), betrays her tumescence (“Her breast swelled passionately”8), and presents herself, as Marilyn L. Mitchell recognizes, “in the traditional female position for intercourse” (313). But the act is completed only in more oblique terms: the tinker does penetrate Elisa's enclosure as, simultaneously, in admitting him inside she opens her flower to him, shaking out “her dark pretty hair” (16). She does allow him in the end to service her pots, and when he leaves, he takes cuttings from her flowers, which, in vulgar terms of sexual conquest that might have crossed Steinbeck's mind, amounts to “getting a piece.”

The last movement of the story, as Elisa and Henry bathe, dress, and set out for Salinas, reveals the outcome of Henry's courtship of his wife. Elisa's savage excoriation of her body as she bathes is usually understood as self-punishment for her fantasized unfaithfulness to Henry with the tinker.9 But even more pertinently it dramatizes her sexual ambivalence—not the conflict between masculine and feminine impulses within her but between her glowing biological sexuality and her deep aversion to the earthy and animalistic realities of sexual life.10 In the scene Steinbeck sets up an ironic counterpoint between a beauty magazine stereotype of the lovely woman bathing and dressing for a romantic evening and Elisa's ambivalent behavior. Instead of soaking langorously in her beauty bath, sensuously laving her delicate skin with fragrant feminine soap, she furiously attacks her body with harsh abrasive soap—Lava, perhaps. Dressing for the evening, she puts on clothing that emphasizes her sex appeal. She even puts on “her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings,” an act of forethought that can only mean her awareness of the sexual implications of the evening, and pencils her eyebrows and rouges her lips like a courtesan. Yet when her husband comes to the house, instead of responding with the warm glow of romantic anticipation that these preparations imply, she “set herself for Henry's arrival” (20–21).

Although in body she is outside the fence, throughout this entire movement Elisa continues to erect barriers against her husband's courtship. As Henry hurries to get ready, she awaits him “primly and stiffly,” her lack of romantic warmth underscored by the “frosted leaves,” “high grey fog,” “thin band of sunshine,” and general Hardyesque neutral tones of “the grey afternoon” and the landscape in which “She sat unmoving” and unseeing. When Henry appears, she “stiffened and her face grew tight.” Surprised and pleased by his wife's attractiveness, because she usually dresses to hide her sex appeal and thus to avoid activating his libido, Henry allows himself a surge of hopeful anticipation that his courtship is being successful and responds with a startled compliment to Elisa's unusual display of sexual attractiveness. But emotionally she is still inside her fence: she bristles with wiry defensiveness. Getting mixed signals from this cold stiff woman dressed to excite his sexual admiration, Henry naturally “looked bewildered. ‘You're playing some kind of a game,’ he said helplessly” (21). Having stifled his ardent response to her sex appeal, Elisa now reasserts her strong control over the relationship, which resumes its usual course, and Henry gets his emotion under control again: “when he brought his eyes back to her, they were his own again” (22).

This scene, showing Elisa turning away her husband's courtship, dramatizes what is wrong with the Allens' marriage and answers the story's central question: why is Elisa's life unfulfilled? Steinbeck concludes the scene with what may be a trifle too much ingenuity:

Elisa went into the house. She heard him drive to the gate and idle down his motor, and then she took a long time to put on her hat. She pulled it here and pressed it there. When Henry turned the motor off she slipped into her coat and went out. (22)

Perhaps only now, concerned with conserving gasoline, are we struck by this curious and wasteful stalling. But it reveals how Elisa controls Henry's sexual interest in her: she keeps clear of him until his passion, awakened by her sex appeal, has cooled—until he idles down his motor and turns it off. Although he passes over the pointed sexual implications of the passage, Roy S. Simmonds observes that this behavior is likely “indicative of what is probably the normal pattern of Elisa's and Henry's married life” (108).

Now it becomes clear how the story works. It is about the Allens' marital relationship, and its main line of development dramatizes a husband's unsuccessful courtship of his sexually reticent wife. The central drama is interrupted by the episode of the tinker, which shows his success in getting through Elisa's fence, with all the sexual implications previously noted. This structure invites the hypothesis that the interaction between Elisa and the tinker is designed to illuminate the central drama of husband and wife and immediately raises the question: why does the husband fail while the utter stranger succeeds? The answer, I suggest, lies in the familiar observation that, unlike men, women incline more toward romantic fantasies of sex than the act of love itself.11 Clearly Elisa romanticizes the tinker. In the critical literature the tone of “The Chrysanthemums” is felt to be deeply sympathetic to her frustration, but there is a strong undercurrent of ironic impatience with Elisa's refusal of her sexual role that comes closest to the surface in the pointed contrast between the scruffy tinker, to whom she responds sexually, and clean-cut Henry, whom she turns away. In ironic mockery of Elisa's great and perverse capacity for romanticizing reality, Steinbeck makes everything about the tinker the utter antithesis of her fastidious tidiness, which symbolizes her delicate sexual sensibility. Unshaven, unwashed, his clothes “wrinkled and spotted with grease,” he represents everything she furiously purges from her garden and scrubs out of her house. Yet she fantasizes sexual intercourse with him when he gratifies her hunger for romance because it is only a fantasy: he will presently climb back into his slovenly wagon and ride away into the romantic sunset. Henry, clean and reliable if a bit stodgy and clumsy, is reality pressing against Elisa's fence seeking an actual sexual relationship. But in rejecting reality, albeit unideal, as reality always is, for a patently falsified romantic fantasy, she defeats her own impulses toward a fuller life.

The consequences of Elisa's rejection of reality, and thus of life itself, are what we see in the coda, as the couple drive to town, back now in the rut of sexual inactivity that characterizes their marital life. Desiring only an ideal romantic love, Elisa has repulsed Henry's sexual overtures, but on the road to Salinas her hopes of being loved spiritually, poetically, ideally, are decisively crushed. She had responded ecstatically to the tinker's wooing of her inner selfhood, her soul, symbolized by the flowers that are the essence of her self. But he has only fed her a line, as the saying goes, in a calculated strategy to get through her defenses. The story dramatizes a familiar aspect of the battle of the sexes: women's resentment toward the direct genital nature of male sexuality. Henry's libido is activated by Elisa's sex appeal, so she hides her feminine charms from him, holding out for a more spiritual love. Nor is she deceived by his dinner invitation; she icily spurns the sexual implications of the evening. But then she discovers that the tinker, who had only pretended to admire her flowers—her inner spiritual being—had been interested only in her pot—her physical exterior: he kept the pot and discarded the flowers. Thus Elisa gives up on life. It is not what she dreamed of. There is no hope.12

I will not say that the story is utterly devoid of sympathy for Elisa's frustration, but it is critical of her refusal of life because it does not measure up to her ideal specifications. The brutal truth, in the story's biological terms, is that men are drawn to the external sex appeal of women, as Elisa's garden attracts earthy predators hungry to feed on her flowers. In view of the reality of sexual predation, the tinker does more than repulse Elisa's feminist desire for equality with men when he tells her that his life “ain't the right kind … for a woman.” He speaks the truth: a woman would be threatened “with animals creeping under the wagon all night” (19). But the story laments Elisa's response to this problematical reality: in rejecting it she rejects the only way to fulfillment, because, in the story's terms, reality, however unideal it is, is all there is. Steinbeck would later observe that “Sex is a kind of war” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 509), thus clarifying after the fact the pugilistic metaphor of “The Chrysanthemums.” Elisa's fenced-in enclosure is suggestive of the ring in which the fights Henry jokingly invites her to attend with him will take place. But because she cannot accept the kind of activity that goes on between male and female in the sexual arena, she refuses men, including her husband, admittance into the ring. Thus she stands alone, splendidly constituted physically for sexual life, but self-defeated emotionally, refusing the interaction that could bring, if not the ideal fulfillment she yearns for, at least the only fulfillment reality can provide.

For those who still want to see the tinker's sensitivity to Elisa's yearning as a positive foil for Henry's failure to provide the romance she craves, it is well to remember that he merely contrives to get inside her fence, brusquely making clear that there is no place for her in his wagon. Henry invites her to come out of her refuge of delicacy and to join him in a productive relationship. The tinker's poetic admiration of Elisa's flowers, her spiritual beauty, is pure calculation: he desires only to gain access to her pot. Henry's prosaic clumsiness is at least guileless and sincere, his overtures to Elisa considerate and straightforward. Indeed, he treats her more as an equal than, like the tinker, as a weaker vessel whose revulsion at the grossness of sexual reality and romantic yearning for a more poetically idealized love must be indulged before she can bring herself to respond in a sexual relationship. Let us at last be fair to Henry: he makes all the overtures toward a fuller relationship with Elisa, and she erects all the barriers. In preferring the tinker over Henry she foolishly chooses the negative over the positive manifestation of the same reality: to wit, that men tend to be interested more in a woman's body than in her soul, to desire a physical rather than spiritual love. The tinker is no more concerned about Elisa's emotional needs than Henry. But Elisa rejects Henry's honest invitation to meet him halfway, on equal terms, in a true procreative marriage, for the tinker's manipulative indulgence of her romantic delicacy. Ironically, it is the tinker who is the real chauvinist in the story: he treats Elisa as a weaker being, pampers and exploits her feminine weakness, and makes a sexual conquest. And thus Elisa invites her own exploitation, her subsequent disillusionment on the road to Salinas, and her ultimate defeat by life.

But may we not argue that the story is in the eye of the beholder—that to a feminist reader it may yet be read as a dramatization of woman's disability in a man's world and that the reading presented here merely reveals the masculine viewpoint of the writer? I am afraid not. Though, to be sure, in real life women have been and are fenced inside a garden of unproductive triviality in a world dominated by men, the story's evidence does not support the view that Elisa is a woman kept from fulfillment by male domination. Nor is there, in point of fact, any evidence that she is deliberately excluded from the important business of the ranch. The mere fact that we do not see her participating in the sale of the steers, together with our knowledge that women are and have been excluded from the conduct of the world, does not mean that, ipso facto, in this story the female protagonist is deliberately or even unintentionally prevented from participating in the financial affairs of the ranch. It must be said, I fear, that these assumptions have been imported into the story, where they are not supported by evidence, from the outside world, where they are. The prevailing opinion on “The Chrysanthemums” thus stands as a cautionary lesson in the way criticism may be swept up and misdirected by the sympathies and enthusiasms of the moment.

Perhaps the criticism of “The Chrysanthemums” might have gotten off on sounder footing if its early critics had had access to Steinbeck's letters, published in 1975, which reveal his attitude toward his own marital relationship in the early Thirties when the story was written. To be sure, the letters reflect only his side of the story, and his impressions of the marriage are retrospective. And, of course, it does not inevitably follow that the marriage he presents in the story must necessarily be the one he was experiencing at the time he wrote it. Nevertheless, it is at least instructive that the relationship he looks back on in the early Forties, just after it broke up, is remarkably like the one presented in this discussion—in which the wife fences her husband out of a fulfilling sexual relationship—and not at all like the one implied in the prevailing criticism—in which the wife is fenced in by her husband's dominance and complacency. A brief summary must suffice of what becomes in the letters of the early Forties—and again in the late Forties after the breakup of Steinbeck's second marriage, ironically over much the same kind of conflict—a litany of frustration and bitterness at female sexual reticence. Clearly the problem in both cases involved sexual incompatibility. Although he had “tried for thirteen years,” Steinbeck felt that he had “never been welcome” to his first wife; “maybe,” he muses, “I'm good enough for someone else … who thinks in terms of giving as well as receiving” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 234, 240). With pointed reference to his first wife, he describes his new love interest as a woman who “likes being a woman and likes being in love,” adding “This is a new experience for me” (242). As the underlying incompatibility of his second marriage approaches its climax, he writes of “natural spinsters” who “make much better mistresses than wives. They don't have to do it very often that way” (301). Steinbeck is not totally blind to the woman's plight in such a relationship: “It is an old story of female frustration,” he observes, referring to his second wife: “She wants something I can't give her so she must go on looking.” But the remark reveals more frustration at woman's unfulfillable idealism than sympathy for her disadvantage, for “maybe she will never find out that no one can give it to her” (319).

The clear import of Steinbeck's letters is that when he wrote “The Chrysanthemums” he was experiencing a frustrating marriage to a sexually reticent woman much like the relationship traced out in the foregoing analysis. The emotions that find a fictional outlet in the story are thus, presumably, those that he articulates openly years later when, now twice bitten, he comes to terms with the wreckage of his first two marriages. In what may be taken as one of his definitive observations on marriage (he claims it is “anything else” than “bitterness” [344]) he sums up the feelings that have evidently been developing through the years. And they are not feelings that would be likely to result in a story about women's disadvantage in a man's world:

the breed of American women … they have the minds of whores and the vaginas of Presbyterians. They are trained by their mothers in a contempt for men. … The American girl makes a servant of her husband and then finds him contemptible for being a servant. American married life is the doormat to the whore house. … The impulse of the American woman to geld her husband and castrate her sons is very strong. (343)

I suspect that this is the sentiment, in an early stage of development, that underlies the characterizations of Mary Teller and Elisa Allen, who shut their husbands out of a full sexual relationship in marriage. And in the weak, gelded husbands of these ironically strong women, Steinbeck appears to be dramatizing his own role in his first two marriages: “Well,” he concludes, “I guess I wasn't a man or I wouldn't have put up with it” (343–344).

One feels some reluctance in depriving a writer of critical esteem, but it must be said that, at least for “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail,” Steinbeck is undeserving of the feminist acclaim he has received over the last twenty-five years. Actually, the story is informed far less by feminist sympathies than by traditional “masculist” complaints: against the sexual unresponsiveness of the female, against an ambivalent female sexuality that both invites and repels male admiration, against the female's rejection of her biological role, against the sexual delicacy of the female, who, repelled by sexual reality, holds out for indulgence of her emotional and spiritual yearnings, and ultimately against female control over the sexual relationship itself.


  1. It is included, for example, in the anthology The Experience of American Woman, where it is presented as the story of a woman “who has been relegated to performing activities which require only a fraction of her ability” and who comes to the painful awareness of “what a meager outlet she has for the energy and talent she possesses” (Solomon 13–14).

    Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 1985. Copyright © by Purdue Research Foundation. All rights to reproduction in any form reserved.

  2. Following is a representative sampling of the opinion I have summarized. Elisa is “a woman seeking a satisfactory identity” (Miller 72). The story is about the struggle of “strong women who must somehow express themselves meaningfully within the narrow possibilities open to women in a man's world.” Elisa is “deliberately excluded” from the masculine “sphere of money, tobacco, and machines” (Mitchell 304, 311). She is “the representative of the feminist ideal of equality and its inevitable defeat” in “a masculine-dominated society” (Sweet 213, 214). “Her husband is the cause of her frustration” (Yano 56). She suffers from his “lack of understanding and affection” (McCarthy 27). Married to a dull, insensitive man, her need for romance makes her reach out to the tinker (McMahan 458). But “when Elisa threatened to encroach upon male territory, she was rebuffed and shepherded back to the refuge of her submissive and unproductive place” (Sullivan 217). A dissenting voice is that of Roy S. Simmonds, who suggests that “the long-accepted view of Elisa as a wholly sympathetic character may possibly be open to question” (103).

  3. Typical of this assumption is Yano's characterization of Mary Teller as “a woman who frustrates her husband” and of Elisa Allen as “a woman who is frustrated” (59). Similarly, Mitchell declares that although there are similarities in situation and setting, “Physically as well as emotionally … Elisa and Mary are almost complete opposites” (310).

  4. See, for example, Rugoff, especially Chapter Three, “The Worship of Respectability” (35–45).

  5. Sweet agrees that “there is nothing to suggest that Elisa's relationship with Henry is sexually inadequate” (213).

  6. Simmonds agrees that “there is a case for suspecting that Elisa is the one who is unable or unwilling to satisfy her partner sexually” and that “over the years she had deprived, emasculated, her husband” (107, 111).

  7. As Steinbeck, musing over the failure of his first marriage, sets out what he expects from his second, he writes “I want some babies” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 240).

  8. I have found no support in any published version of the story for McMahan's quotation of this passage: “Her breasts swelled passionately” (457).

  9. See, for example, McMahan (458) and Mitchell (313).

  10. Simmonds notices in this scene Elisa's “obvious reluctance to accept the fact of her femininity” (108).

  11. Simmonds describes Elisa as a woman “who even finds the act of love wholly distasteful and to be avoided whenever possible” (108).

  12. Simmonds interprets Elisa's defeat as “her painful and reluctant acceptance of the fact that the tinker had, by that one action of throwing the flowers away, symbolically re-established the position of male dominance she imagined she had wrested from him” (110–111). I prefer to see it rather as a case of defeated romanticism.

Works Cited

Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1958.

McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Ungar, 1980.

McMahan, Elisabeth E. “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality.” Modern Fiction Studies 14 (1968–69): 453–458.

Miller, William V. “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” Steinbeck Quarterly 5 (1972): 68–75.

Mitchell, Marilyn L. “Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories.” Southwest Review 61 (1976): 304–315.

Rugoff, Milton. Prudery and Passion: A Study of Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Putnam, 1971.

Simmonds, Roy S. “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” Steinbeck Quarterly 7 (1974): 102–111.

Solomon, Barbara H., ed. The Experience of American Woman. New York: NAL, 1978.

Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten, eds. John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: Viking, 1975.

Steinbeck, John. The Long Valley. New York: Viking, 1958.

Sullivan, Ernest W. “The Cur in ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” Studies in Short Fiction 16 (1979): 215–217.

Sweet, Charles A., Jr. “Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” Modern Fiction Studies 20 (1974): 210–214.

Yano, Shigeharu. “Psychological Interpretations of Steinbeck's Women in The Long Valley.” John Steinbeck: East and West. Ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi, et al. Steinbeck Monograph Series 8. Muncie: Ball State UP, 1978, 54–60.

Louis Owens (essay date 1985)

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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 to praise this story, calling it “Steinbeck's most artistically successful story,” and “one of the world's great short stories,”1 it seems that most critics would agree that “something profound” happens in “The Chrysanthemums.” And the great difficulty critics have encountered when trying to explain the “what” and “how” of this story suggests that Steinbeck's design has been very effective, has led, in fact, to what Roy Simmonds refers to as “a small critical industry” grown up around this story.

Like each of the stories in The Long Valley actually set in the valley, “The Chrysanthemums” is about the repression of powerful human impulses, the repression that would be necessary in any would-be Eden set in the fallen world of the valley. And like the subterranean current of the Salinas River that Steinbeck describes in East of Eden, these human urges throb just below the surface of everyday life and occasionally burst through to the surface in sudden floods. This theme of repression (which French labels “frustration”) is introduced in the opening imagery of “The Chrysanthemums” when we are told that “the high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot” (p. 9). In this fog-lidded valley, it is “a time of quiet and of waiting” (p. 9). We enter here the lifeless winter of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and the fertilizing rain is not likely to come soon, for, as we are told, “fog and rain do not go together” (p. 9). Like the plowed earth which waits “to receive the rain deeply when it should come,” Elisa Allen cultivates her flower garden in a kind of suspended life, awaiting the fertilizing imagination of the tinker.

The difficulty posed by the “what” and “how” of this story is indicated in the fact that most Steinbeck criticism has tended to touch only briefly upon the story in passing. French is satisfied to call Elisa Allen “the victim of an unscrupulous confidence man,” but he fails to shed any significant light on the story. More recent and comprehensive studies have been achieved in Mordecai Marcus's essay “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Elizabeth McMahan's “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” and William V. Miller's “Sexuality and Spiritual Ambiguity in ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” As the titles suggest, each of these essays stresses the unmistakable significance in the story of Elisa's sexual frustration. The essays differ, however, about the importance of Elisa's frustrated maternal instinct. In a still more recent article, “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Roy Simmonds argues against the popular interpretation of Elisa's character, suggesting that “there is a case for suspecting that Elisa is the one who is unable or unwilling to satisfy her partner sexually.”2

According to Marcus's reading of the story, Elisa's unfulfilled yearning for children gives birth to the tremendous current of frustration running through the story. Marcus argues that when the tinker coldly discards the flowers, “her feminine self, her capacity for fructification and childrearing, the very offspring and representative of her body, have been thoughtlessly tossed aside.” McMahan, arguing correctly that no critic “has yet adequately explained the emotional reasons underlying [Elisa's] frustration,” contends that “Elisa's need is definitely sexual, but it does not necessarily have anything to do with a longing for children”; instead, McMahan proposes that Elisa is discontented: “She is a woman bored by her husband, bored by her isolated life on the farm.” Miller, in a more comprehensive and persuasive approach, locates Elisa's dream of fulfillment on three levels: “the conventional, the sexual, and the ‘romantic,’”3 Miller's reading would thus include the possibilities of sexual and maternal frustration (though Miller chooses to stress the former and to downplay the latter), while also accommodating McMahan's theory of “boredom.” There is yet, however, a still more comprehensive basis for the tension and frustration which permeates this story, a basis involving once again the theme of commitment that runs in a steady current through Steinbeck's fiction.

It is obvious that these critics would all agree that “something profound has happened” in “The Chrysanthemums,” and just as obviously they would not agree precisely about what has happened or how it happened. To argue as McMahan and Miller do that Elisa's frustrated yearning for “fructification” does not play a very central role in this story is to ignore the full meaning and impact of the imagery of the story, imagery that introduces and reinforces the theme of procreation in the form of the ploughed land waiting for rain. Elisa, in middle age, is implicitly compared to the plowed furrows in winter, and to say that Elisa is simply bored with her life is to miss the force with which the opening paragraphs establish this parallel and the note of nearly hopeless expectancy dominating the story's atmosphere. At the same time, the theme of repression is very pronounced in the opening imagery and in Steinbeck's description of Elisa's “hard-swept looking little house” and her “over-eager, over-powerful” trimming of last year's flowers. Elisa's response to the tinker is violently sexual once he has made a connection between himself and the chrysanthemums, but only after he has made this vital link between himself and Elisa's “flower-children.” The sexuality of Elisa's response to the tinker becomes unmistakable when she intones, “When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely” (p. 18). Finally, Steinbeck has forced the sexual tension of the scene to such a pitch that Elisa becomes a parody of a bitch in heat: “She crouched low like a fawning dog” (p. 18).

While critics have been unanimous in recognizing the theme of repressed sexuality in this story, it is a mistake to attempt, as McMahan does, to limit the story's thematic significance to this alone. In Elisa the sexual and maternal impulses are blended into a single, frustrated urge, a longing for deep fulfillment. It is difficult not to see the “strong new crop” of flowers Elisa nurtures as surrogate children in her barren world. At the same time, the tinker's exotic life does symbolize a kind of escape for Elisa from the barrenness of the farm, an appeal to what Miller terms Elisa's “romantic” dream of fulfillment. All of these needs and urges come together, however, in the single powerful and unfulfilled yearning for the fertilizing potential inherent in deep human contact and commitment, the most significant symbols of which are sex, childbearing, and sacrifice. While the themes of sex and procreation are strong throughout the story, the theme of sacrifice is introduced in the story's conclusion.

After Elisa has seen the discarded flowers—evidence of the tinker's broken faith—she asks her husband, Henry, about the fights he has mentioned earlier. “I've read how they break noses,” she says, “and blood runs down their chests. I've read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood” (p. 23). Elisa's sudden interest in the fights which seemed to repulse her earlier has been seen as a rising desire for “vicarious vengeance” upon men, or simple “vindictiveness.”4 Such readings seriously undervalue the complexity of the story, however, and of Elisa's emotional response to what has taken place. Although Elisa does ask, “Do the men hurt each other much?” the emphasis here is not upon simple vengeance upon mankind or vicariously upon the tinker; nor does it necessarily indicate Elisa's need for a “sense of dominance over the male” as Roy Simmonds suggests.5 Elisa's primary interest is in the blood. Coupled with her strong desire for wine at dinner, this imagery suggests another theme—that of commitment through sacrifice. Blood, as Mac knows well in In Dubious Battle and Joseph Wayne discovers in To a God Unknown, is the supreme symbol of commitment, and wine, of course, calls to mind the supreme Christian sacrifice. Elisa yearns here, in the wake of her abrupt awakening and disappointment, for a kind of futile sacrament—reacting to the arousal and frustration of her deepest needs, Elisa is seeking symbols of commitment in a world of physical, spiritual, and emotional isolation and sterility. Like so many of Steinbeck's characters, she is acting out of a profound loneliness.

“The Chrysanthemums” is Steinbeck's finest story precisely because he does not tell us the “what” or “how” and because the powerful imagery of the story is woven brilliantly into a single fabric with theme and character. Elisa, on her isolated ranch in winter, waiting for the fructifying rain which is not likely to come, matched with a capable but not deeply sensitive husband, is cut off from fulfillment. In this story, the theme of human isolation and commitment central to Of Mice and Men is imbued with a strong current of repressed sexuality and maternity, and the result is the most emotionally forceful and subtly crafted of Steinbeck's stories.


  1. Barbour, “Steinbeck as a Short Story Writer,” p. 112; Mordecai Marcus, “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring 1965): 54.

  2. French, John Steinbeck, 1st ed., p. 83; Elizabeth E. McMahan, “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” Modern Fiction Studies 14 (1968): 453–58; William V. Miller, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” in A Study Guide to Steinbeck's “The Long Valley,” ed. Hayashi; Roy S. Simmonds, “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Steinbeck Quarterly 7 (Summer-Fall 1974): 107.

  3. Marcus, “Lost Dream,” p. 57; McMahan, “‘The Chrysanthemums,’” pp. 453–55; Miller, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity,” p. 72.

  4. McMahan, “‘The Chrysanthemums,’” p. 458; Marcus, “Lost Dream,” p. 57.

  5. Simmonds, “Original Manuscripts,” p. 108.

John Ditsky (essay date 1986)

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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 his contexts: arises organically but not necessarily with “real-life” verisimilitude from situations which must therefore be seen as having demanded, and in a sense therefore also created, a discourse of a sometimes patent artificiality—of a rhetorical loftiness appropriate to the dramatic seriousness of the given subject matter, but unlikely as an instance of “observed” intercourse in English, American variety. For only from such a vantage point can we hope to make sense of many of the exchanges which animate such diverse works as Cup of Gold, To a God Unknown, The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright. Yet the sorts of usage I am referring to must necessarily give pause to the reader of even In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Recently, however, Steinbeck criticism has increasingly begun to accept the writer on his own terms,1 a process no more complicated than the reading closely of what heretofore has been often subjected to a routinely and callously applied imposition of extraneous critical assumptions. I think that the ways in which situation creates language—and action—can be seen in such a famously “naturalistic” piece as that famous short story which leads off Steinbeck's single lifetime collection of short fiction, The Long Valley (1938): “The Chrysanthemums.”2

“The Chrysanthemums” occupies its keynote position in The Long Valley with good reason. Not only does it serve as a striking introduction to a number of Steinbeck's attainments and prepossessions, but it also achieves an astonishingly eloquent statement of Lawrentian values that is valuable in its own right. The story is usually perceived—quite rightly—as a study in psychological interconnection and revelation, and I have no wish to alter such assumptions. Rather, I would like to direct some further attention to the ways in which Steinbeck allows text to flow from context: that is, shows speech and gesture being spontaneously brought into being by means of the rigors, the labor, of interpersonal drama. It is, in short, the dramatist Steinbeck who concerns me here, though it is not one of his works created for the stage that I will use as my example.

In dramatic terms, “The Chrysanthemums” involves but three main characters: a ranch couple, Elisa and Henry Allen; and an unnamed tinker. It is December in the Salinas Valley. The Valley is shut off from the rest of the world by fog (p. 9), and the weather anticipates change: “It was a time of quiet and of waiting.” The imminence of change is reflected in Nature herself, then: something is about to happen. Elisa Allen is already at work in her flower garden; she is a dramatic “giver,” her present quantity clearly laid out by the narrator:

… She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in 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 with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked. (p. 10)

Steinbeck's list of dramatis personae is thus fleshed out by being given the additional accoutrements of sexual misidentification: Elisa wears man's clothing, and carries tools meant to prod and poke. She is also at a stage that later would be taken for granted as constituting “mid-life crisis.” Moreover, the constricted world that Elisa inhabits is further limited by being divided—as more notably, later on, the world of The Wayward Bus is divided—into male and female precincts, domains of activity into which the members of the opposite sex shall not intrude. Elisa's world, of course, is that of her garden; at work within it, her femininity takes on a fullness it does not possess, apparently, inside her “hard-swept looking little house, with [its] hard-polished windows” (p. 10). She is mistress of her chrysanthemum milieu; indeed, “The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (p. 10), and the flowers' insect enemies are no match for her “terrier fingers” (p. 11). As she looks towards where her husband is completing a deal to sell cattle to two other men—a deal he has not informed her of beforehand—“her face was eager and mature and handsome” in the enjoyment of indulgence in the creativity of helping beautiful things grow (pp. 10–11).

When her husband finally reports on his business transaction, Elisa is described as having “started” at the sound of his voice as he leaned “over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from cattle and dogs and chickens” and, presumably, husbands (p. 11). When he praises her prowess with growing things, we are told that “her eyes sharpened” at the notion that she might move over into the affairs of the ranch proper by raising apples as comparably big; she has “a gift with things,” she confesses—something called “planter's hands” (p. 11). Her husband then suggests that they celebrate his successful transaction by going into Salinas for dinner and a movie; or, he jokes, they might attend “the fights.” But she “breathlessly” admits that she “wouldn't like fights” (pp. 11–12). When her husband goes off to locate the cattle he has sold, she resumes her work with her flowers; the language here suggests a woman in total control of her surroundings: “square,” “turned the soil over and over,” “smoothed it and patted it firm,” “ten parallel trenches,” “pulled out the little crisp shoots, trimmed off the leaves of each one with her scissors and laid it on a small orderly pile” (p. 12).

Again, one must not perhaps make too much of these patently theatrical stage directions, but we are in fact being prepared for the sudden appearance of that oldest of dramatic devices—the Arrival of the Stranger. He comes on in the form of a “big stubble-bearded man” driving a wagon which advertises his prowess at fixing just about anything—anything metallic, that is (pp. 12–13). When the man's dog is faced down by the ranch shepherds, flirtation begins immediately between Elisa and the stranger; it takes the form of an admission that the latter's dog's aggressiveness may be not all that responsive to need. Easy in his masculinity, the stranger jokes about the dog's dubious ferocity; meanwhile, “The horse and the donkey [pulling the wagon] drooped like unwatered flowers” (p. 13). But here is a woman adept at making flowers thrive; and here is also a man with skills at fixing sharp tools. The banter falters, then continues: the man is off course; his animals, like his dog, are surprisingly vigorous “when they get started” (p. 14).

I should make note here of the alterations the stranger's arrival makes in the language of Steinbeck's narrative. When the husband reports his sale of cattle to his wife, her response is a tepid “Good.” Indeed, she uses the same word four times in two lines, to react both to the cattle sale and to the prospect of dinner and the movies. “Good for you”: it is his fine fortune and has little to do with her (p. 11). But the bland textures of Elisa's existence are disturbed by the arrival of the “curious vehicle, curiously drawn,” and its driver (p. 12). The driver's eyes are “full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors” (pp. 13-14); and if this perception is meant to be Elisa's as well, it marks her recognition of the appeal of the man's way of life—his ability to live by the simple “aim to follow nice weather” (p. 14). Her response is in the form of body language: she removes her gloves and hides them away with her scissors; and “She touched the under edge of her man's hat, searching for fugitive hairs” (p. 14). In short, she acknowledges his attractiveness by means of classic dramatic gestures.

The man's authority is equal to Elisa's within his own kingdom; “Fixed,” his wagon proclaims, at the end of a listing of metallic objects which—no nonsense about it—he claims to be able to repair (p. 13). No matter that the lettering is “clumsy, crooked,” or the words misspelled; Steinbeck's story is a drama that relies on subtext—the unspoken—throughout. Elisa and the stranger work through their temporary relationship through dialogue that has nothing to do, ostensibly, with the struggle for power that is going on. But when she is asked if she has anything needing repair or sharpening, “Her eyes hardened with resistance” (p. 14); she becomes a bit metallic herself in the process of making it clear that she is not so easily won as all that. In the process of telling the man—four times—that she has no work for him to do, she manages to make him play the role of dependent inferior: “His face fell to an exaggerated sadness. His voice took on a whining undertone” (p. 15). The man's demeanor becomes dog-like; like an actor, he uses expression and delivery to emphasize the import of his words: he is without a bit of work; he is off his usual road; he may not eat that day. Elisa is unmoved—is irritated, even.

Yet “irritation and resistance” melt from her face as soon as the man, resourceful, notices her chrysanthemums and asks about them (p. 15). Hers, she avers, are “bigger than anybody around here” can raise; and since she has been pouring her private emotional existence into the raising of chrysanthemums, her boasting has a nice kind of sexual irony about it. He responds to his cue with spontaneous poetry: the flowers look “like a quick puff of colored smoke” (p. 15). A brief confrontation over the flowers' smell is quickly resolved; the aroma is a “good bitter” one, “not nasty at all,” and the man likes it. Fine, then; for hers, Elisa claims, have produced “ten-inch blooms this year.” Ah, then, returns the fellow (the dialogue by now quite strongly resembles Pinter's), there is this “lady down the road a piece” who, though she does find difficult work for him to do, has no chrysanthemums in her otherwise splendid garden. Can Elisa help this unfortunate out?

She can; she will. Assuring the man that she can send along flowers for transplanting by the other woman—“Beautiful … Oh, beautiful” ones—she tears off her hat; she shakes out “her dark pretty hair”; and with her eyes shining, she admits the stranger into her yard. She strips off her protective gloves after running “excitedly” after a flower pot, and with her bare hands prepares a selection of her flowers for the man—who is described as standing over her as she kneels to work—to take (pp. 16–17). She indulges herself in the revelation of her private craft as she gives him instructions to transmit to the other woman; she looks “deep into his eyes, searchingly,” as if trying to measure the degree of their mutual sympathy. As she does, “Her mouth opened a little, and she seemed to be listening” (p. 17). Mouth and eyes and ears are open to this stranger as perhaps they have been to no one before as she explains her doctrine of “planting hands,” the possessors of which can do nothing wrong. Her earnesteness carries her away: “She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately” (p.18).

Again, the psychological underpinnings of this story, so Lawrence-like, have been commented on before this; what I am attempting to do for perhaps the first time is draw attention to the ways in which Steinbeck's text moves along according to imperatives which can only be termed dramatic. In other words, can the standard definitions of literary naturalism adequately account for the rising action and intensity of “The Chrysanthemums,” its quasi-musical climaxing? This is fairly far from The Jungle, from Studs Lonigan, this passage; it is closer surely to Brief Encounter. Now the man's eyes are said to narrow as he averts his gaze “self-consciously” and begins to make a comparison to his own life; “Sometimes in the night in the wagon there—“(p. 18), he starts. But she interrupts, carried away by her own unexpectedly-piqued emotional empathy:

Elisa's voice grew husky. She broke in on him, “I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.” (p. 18)

But Elisa's mystical attainment—her fusion of the psychosexual and the poetical—also has its natural and physical concomitant. The next paragraph says:

Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog. (p. 18).

She has opened herself to a stranger, and shown him a part of herself which presumably no one has seen before; and in the process, she has made herself as vulnerable to him as one of his subservient animals might be. Remarkably, for its time, the story also has Elisa adumbrating a world in which male and female experience might meld in an ecstasy of shared sensitivity—so unlike the one she has known on her husband's ranch.

But the stranger refuses this gambit. He reminds her that hunger is its own setter of standards; and so Elisa rises, “ashamed,” and goes off to find the man some busy-work to do so that he can maintain his independence a bit longer. In the process, he reaffirms the radical dissimilarity of their two existences: when she speaks about a woman's being able to live such a life as his, he emphasizes its loneliness and frightfulness, wholly refusing to consider the implicit offer she is making. (Or is she?) Though they share body-language during this discussion—he concentratedly sucking his under-lip, she raising her upper lip and showing her teeth; both feral—he determinedly completes his routine repair work without deigning to consider her appeal for consideration of their shared romanticism (p. 19). Indeed, when he finishes his job and accepts his pay and turns to go, he has already almost forgotten the pretext of the chrysanthemums to be delivered to that other woman down the road (p. 20).

As the man and his animals depart, Elisa watches them off, silently mouthing “Good-bye” after him. “Then she whispered, ‘That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there’”; and the sound of her whispering startles her, though only her dogs had heard (p. 20). This passage might seem extraordinary or simply inexplicable were it not for the consistent identification in Steinbeck's writing of “brightness” and “shining” with the quasi-divine power of absolute nature in the universe (as Blake's “Tyger” yields Steinbeck's title Burning Bright); and for that matter, the name “Elisa” and its variants are fairly commonly identified with idealized femininity in Steinbeck, from Cup of Gold onward. Elisa's next action is a sort of ritual purification followed by a donning of vestments: she tears off “her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner” of the bathroom. “And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red. When she had dried herself she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at her body. She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her back” (p. 20). Interestingly, Steinbeck's writing does not seek to titillate; the description of Elisa's mikvah, if I can call it that, is asexual, as though the operation were one which could be performed on any body as part of a ritual irrespective of gender. Yet Elisa's actions are also clearly narcissistic, her self-admiration clearly premised on a sense of having finally achieved, at her life's mid-point, some kind of summit of self-worth.

But now the naked Elisa begins to dress, again using makeup and costuming for theatrical effect—rather like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, with the context of her presumably-imminent death giving abnormal beauty to what subsists of life. She begins with “her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips” (pp. 20–21). One dresses—or divests oneself of clothing—this attentively, this ceremonially, only with an implicit or explicit awareness of preparing for one of the ritual events of life (including, of course, one's death). It is interesting that Elisa retreats from the world of her mannish exercises in the garden, wearing men's attire, to what is described as “her bedroom” (p. 20); the two do not share a single sleeping-place. In this sort of dressing-room, then, Elisa prepares herself for a theatrical entry (or re-entry?) into life, an event in which she means to include her husband—who if he were but aware of the fact has been awarded this boon on the strength of a surrogate's efforts. Elisa neatly lays out her Henry's best clothes, so that he may do as she has finished doing, and then she goes out to the porch and sits “primly and stiffly” waiting for him, “unmoving,” her eyes seldom blinking as they pursue the last of that bright glowing that she associates with the events of the afternoon, now disappearing beneath a “high grey fog” (p. 21).

When Henry finally appears, he is so taken aback at the appearance she has created for herself that he clumsily compliments her for looking “nice”—as though she seldom did. This reaction on his part comes in spite of the fact that her own self-assurance has made her “stiffen” at his approach, her face growing “tight” as she does (p. 21). Henry compounds his error by defining “niceness” as looking “different, strong and happy”—again as if these were unfamiliar aspects of Elisa's demeanour. Indeed, Henry is so flabbergasted at the change in his wife's image that he unconsciously describes it as the theatricalization it actually is: “He looked bewildered. ‘You're playing some kind of a game,’ he said helplessly. ‘It's a kind of a play. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon’” (pp. 21–22). Henry's flight of poetic utterance is a worshipful reaction to the irruption in his presence of the extraordinary in the ordinary, of the divine—the heroic, the Junoesque, if you will—into the human. At his tribute, her “rigidity” buckles briefly; she tells him that his venture into the domain of the ineffable was beyond his comprehension (instinctual?), and settles for the admission that “‘I'm strong,’ she boasted. ‘I never knew before how strong’” (p. 22). She sends him for the car, deliberately fu ssing over the set of her hat until his turning off the engine signals an admission that a new sort of patience is now called for.

But Elisa's short happy life—the effects of her dramatic transfiguration, her irradiation—is destined for an abrupt conclusion. When she and Henry set off for dinner in Salinas, it is not all that long until she sees “a dark speck” on the road ahead. Steinbeck has told this story, as was his initial habit, largely from the outside of his characters, from close observation of their gestures and speech. In a sense, he violates that practice now, giving the reader in two words what would in the theatre be expressed through a reaction of the face and body: “She knew” (p. 22). It is as if Elisa had always possessed, deep down, the certainty that her self-assurance was built upon a deception. Now, she cannot even avoid following the discarded chrysanthemum shoots with her eyes as they pass, recognizing as she ponders the tinker's apparent cruelty the fact that he left the flowers along the road because he couldn't afford to throw away the bright red flower pot she had so carefully planted the flowers in—because it was the pot that had value in his world, and not—except as conversational pretexts—the flowers. She is able, however, to turn away from the sight of the tinker's wagon when their car overtakes it moments later (p. 22).

“In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back,” Steinbeck tells us (p. 23). But her level of discourse, having fallen to the prospect of dinner, marks a change palpable enough for Henry to note it. “Now you've changed again” is his assessment; and the manner of his delivery is authorially noted as “complained”: had Henry himself been buoyed by the brief brightening of Elisa? Now normality returns: he pats her knee; he makes small talk. Elisa has one last attempt at escape of the life-force within her. She makes what is apparently an unusual request, one that will make small ceremony out of the coming dinner out, itself a minor sacrament of sorts: “… could we have wine with dinner?” Henry agrees, and after a time of silence, she surprises her husband by an even more uncharacteristic question: do the boxers at prize fights “hurt each other very much?” (by which she means broken noses, she explains, with enough blood running down chests to get their gloves “heavy and soggy with blood” [p. 23]). Henry is startled, as are we; are these Elisa's Dionysiac propensities suddenly revealing themselves, or has her experience with the tinker taken an imaginative turn towards retribution, a perverse expression of the flowering of femininity he had seemed to foster? We are not told; but Elisa asks one more question: “Do any women ever go to the fights?” Some, yes, Henry answers, as if he cannot imagine his wife among them; not having been able to imagine her, a moment ago, as even having read about such things, he now offers to take her against his better judgment.

But Elisa's questioning has subsided, whether because of the unsuitability of her attending the fights or because of the torpor induced by the thought of attending them with a partner such as Henry. Withdrawing her face—on which tears have begun to show—she states that it will be enough to settle for “wine. It will be plenty.” If the blood of Dionysiac sacrifice is not to be hers, she will settle for a conventional symbolism. Steinbeck alludes so obliquely to the Christian and the pagan at his ending that one is distracted, if at all, by the thought of how his final line—showing Elisa “crying weakly—like an old woman” (p. 23)—might have been ruined by claiming the strength of a metaphorical connection instead of making do with the subtlety of the simile. Elisa is, after all, only “like an old woman”; if she has nonetheless crossed a certain line in her life, it will take years, perhaps, for that fact to assert itself fully. Yet, as if she were one of the many animals mentioned throughout the story, she has made her sudden lunge towards a kind of life she may not have known she needed—only to have the constraints of her existence reassert themselves almost at once.

Whether or not “The Chrysanthemums” is what I would call it, one of the finest American short stories ever written, surely its craft is such as to reward reader attention and require critical inquiry. That craft, as I have suggested, is in great part a matter of introducing the materials of a naturalistic sort of fiction—the details of the occupations of tinker and gardener and the like—only to rise above them as a dramatist would: by raising the ante of artifice until the characters seem self-conscious of themselves as creative artists spontaneously creating a dialogue in a most poetic sort of drama, one in which the late flowers of a season of the human spirit can seem for a moment to be able to transcend their rootedness, to move farther down the road than just the town of Salinas. It is, finally, a craft by which seemingly ordinary individuals are made to see themselves as characters—persons moving in a world of “roles” and “symbols”—in search of an author who seems scarcely present at all. In the end, it is enough to make plausible a singular sort of epiphany: a bland sort of husband, likely one who has never been in a theatre in his life, being so astonished at the sight of his taken-for-granted wife suddenly appearing in “a kind of play” that he speaks, on the spot, his spontaneous rancher's ode.


  1. I have tried to do as much in my 1984 Second International Steinbeck Congress (Salinas, CA; August) paper, “Steinbeck as Dramatist: A Preliminary Account,” ed. Shigeharu Yano, Tetsumaro Hayashi, Richard F. Peterson, and Yasuo Hashiguchi (Tokyo: Gaku Shobo Press, 1986), pp. 13–23. But there are considerably more aspects of Steinbeck's works that need to be freed from the shackles of a priori critical constraints.

  2. John Steinbeck, “The Chrysanthemums,” in The Long Valley (New York: Viking, 1938), pp. 9–23.

C. Kenneth Pellow (essay date 1989)

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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 radically feministic, an unusual venture for Steinbeck.

Roy S. Simmonds has stated most succinctly what has occurred to numerous other readers of Steinbeck—that “a small critical industry” has been produced by this story. Stanley Renner has summarized one reading, with the intent of debunking it. The female protagonist, in Renner's summary, is seen as prevented, by men in general and her husband in particular, from participating in important business. Then,

When an itinerant tinker happens by, Elisa's latent yearnings are awakened for the larger life that men enjoy of significant work, adventure, and sexual expression; and when she entrusts the tinker with cuttings from her chrysanthemums, she, in effect, reaches out to the wider world. But the tinker dumps her flowers in the public thoroughfare, thus rejecting her gesture toward a larger life, and she remains a pitiable victim of male domination and female disadvantage.1

Renner's essay is the most recent lengthy study of this story and one that its author clearly intends to be corrective. It should be consulted as an opposing view to my own, as should that by Simmonds, which apparently inspired Renner's.2 However, although Renner's argument includes some very clever readings of the story's symbolic import, there are several aspects of it that I find objectionable, primarily that it seems to ignore the story's ending. Our final glimpse of Elisa, relaxing “limply” while she tries to keep her husband from seeing her “crying weakly—like an old woman” hardly suggests that Steinbeck has meant to portray her unsympathetically, to treat her with “ironic mockery” (Renner, p. 313) in order to have the story be “critical of her refusal of life” (Renner, p. 314). Renner's concentrating his peroration, in the last page-and-a-half of his essay, on Steinbeck's life and letters seems to disregard his own sage observation, early, that “biography need not inevitably determine a writer's perspective” (Renner, p. 306). Similarly, he disregards his own summary of what has become a “standard reading” when he concludes his own reading with this claim: “Nor is there, in point of fact, any evidence that she is deliberately excluded from the important business of the ranch” (Renner, p. 315). The modifying adverb, of course, renders such “evidence” impossible to present. And finally, Renner employs a false disjunctive throughout his essay, as represented in this assertion, repeated at least once: “In the story's terms there can be little doubt that the garden and fence are Elisa's own rather than [emphasis mine] imposed on her by her husband, men, or society” (Renner, p. 309). The either/or is misleading; almost no reader can doubt that Elisa has shared in her own fencing-in and will probably continue to do so. That partly accounts for her tears at the end of the story.

The reader interested in this story's critical history should also see Louis Owens's book, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America,3 where that history is briefly summarized with an emphasis different from Renner's. Owens also adds new dimensions to the story, based upon the symbolic function of weather therein, and at one point he comes near to the essence of my argument here, as I shall point out later.

As a starting point of my own contention about Elisa Allen's story, I refer to a 1966 article by William R. Osborne, apparently the first scholar/critic to notice that Steinbeck wrote two “versions” of this story.4 Osborne's textual criticism demonstrates that the few portions of the original story added to or altered by Steinbeck for its 1938 publication in The Long Valley5 tend to make even clearer Elisa's sexual and genderic frustrations. One of the few lines, for instance, that Steinbeck added comes right after Elisa's passionate speech to the tinker, which seems to relate planting instincts to sexual awareness (a speech to be examined here, later). The line reads: “She crouched low like a fawning dog” (Osborne, p. 482; LV, p. 18).

Oddly, that line does not seem to have drawn much attention. Osborne does observe that the “dog simile” gives to Elisa's character “a carnality that is lacking” in the previous version of the story (Osborne, p. 482). And Owens has used the phrase to put this scene into the context of the story's sexual tension, noting that Elisa thus “becomes a parody of a bitch in heat” (Owens, p. 111). But no one has remarked upon the associations that the line provides: it links Elisa's response to the activities—more precisely, inactivities—of the tinker's mongrel dog, which Steinbeck had described earlier. When the tinker arrived at the Allen ranch, the dog rushed out from his place beneath the tinker's wagon and confronted the two ranch shepherds. He quickly decided, however, that discretion was preferable, and “feeling outnumbered, lowered his tail and retired under the wagon with raised hackles and bared teeth” (LV, p. 13). The tinker then observed that the dog was a tough fighter, “when he gets started” (LV, p. 13), and he and Elisa shared appreciation of the joke. Now Elisa, when she crouches “like a fawning dog,” is also retiring from a potential fight, the struggle to free herself from a situation in which she feels trapped. (Likewise, the dog, in the story's last glimpse of him, “took his place between the back wheels” [LV, p. 20] as the tinker drove off.) Significantly, Elisa emulates that mongrel dog at least once more in the story. After she has indicated envy of the tinker's free-seeming, itinerant life, he claims that such is not “the right kind of life for a woman” (LV, p. 19). Before Elisa's challenging him on this point, “Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth.” Elisa may be retiring from a struggle never really entered into, but she does so “with raised hackles and bared teeth.”

When we have recognized that Elisa is associated with the mongrel dog, and that Steinbeck emphasized that association when he revised the story, we are led to realize that the association is part of a larger pattern in the story. All of the animals in it are oppressed, trapped, neglected, or overwhelmed by the mechanical and mechanistic world, much as is Elisa. Thus, steers exist only to be bought and sold, as on any ranch. The tinker's horse and burro, a “mismatched team” (LV, p. 22)—hardly the only such in the story—are shackled to the wagon where they droop “like unwatered flowers” (LV, p. 13), thus forming another association to Elisa, through her surrogate children, the chrysanthemums. When it is time to move on, and the dog has taken “his place” under the wagon, these two lean “into their collars” (LV, p. 20). In Henry Allen's metaphors, animals are treated unkindly: a calf is an item to be broken and eaten (LV, p. 22). The two ranch dogs, along with the “rangy mongrel,” provide the only occasion of animal “dignity,” but it is clearly a parody of dignity: “all three stopped, and with stiff and quivering tails, with taut, straight legs, with ambassadorial dignity, they slowly circled, sniffing daintily” (LV, p. 13). In the last animal image of the story, rabbits and cranes are driven into the brush and the riverbed, respectively, by the Allen roadster bouncing along the dirt road (LV, p. 22).

This last image puts the animal motif in this story into a yet broader context. Throughout “The Chrysanthemums” there runs a mechanical-and-organic contrast that also underscores Elisa's situation. She concentrates nearly all of her time and energy on raising flowers, while it becomes clear to her that it is in the mechanical world that one finds wealth, power, and, most important, self-determination. So, when Henry negotiates with the meat-packers who eventually buy his cattle, all three stand “by the tractor shed, each man with one foot on the side of the little Fordson” (LV, pp. 9–10). And near the end of the story, after Henry has been mildly chastised by Elisa for his “calf” metaphor and had been confronted by her boast of how “strong” she is, he “looked down toward the tractor shed, and when he brought his eyes back to her, they were his own again” (LV, p.22).

Part of Elisa's ultimate disenchantment with the tinker comes from much the same kind of opposition. This is not at first noticeable, at least to Elisa, for she and the tinker seem more alike than different. They are able, as noted earlier, to share a joke, and Elisa is taken by his ability to turn a poetic phrase, as in his likening of chrysanthemums to “a quick puff of colored smoke” (LV, p. 15). And both are transported when in the midst of what they love doing. Thus Elisa explains to the tinker about “planting hands.” I will quote the entire speech, for, within the context of this story, it is a unique passage:

Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When you're like that you can't do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that? (LV pp. 17–18)

Steinbeck here creates Elisa's breathlessness by deviating from the story's normal style. These eighteen sentences (only one is fragmentary) average less than six words each; none is longer than ten words. In a more typical paragraph of this story—the first, for instance—sentences run up to thirty words or more in length, and average twenty-three. Even in dialogue, syntax is not this terse; in Elisa's last speech before the one quoted above, sentences range up to twenty words in length, and average over ten. Immediately after this speech, it becomes even clearer that the breathlessness is sexual, for Elisa proceeds into the speech that ends: “Why you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely” (LV, p. 18). As Elizabeth McMahan observes, “The sexual implications of her last four sentences are unmistakable” (McMahan, p. 457). Steinbeck enforced those implications when he revised the story, as he added the last three sentences.

As Elisa is transported when working with her flowers, so is the tinker when he performs his favorite work. When Elisa has decided that she does, after all, have some work he can do for her, “His manner changed. He became professional” (LV, p. 18). His gear set up, he goes to work at removing dents from her kettles: “His mouth grew sure and knowing. At a difficult part of the work he sucked his under-lip” (LV, p. 19). But there are differences, of course, between the kinds of work that they do. His is with things mechanical and profitably remunerative; hers is with things organic and financially, at least, profitless. It is all too typical of “woman's work.” And that she is prohibited from participation in the other kind of work is emphasized by the tinker's observation that his profession “ain't the right kind of a life for a woman” (LV, p. 19). Elisa interprets this, probably accurately, as more prohibitive than protective. She says, as she pays him for his work: “You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do” (LV, p. 19). The tinker represents more than sexual disillusionment to (and for) Elisa; he is also the enemy—the representative of the mechanical, self-reliant fraternity that keeps her in her “place.”

These animal/mechanical associations help to explain Elisa's disillusionment with the tinker. Partly, of course, she is disappointed at his lack of real sexuality. But there is more. Elisa, on this day in her life, senses more keenly than ever the contrast between herself and Henry. For him, living things, organic beings, are items to be sold, killed, broken, enslaved; to her, they are to be nurtured. And the tinker is just as much a disappointment to her as Henry is, for he also shuts her out of the mechanical, money-making, self-determining world.6 It should not surprise us that the tinker keeps the manufactured, inanimate portion of Elisa's “gift” to him, while throwing away the part—the main part, indeed—that is natural and organic. Elisa appears to understand the separateness of his actions, when she sees her flowers lying in the road:

She tried not to look as they passed. … But her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn't have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That's why he couldn't get them off the road.” (LV, p. 22)

Steinbeck added Elisa's explanation to herself in the story's revised version.

One more aspect of “The Chrysanthemums” remains to be explained here, the one that, perhaps, most needs explaining: that is, the story's final detail—Elisa's decision that she does not, after all, want to attend the prizefights. Mordecai Marcus's explanation is that as Elisa “abandons” her interest in the fights and comforts herself with the thought that wine at dinner will be enough, she accepts her failure to be fully successful as a woman and again comforts herself with a mild symbol of “extra-domestic excitement” (Marcus, p. 57). Marilyn Mitchell, on the other hand, contends that Elisa “acknowledges the fact that a man's freedom is denied her by agreeing with her husband that she would, after all, probably dislike the prizefights” (Mitchell, p. 33). My own understanding of this combines, but goes beyond, both views. First of all, it is clear that when Elisa felt attracted to the prizefights, she did so vengefully. When she speculated about what happens at them—“Well, I've read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood” (LV, p. 23)—what she seemed to be anticipating, even hoping, was that the men in these fights would be more nearly cast in the role of animals (enslaved, oppressed, abused) than usual, as in the common analogy between prizefights and bullfights. But of course she drops her plan for vengeance, partly because she is a gentle, nurturing nonviolent person. Even those of us who most sympathize with her frustrations, who most resent the circumstances that bind her, would hardly wish for her to be otherwise. However, we might also notice, as Owens does, with a slightly different inference from mine (Owens, p. 112), the eucharistic symbolism of Elisa's consolatory choice—“wine will be enough” (LV, p. 23). She has, in a sense, opted for symbolic rather than real “sacrifice,” for communion wine rather than the actual bloodshed of prizefights. At the literal level, of course, Marcus's view is accurate: Elisa has decided that having wine with dinner will be romantic and adventurous “enough,” that is, will be “enough” of a departure from the ordinary.7

Still, the day's accumulated effects weigh heavily upon Elisa. and she is well aware of their significance. In either version of the story, its final words portray Elisa “crying weakly—like an old woman” (LV, p. 23). Here McMahan's observation that Elisa weeps because “all hope of romance is a thing of the past” needs, I think, to be revised to “all hope for change is a thing of the past.” To be young and female is to be still capable of altering one's status, once recognition of it has set in; but Elisa fears that she already grows old. It is worth noting that, although the question of her strength or weakness has come up before and the matter of her womanliness has been implicit throughout, this last line of the story is the first mention of the thirty-five-year-old Elisa's thinking herself “old.” And “old” may be unchangeable. If she could continue to think of herself as young, she could, perhaps, confront men on their own terms, she could, perhaps, cease being just a rancher's wife, she could presumably be employed for renumeration. She could still, then, show the world—as she earlier threatened to show the tinker—“what a woman might do.”

What Steinbeck has presented in this story, among other meanings, of course, is a feministic portrayal of a woman who is kept confined, restrained, and limited to a very small horticultural existence. That she has cooperated in her own confinement makes the portrayal no less convincing and no less dramatic. Steinbeck's symbolic intent becomes clear to us when we examine the organic/mechanical contrasts in the story, and he consistently reinforced that intent by the additions that he made to the story for its publication in The Long Valley. Particularly emphatic, in this respect, is his addition of Elisa's being “crouched” and “fawning” like the mongrel dog, as it anticipates the image of her “crying weakly” at the story's conclusion. Not only is such feminism an unusual theme for John Steinbeck, but it is not often found in any of America's best-known male novelists. Katha Pollitt has observed (in a review in The Nation of John Updike's Witches of Eastwick)8 how “strange” it is that “the changes in sex roles vigorously under way” in our time have been “hardly mentioned in the novels of Bellow, Both, Mailer, Updike,” et al., and concludes that America's “celebrated writers just don't get the point, even when they try” (Pollitt, p. 775). She has named, I think, some of those males in whose works one might well have expected to find the sexual revolution chronicled—or at least recognized—but does not. How much more startling, then, to find traces of such recognition in Steinbeck's work—in 1938.


  1. Stanley Renner, “The Real Woman Inside the Fence in ‘The Chrrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 31 (Summer 1985), 305–17. The quotation appears on p. 306. Subsequent citation of this work will appear as “Renner,” followed by a page number, all in parentheses in the body of my text. Renner cites most of the essays relevant to the “standard reading” that he has summarized. Of those, two in particular are influential upon my own reading: Elizabeth McMahan, “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” Modern Fiction Studies 14 (Winter 1968–69), 453–58 (hereafter cited as “McMahan” plus a page number, in the text) and Marilyn L. Mitchell, “Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories,” in Steinbeck's Women: Essays in Criticism, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Steinbeck Monograph Series, No. 9) (Muncie, Indiana: Steinbeck Society, Ball State University, 1979). Subsequent citation of the latter will appear as “Mitchell,” followed by a page number, all in parentheses in the body of my text. Another essay important to the history of this particular reading, but not cited by Renner, is Mordecai Marcus, “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth,” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring 1965), 54–58. Subsequent citation of this work will appear as “Marcus,” followed by a page number, all in parentheses in the body of my text. Only after having finished this essay did I become aware of the article by Ernest W. Sullivan, II, “The Cur in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” originally published in Studies in Short Fiction, 16 (Summer 1979), and reprinted in The Heath Guide to Literature, eds. D. Bergman and D. M. Epstein. (Lexington, Massachusetts: Heath, 1987), pp. 1387–89, where I discovered it. Sullivan begins with a point that is central to my argument—the association between dogs and Elisa Allen—but proceeds to conclusions substantially different from mine.

  2. Roy S. Simmonds, “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Steinbeck Quarterly, 7 (Summer-Fall 1974), 102–11.

  3. Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985). See especially the section, “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Waiting for Rain,” pp. 108–13.

  4. William R. Osborne, “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Winter 1966–67), 479–84. Subsequent citation of this work will appear as “Osborne,” followed by a page number, all in parentheses in the body of my text.

  5. John Steinbeck, “The Chrysanthemums,” The Long Valley (New York: Viking Press, 1938). Subsequent citation of this work will appear as “LV,” followed by a page number, all in parentheses in the body of my text.

  6. Gerald Noonan, in a “brief footnote” to McMahan's article [Modern Fiction Studies, 15 (Winter 1969–70), 542], makes some observations of animal metaphors or “agricultural comparison” in this story, and comes to a conclusion somewhat near mine. The tinker, Noonan contends, is “businesslike,” as is Henry. What Noonan does not observe, I think, is a crucial difference between the tinker's “agricultural comparison” (“I'm dry as a cow in there”) and Henry's figure of the “calf”: the tinker compares himself, figuratively, to the organic item. This more nearly explains, in my view, why Elisa is not offended by his figure of speech as she is by Henry's.

  7. Owens sees the wine as being a communion symbol, as I do, but sees its importance as representing Elisa's “commitment through sacrifice” (p. 112)—commitment, that is, to human contact. I have written the first draft of this paper before reading Owens's essay on this story. I am now inclined to prefer his interpretation, but in the present context the difference is not crucial.

  8. Katha Pollitt, “Bitches and Witches,” The Nation, 238 (June 23, 1984) 773–75. Subsequent citation of this work will appear as “Pollitt,” followed by a page number, all in parentheses in the body of my text.

R. S. Hughes (essay date 1989)

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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 interested to know what you think of the story, “The Chrysanthemums.” 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. It has had that effect on several people here.”2

This subliminal quality sets the story apart. Critics have been responding favorably to “The Chrysanthemums” ever since Steinbeck composed it. Carol Henning Steinbeck, the author's first wife and perhaps most incisive critic of this period, said it was “the best of all [his] stories.” Brian Barbour has praised it as Steinbeck's “most artistically successful story.” Jackson J. Benson and Louis Owens consider the tale his “finest”; Roy S. Simmonds characterizes it as “one flowing surge of creativity.” And Mordecai Marcus calls “The Chrysanthemums” “one of the world's great short stories.”3

While its subtleties are difficult, if not impossible, to capture in retelling, “The Chrysanthemums” can be summarized as follows: One December afternoon on the Allen Ranch, a “greyflannel fog” seals the Salinas Valley like a “closed pot.”4 Elisa Allen, a vigorous woman of thirty-five, works in her fenced garden powerfully cutting down chrysanthemum stalks. Her husband, Henry, having just sold thirty head of cattle, appears and suggests they dine out that evening. When Henry returns to the fields, a rickety wagon drawn by a horse and burro wobbles toward the house. The big, bearded driver introduces himself to Elisa as a pot mender. Although Elisa three times declines his services, she warms to him when he expresses interest in her chrysanthemums. He tells her that a lady on his route wants some chrysanthemums, and Elisa excitedly prepares several sprouts in a red pot. As she talks with the tinker, Elisa becomes empassioned and reaches toward his leg, almost touching it. Then she scurries behind the house to find two old, dented saucepans, which he repairs for fifty cents. After the tinker departs, the exuberant Elisa bathes, exults in her naked body before a mirror, and dresses for dinner. When Henry returns and marvels at how strong she looks, Elisa confides that she never before knew how strong. As they leave for dinner in their car, Elisa spots the chrysanthemum sprouts she had given the tinker lying in the road. He has thrown them away and kept the red pot. She begins to cry, but hides her tears from Henry.

Since “The Chrysanthemums” is arguably Steinbeck's finest short story, Simmonds notes that a “small critical industry has grown up around [it].” Benson believes that many critics have addressed themselves to this enduring tale because, “like most outstanding stories, “The Chrysanthemums” can be taken a number of different ways.” Despite variant interpretations of the story, one theme critics keep coming back to is frustration, stemming from the protagonist's unfulfilled or thwarted desires. Critics have differed, however, on the specific source of Elisa Allen's frustration. Richard Astro, Robert M. Benton, and Elizabeth McMahan suggest a poor marriage as its source. Brian Barbour and William V. Miller blame a combination of ambiguous spiritual and sexual problems. Warren French argues that Elisa's behavior reflects sublimated “maternal instincts”; and, similarly, Mordecai Marcus says that she longs to bear children (a notion refuted by McMahan). Benson sees in her a woman trying to find a creative, significant role in a male-dominated society; Charles A. Sweet calls her the “embryonic feminist.” And finally, John H. Timmerman finds in Elisa the artist's frustration with an unappreciative society. What all these readings have in common is that they suggest, in Owens's words, the “repression of powerful human impulses,” which leads, as we have seen, to frustration.5

Central to almost any reading of the story is the protagonist, Elisa Allen, whom Joseph Warren Beach calls “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book.” Elisa is a Steinbeck “strong woman.” According to Marilyn H. Mitchell (see her essay in part 3), such strong women have “a strength of will usually identified” with men, as well as an “ambiguous combination of traditionally masculine and feminine traits.”6 Elisa is in her prime—strong, talented, energetic, eager, and handsome. Yet she lives on an isolated ranch, is married to a well-meaning but unexciting cattleman, and has no creative outlets beyond the confines of her house and garden. And since Henry Allen, a traditional male, is the couple's sole breadwinner, Elisa's contribution to their material comfort and well-being is seemingly undervalued by herself, if not by her husband.

According to Benson, Steinbeck probably based the character of Elisa Allen on his own first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck. Like Elisa, Carol was a woman of considerable talent and energy who wore “masculine clothes” and was “strong, large-boned” and “handsome rather than pretty.” At the time “The Chrysanthemums” was composed, the Steinbeck's (like the Allen's) had no children. Although when she first met John Steinbeck, Carol was training for a career in advertising, after their marriage she took a series of temporary jobs as they moved from place to place. Benson says that “The Chrysanthemums” “indicates very strongly that Steinbeck was aware of and sympathetic to” forces frustrating his wife.7 Basing his reading of the story on these biographical insights, Benson concludes: “Of the forces aligned against Elisa's freedom to be what she is capable of being, perhaps the most subtly destructive are, on the one hand, the basic understandings held by society of a woman's presumed limitations—a force that seems to permeate the atmosphere of the story—and, on the other hand, the misguided sympathy and kindness offered by the husband. It is the latter that is so terribly defeating—what is the feminine equivalent of ‘emasculating’?”8

Evidence in the story suggests that Elisa, reflecting Carol Henning Steinbeck, is talented and energetic—as well as frustrated. She cuts her chrysanthemum stalks with excessive energy; “her work with the scissors [is] over-eager, over-powerful.” The stalks seem “too small and easy for her energy” (10). She has “strong,” “terrier fingers,” which destroy pests “before they get started.” Even her gardening clothes suggest power: “heavy leather gloves,” “clod-hopper shoes,” “a man's black hat,” and “a big corduroy apron with four big pockets” to hold gardening tools (10). Nearby behind the garden we see Elisa's “neat white farm house with red geraniums close-banked around it.” The house looks “hard-swept” with “hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps” (10). Everything about both the house and garden is orderly and immaculate—giving us clues as to how she spends her time.

We can also surmise that Elisa's marriage neither fills her time nor fulfills her desires. That she and Henry have less than complete rapport is evident from their first meeting in the story when Elisa “start[s]” at the sound of her husband's voice (11). And later, after she bathes and dresses for dinner, Elisa must “set herself” for his arrival; she [stiffens] and her face [grows] tight” (21). There is an unnatural or estranged quality to their relationship, so that at times they seem to be speaking different languages. When Henry puts on his “joking tone” and invites her to the fights in Salinas, for instance, Elisa takes him seriously, answering “breathlessly … ‘No, I wouldn't like to go’” (12). For his part, Henry is “bewildered” by his wife's exuberance after her meeting with the tinker and then “complain[s]” when her spirits sink at the story's end (21, 23). He seems to have little understanding of her sensitive emotions.

While Steinbeck describes Elisa Allen with loving detail, he neglects to offer even a brief description of her husband. Henry Allen, a stereotypical rancher and husband, actually needs little introduction. A static, stock figure, he provides essential information about Elisa and acts as a measure of changes in her behavior. At the story's beginning, for example, he notes her unique talents as a gardener. “‘You've got a gift with things,’ Henry observed. ‘Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across’” (11). Henry also helps us to chart the rise and fall of her spirits. After Elisa's encounter with the tinker, Henry says to her. “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (21–22). But later when her spirits flag on discovering the pot mender's insincerity, Henry says, “Now you're changed again” (23). Thus, during these scenes and at other times in the story, Henry's words help to define the character of Elisa.

Henry Allen, whether from lack of interest or obtuseness, never enters the special world of his wife's garden. Yet, while Henry remains outside, restrained (like the ranch animals) by “the wire fence that protected [it] from cattle and dogs and chickens” (11), the itinerant pot mender breaches her special world after only a few minutes' conversation with Elisa. “‘Come into the yard,’” she exclaims, and “the man came through the picket gate.” (16). Compared to Henry Allen, the tinker is, indeed, an exciting and romantic figure. A casual traveler, who “ain't in any hurry,” and aims “to follow nice weather” (14), what a contrast his life provides to the fenced-in existence of Elisa. Perhaps because of his fluid style of living, he brings out Elisa's sense of her own confinement and unfulfilled desires. Although the tinker is ragged and unclean in appearance, he taps Elisa's dormant passion. When she speaks with him her “breast swell[s] passionately” and her “voice [grows] husky” (18). At the height of her desire, the impassioned Elisa erotically describes the night (“Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely”) and her “hand [goes] out toward his legs” and “her hesitant fingers almost touch the cloth” of his trousers (18). Thus, although her staid husband provides a measure for Elisa's change, it is the tinker who becomes the impetus of that change.

Elisa's most abrupt transformation occurs when she discovers that the tinker has tossed away her chrysanthemum sprouts. “Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew” (22). When she spots this “dark speck,” Elisa's new sense of well-being is dashed and she begins to weep. The story's carefully foreshadowed surprise ending hinges on these few words. Earlier we are given clues about the tinker's motives and his basic insincerity. After three failed attempts (using conventional persuasion) to sell Elisa his services, he finally notices her flowers. “What's them plants, ma'am?” he asks. Immediately, the “irritation and resistance melt[s] from Elisa's face” (15). By changing his tactics and feigning interest in her chrysanthemums, the manipulative fixer accomplishes his purposes—to make some money off a naive prospect. His insincerity is again underscored when Elisa reminds him before he leaves to keep the sand damp in the red pot. “Sand, ma'am … Sand?” he responds. “‘Oh, sure. You mean around the chrysanthemums. Sure I will.’ He clucked his tongue” (20).

These foreshadowings attest to Steinbeck's finely crafted plot in “The Chrysanthemums.” According to Barbour, Steinbeck “succeeds in organizing this story in a way he does nowhere else.”9 The chrysanthemums themselves, the story's central symbol, provide the structural underpinning of the plot. Early in the story the chrysanthemum stalks resemble phalluses, and Elisa's “over-eager” (10) snipping of them suggests castration. Then in the “rooting” bed (12) Elisa's inserting the “little crisp shoots” into open, receptive furrows of earth suggests sexual coition. Sometime later the sprouts become Elisa's children, when she explains lovingly to the pot mender how to care for them (“I'll tell you what to do” [17]). And Elisa's full-grown chrysanthemums, which are yellow and giant (measuring “ten inches across” [11]) may represent the fruition of her talent and energy—the beautiful blooms of her desperation. Because Steinbeck did not try (as he did in “The White Quail”) to peg this symbol to a single, static idea, “The Chrysanthemums” is rich in ambiguity.

The story is rich in other ways as well. Characteristic of Steinbeck's short fiction of the 1930s, “The Chrysanthemums” contains vivid seasonal imagery, as well as colorful images of flowers, plants, and animals. The tale opens in a December “grey-flannel fog” (9), suggesting not only the lack of sunshine in winter but also the coldness and sterility of this pallid season. Cleverly suggesting the oppressive closeness of winter, Steinbeck has the fog seal the valley “like a lid” on a “closed pot” (9). This “pot” image (like the house and garden imagery discussed above) underscores Elisa's circumscribed existence. Although fog seals the Salinas Valley in greyness, the “yellow stubble fields [seem] to be bathed in pale cold sunshine” and the “thick willow scrub … [flames] with sharp and positive yellow leaves” (9). These bright, sunny yellows (including Elisa's chrysanthemums) in the midst of winter suggest Elisa's hope, rekindled by the tinker, for a more fulfilling life. That the fixer represents such hope to Elisa is made clear when she whispers as she watches the tinker leave: “That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.” (20). Elisa's garden itself can also be thought of as a paradise or Eden, with Elisa as the innocent Eve who falls prey to the wiles of the deceptive tinker. The tinker dresses in (Satanic or reptilian?) black, his eyes are dark and “full of brooding” and his hands are calloused and cracked—in “every crack a black line” (13–14).

Animal imagery also abounds in the story. Ernest W. Sullivan argues that one “cannot help being struck by the repeated association of unpleasant canine characteristics with the otherwise attractive Elisa Allen.”10 For starters, Elisa has “terrier fingers” (11), as we have seen, and she crouches “low like a fawning dog” (18) before the tinker. Elisa also raises her upper lip, “showing her teeth” (19), as would an angry dog. The correspondences between the people and their dogs in the story elucidate the human characters' behavior. The two ranch shepherds and the tinker's mongrel, though Sullivan argues to the contrary, reflect their respective masters. The Allens, like their shepherds, are a distinct breed, and (despite Elisa's foiled rebellion) they live conventional, domesticated lives; the tinker and his mongrel, on the other hand, are homeless strays who wander about looking for their next meal.

One final feature of the story that deserves our attention is Steinbeck's point of view—third-person objective. This restricted point of view—in which the narrator reports events “objectively” without entering into the minds of the characters—is especially important in regard to the protagonist. Much of Elisa Allen's appeal stems from the ambiguity of her actions, and that ambiguity is maintained because we can only surmise what she is thinking and feeling. Mary Teller in “The White Quail” is less interesting than Elisa precisely because Steinbeck too explicitly tells us what Mary is thinking, while Elisa remains a mystery.

“The Chrysanthemums,” to summarize, is probably Steinbeck's ultimate masterpiece in short fiction. In it he illustrates the frustrating limitations placed on women (and men) by sex-stereotyped roles and by traditional attitudes about “normal” female and male behavior. The sympathetically drawn Elisa Allen ranks as the most memorable female protagonist in Steinbeck's short fiction. The story's narrative, with its carefully foreshadowed surprise ending, is his most finely wrought. And the richly suggestive symbol, Elisa's chrysanthemums, allows the story to sustain widely diverse readings. Considering these strengths, it is no wonder that Mordecai Marcus calls “The Chrysanthemums” “one of the world's great short stories.”


  1. Roy S. Simmonds, “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Steinbeck Quarterly 7 (Summer-Fall 1974): 104.

  2. Letter to George Albee, 25 February 1934, in A Life in Letters, 91.

  3. Ibid.; Barbour, “Steinbeck as a Story Writer,” 122; Benson, True Adventures, 276; Owens, Steinbeck's Re-Vision, 113; Simmonds, “Original Manuscripts,” 104; Marcus, “The Lost Dream,” 54.

  4. The Long Valley (New York: Viking Press, 1938), 9. All subsequent references to this work appear in the text.

  5. Simmonds, “Original Manuscripts,” 102; Benson, True Adventures, 276; Richard Astro, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973), 116; Benton, “Steinbeck's The Long Valley,” in A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974), 71; Elizabeth E. McMahan, “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Study of a Woman's Sexuality,” Modern Fiction Studies 14 (Winter 1968–69): 458; Barbour, “Steinbeck as a Story Writer,” 122; William V. Miller, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” in A Study Guide to Steinbeck's “The Long Valley,” ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Pierian Press, 1976), 1–10; Warren French, John Steinbeck, 2d rev. ed. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), 83; Marcus, “Lost Dream,” 58; Charles A. Sweet, Jr., “Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies 20 (1974): 210–14; John H. Timmerman, John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 67; Owens, Steinbeck's Re-Vision, 110–11.

  6. Beach, American Fiction, 311–14; Marilyn H. Mitchell, “Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories,” in Steinbeck's Women: Essays in Criticism, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi, Steinbeck Monograph Series, no. 9 (Muncie, Ind.: John Steinbeck Society of America, Ball State University, 1979), 27, 33.

  7. Benson, True Adventures, 145, 275–76.

  8. Ibid., 276.

  9. Barbour, “Steinbeck as a Story Writer,” 122.

  10. Ernest W. Sullivan II. “The Cur in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Studies in Short Fiction 16 (1979): 215.

John H. Timmerman (essay date 1990)

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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 success. It is not surprising, in view of this symbiosis of exhilarating effort and exhausted despair, that one theme to surface regularly in the stories is society's failure to recognize the artistic gift and its consequent repression of the creative genius. Steinbeck explored that theme in three of his stories from The Long Valley: “The Chrysanthemums,” “The White Quail,” and “The Harness.”

“The Chrysanthemums” stimulated an unusual interest for Steinbeck. It was, as he noted in a ledger entry, the story of a woman that he could not get out of his mind. Perhaps this closeness to it led to the difficulties he endured in composing the story, for none other in The Long Valley seemed to give him quite so much trouble artistically. The labor was worth it, marking the story as one of Steinbeck's short masterpieces. Stylistically and thematically, “The Chrysanthemums” is a superb piece of compelling craftsmanship.

Perhaps the first reference to “The Chrysanthemums” occurs in an undated ledger held by the Steinbeck Research Center of San Jose State University. The notebook consists of only a few random notes, fragments of clippings, and some work of Carol Steinbeck. No unified work appears. One entry has work on a play that Steinbeck never finished called “The Wizard.” He returned to it under the title “The Wizard of Maine” in 1944–45, completing about fifteen thousand words on thirty folio leaves.1 In that notebook, however, one brief note appears in reference to “The Chrysanthemums,” probably jotted some time before he began composing the story in January 1934. The note is remarkable for its revelation of an author's discovery of his own story:

My book, all empty. Maybe sometime you will be full. But not now. I am as empty as you are. I wish I could get the lady and the chrysanthemums chrysanthems [sic] out of my mind. If she goes much further and I haven't the least idea what she's about. I'm afraid she's going to get me and she isn't much of a story anyways. But she is interesting and if she did see them along the road—what the hell. She'd feel pretty terrible if she had built up a structure.

All other drafts of “The Chrysanthemums” appear in the Tortilla Flat notebook, held by the Harry Ransom Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin. The very early starts on the story give further indication of Steinbeck's process of artistic discovery. The first draft depicts Elisa in the kitchen:

On a shelf over the kitchen sink, a little oblong mirror with fluted edges stood. In front of it lay four big hair pins, bent out of shape, shiny where the enamel was broken off at the U. Elisa, washing the noon day dishes, paused now and then to look in the mirror. Her face was now bloated now cadaverous as its reflection moved on the uneven glass. Her hands came out of the dish water and rested palms down on the spongy wooden sink board. Each finger drained soapy water. She leaned forward, peered in the mirror and then she picked up one of the hair pins, deftly captured a loose strand of light brown hair and pinned it in back of her ear. In the living room, her husband coughed to make his presence felt. Elisa regarded her fingers puckered and unhealthily white from the hot water and strong soap.

At this point, Steinbeck's ink ran out. He switched to purple ink and the switch itself, in a not unusual pattern in his ledgers, stimulated him to a reflection on his writing:

This is to be a good story. Two personalities meet, cross, flare, die and hate each other. Purple, if it were a little bit stronger, would be a good color for the story. It is coming stronger and stronger. I have a definite feeling of change today, Wednesday the 31st of January. I feel that some change has taken place. Good or bad, I don't know. It will be interesting to see. I make the record for checking back. I think either tonight or tomorrow I will receive word of that change.

In the note Steinbeck dates the story-writing as Wednesday, January 31, thus placing the composition in 1934.

A day following, Steinbeck's mind was still absorbed with personal thoughts. He switched back to black ink, his preferred color, and determined to continue the story.

Can the weather account for all of this gathering storm in my mind. What is there about the story which makes it almost impossible for me to write it. There is a section of great ecstacy in it. It is a good story as I see it. I'm having a terrible time writing it. And I should get it done for I suspect I shall get a beastly reception for TF [Tortilla Flat] and much as I fight against it, I shall be upset by that reception.

Following some personal reflections, Steinbeck concludes the note:

Now the story of the Chrysanthemums is to go on and may the Lord have mercy on it. A story of great delicacy, one difficult to produce. I must do this one well or not at all. I'm getting the feel back. Curious how my spirit was undermined a few days ago. Almost came crashing down too. I shouldn't like to start all over at the very beginning.

Evidently Steinbeck did not start all over. The next entry begins with a portrait of Henry Allen, following upon the earlier paragraph of Elisa washing dishes. Its importance lies in the insight it gives us to Henry's character:

Henry was in the living room waiting for her, she knew. He wanted to tell her something. Strange ceremonious man he was. He couldn't come right out with it when he entered the house for lunch. No, he must keep silence, what he considered a poker face, he must arrange his scene, the living room, after she had finished washing the dishes—a little ceremony. Henry was always that way. And whatever his secret was, he thought it would be a surprise to Elisa. She would fool him as she had so often before. He thought she could read his mind. How many times had she not told him what he was thinking and amazed him.

Steinbeck suggests a potential conflict between Henry and Elisa; he being ritualistic and dependable, she intuitive and quick. The following paragraph accentuates the conflict, focusing now upon Elisa's native intelligence and Henry's rather dull, methodical pattern of living:

Eliza [sic] took a towel from the rack and dried the dishes slowly. She would wear down his patience, and then start him wrong. It amused her to do this and it gave her a nice secret sense of power with which to combat the fact that she, Elisa, valedictorian of her class in Salinas High School, winner of two statewide essay contests, was the wife of a fairly successful farmer.

… The essay contests had placed her very high, and sometimes this marriage with a farmer seemed to place her rather low.

Elisa goes into the sitting room to berate Henry for not wiping his feet, but then Henry shares his secret with her: “‘Why the Ferry Seed People want me to put in sweet peas in that 20 acres out by the county road[,] ten of mixed and five of pink and five of blue. They say the land's perfect for sweet peas.’” Elisa thinks that the field of sweet peas, an idea later picked up in “The Harnass,” will be beautiful; Henry thinks only of the profit. To celebrate the decision, Henry invites her out: “‘I thought we should have a little celebration tonight, go into town for dinner and then to a picture show.’ He grinned. ‘Or how would you like to go to the fights[?]’ ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I don't think I'd like fights.’” Elisa then decides to reset the chrysanthemums before going out.

But here Steinbeck broke off. In midsentence he switches from the narrative to his unease in writing it: “She heard Henry hammering metal in the tractor shed and she went to the back porch where she kept her gardening things—This was the day's work. There's no sureness of touch in me today. I don't seem to be able to get at this story. I should not be writing this story this way at all. It should be a hard finish story.”

Several days passed before Steinbeck returned to the story, starting this time with the memorable opening lines retained in the published version, but focusing now upon Henry's labor in the field versus Elisa's work in the garden.

The versions from this point on have been ably analyzed by William Osborne in “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’” and Roy S. Simmonds's superb textual analysis in “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’”2 the last particularly important for the sexual implications of the story arising from the scene where Elisa kneels before the Tinker. Simmonds observes, “A textual study of the original manuscript of the final version of the story makes it patently obvious that Steinbeck was obliged to tone down some of the sexual implications in the work to mollify the editors of Harper's Magazine.”3 The several starts on the story, however, also signify Steinbeck's efforts to relate his theme of repression to Elisa's femininity and native genius. Whether with Henry, who wishes she would use her gifts more profitably in service to the farm, or the Tinker, who frankly abuses her gifts, the pivotal center of the tale is the complex character of Elisa Allen.

Compulsively orderly and neat, Elisa has regimented her bursting creativity into rituals. While Steinbeck deleted the passage recounting her scholastic achievements, he retains her fierce eagerness in a more subtle imagery pattern allied with her gardening. She exudes energy. Her work with the scissors is rapacious, “over-eager, over-powerful.” Her “terrier fingers” probe the flower stems with sureness and skill. Yet, for all her energy, her life is very much like the valley itself on this cloudy December day, “a closed pot.”

In the story Elisa receives two contrary pulls from outside forces upon her energy. One emanates from the Tinker, who stands as her personal and physical opposite. Languid and disheveled, the Tinker poses a host of polarities to Elisa. While her body looks “blocked and heavy in her gardening costume,” the Tinker slouches like a lean rail in a spindly fence. Her powerful force is frequently depicted in masculine terms—“handsome,” “strong”—while the Tinker is effeminately deferential. Her energy is opposed by the Tinker's sad, melancholy disposition. Her eyes are “clear as water”; the Tinker's are “dark and full of brooding.” She works with living things; he with inanimate objects. Her dog is a lively ranch shepherd; the Tinker's “a lean and rangy mongrel dog.” She sports a yellow print dress; he a black suit worn to threads. Elisa's plants stand in soldierly rows of exuberant health; his horse and donkey “drooped like unwatered flowers.”

The elaborate but artistically well-hidden list of juxtapositions function ironically, for this disheveled panhandler is also a master con man who manages to probe to the heart of Elisa's need in a way that her husband can never approach. He carries with him, beside the reek of long days on the road, the unqualified freedom to follow that road where he wills, his only aim “to follow nice weather.” Freedom is the dream he brings.

Despite her keen awareness from the very start that the Tinker is a shyster, Elisa bows to the manipulation as she senses it opens on freedom. Her flowers have been her life, her children, her talent. Her gift is “planting hands,” the chrysanthemums her offspring. When the Tinker acknowledges her gift, admitting its dangerous reality, Elisa reveals more of herself—physically and psychologically. She removes her hat and shakes out her long hair, removing layers of repressed desires from her soul. The unmasking comes to a climax, artistic as well as sexual, when she kneels before him to hand him one of her flowers. They are her progeny, her true and secret self. The sexual overtones of the passage are clear. Elisa exclaims, “‘I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely’” (p. 12).

And suddenly, like the dissipation of a sexual climax, it is over. The Tinker mends her pots, now once more just a slouch of a man rather than the revealer of her inmost heart. His retort cuts her to the quick: “It ain't the right kind of life for a woman.” As she pays him, Elisa insists, “How do you know? How can you tell?” And he leaves, with the plant she knows full well is as doomed as her momentary dream. She whispers, “There's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.” A bright direction opens, briefly, but it is a “gray afternoon” as she bathes to prepare for her evening out with Henry.

If the Tinker, almost inadvertently, opens a dream for Elisa and then quickly retreats, Henry is the second contrary tug upon Elisa's life. Having little sense of her gifts or her longing for full expression of them, Henry has also closed Elisa into a pot of routine expectations. From the start he is depicted as one who values the pragmatic more than the artistic, suggesting to Elisa that her gift could be put to better use in his orchard. When he tweaks her with the offhand compliment, “You look so nice!” he is hardly prepared for her response: “Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by ‘nice’?” (p. 16). He will take her out for one more routine evening and return her to her routine at the ranch.

Steinbeck's creation of Elisa Allen is a remarkably insightful portrait with enduring relevance. She represents at once the repression of womanhood and of the artistic gift. Torn in one direction by the mechanisms of a slovenly Tinker who nonetheless opens a dream of recognition for her, and from the other by the routines of a pragmatic husband who fails to understand her, Elisa is left with little but her chrysanthemums. And the littleness of that is signified by her cherished progeny, this nurtured part of herself, that lies wilting by the roadside, tossed out by the Tinker so that he could keep the pot. It is no wonder that we are left with the portrait of her “crying weakly—like an old woman.” It is all that others have permitted her to be.

It is possible, as Roy S. Simmonds has suggested, to consider Elisa as a headstrong woman blinded by her own femininity. In this view, the Tinker's abuses of her “symbolically re-established the position of male dominance she imagined she had wrested from him, in exactly the same way as over the years she had deprived, emasculated, her husband.”4 Read in this way, as Elisa's yearning for dominance, the garden signifies her surrogate kingdom, one in which she wields absolute authority in all matters of life and death. She is the sovereign queen. Simmonds argues,

Elisa's need for this sense of dominance over the male is not confined solely to her feelings towards her husband. She experiences this need to assert her superiority over all men, contriving always to keep them at arm's length. Her flower garden is surrounded by a protective wire fence ostensibly to keep out animals, but the fence also serves to exclude her husband and the tinker. It is not until the tinker has verbally seduced her with his assumed interest in her chrysanthemums and is admitted to her side of the fence that Elisa finds her defenses in danger of collapsing to the extent that she almost allows herself to succumb to male dominance. Almost, but not quite. … Her shame is the shame of a woman who realizes that she has momentarily lowered her defenses and all but offered herself to the male dominance she so greatly despises.5

Support for such a revisionist view may be engineered from the fact that Elisa and Henry have no offspring and that Elisa has displaced both sexuality and femininity to her flowers. Some support may also be extrapolated from Steinbeck's personal relationship with Carol. The gardening costume Elisa wears, for example, is similar to one Carol wore frequently. She too could look “strong,” “blocky,” and “handsome.” And more than once in his letters Steinbeck refers to the fact that Carol had great pride and that he sometimes could not feel close to her.

Such a reading of the story seems at odds with Steinbeck's strong rebellion against any repressive power in civilization's power bloc and his strong sensitivity toward any repressed individual. This is a theme that wends through the stories of The Pastures of Heaven and continues here in The Long Valley. Moreover, this revisionist view leaves begging this important question: What exactly would the “bright direction” that the Tinker opens for Elisa represent? Her “closed pot” of a valley does not seem, metaphorically, to be the action of her own mind, a kind of self-imposed willfulness. Rather, like the oppressive gray clouds on this December day, it is imposed upon her from without. Finally, with such a view, one wonders why Elisa would be weeping like an old woman at the conclusion. That final portrait is one of undeserved subjugation, not willful dominance.

“The Chrysanthemums” more likely should be understood as a unique and vital variation in Steinbeck's theme of social repression of the artistic gift. The personal disillusionment that Steinbeck felt at this point in his artistic career—the frequent rejections, the sense of a loss of self worth, the overwhelming loneliness—is also the guiding motif in shaping Elisa's character. The theme of the self-repressive female character more neatly fits Mary Teller of “The White Quail” than it does Elisa Allen, who typifies the individual whose gifts are ignored or repressed by the society about her.


  1. In a description of the Harry Valentine Collection in John Steinbeck: A Collection of Books and Manuscripts, “The Wizard of Maine” is described as follows: “The Wizard of Maine is divided into six sections, and is the story of a traveling elixir salesman and magician who has set out from his home in Maine and travels across the country in hope of being discovered, so that he can perform his tricks on stage as a professional.” The description states, “Composition date for the manuscript is unknown, but would seem to date from the 1940s based upon the style of the binder housing the paper.” Jackson J. Benson dates the composition from the summer of 1944 (True Adventures, pp. 550–51).

  2. See William R. Osborne, “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (Winter 1966–67): 479–84; and Roy S. Simmonds, “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Steinbeck Quarterly 7 (Summer-Fall 1974): 102–11.

  3. Simmonds, “Original Manuscripts of ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” p. 103.

  4. Ibid., pp. 110–11.

  5. Ibid., pp. 108–9. For other views on the sexuality and femininity of Elisa, see Mordecai Marcus, “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring 1965): 54–58; Charles A. Sweet, Jr., “Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies 20 (June 1974): 210–14; and Steinbeck's Women: Essays in criticism, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi.

Susan Shillinglaw (essay date 1991)

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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 his two most famous stories about women, “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail.” As Steinbeck records in his journals, the germ for each is that moment when a woman learns something profound about herself, a moment of insight either grasped or denied: Elisa seeing the chrysanthemums on the road; Mary in her garden, looking in the window. Before he composed “The Chrysanthemums” in 1934, Steinbeck wrote:

I wish I could get the lady and the chrysanthemums out of my mind. If she goes much further, I'll have to write her and I haven't the least idea what she's about. I'm afraid she's going to get me and she isn't much of a story any way. But she is interesting and if she did see them along side the road—what the hell. She'd feel pretty terrible if she had built up a structure. And if her structure were built on an inner joy, all the more.2

Clearly what intrigues Steinbeck is the instant when the structure, her envisioned life, topples completely. Such crises often appear in Steinbeck's work—although many of his characters certainly resist knowledge. But not Elisa. Hers is a story about change.

I would like to suggest a source for this tale about Elisa Allen's knowledge—the Pygmalion legend. For an author whose works frequently draw upon a mythic tradition, it is hardly surprising that this story of metamorphosis reveals his debts to both Ovid and George Bernard Shaw in delineating the stifling effects of both sexual repression and middle-class complacency.

In Ovid's version, the motive for transformation is sexual. Disgusted with the Propoetides, the whorish women he knows, the artist Pygmalion imagines an ideal woman, carves her in stone, and lovingly caresses her. And Venus, rewarding him for envisioning this ideal, grants Pygmalion the wish he dares not utter, the transformation of his statue into a woman. In Shaw's version of the legend, however, the sexual energy is diffused; Henry Higgins's sublime female is his mother, not the fair Eliza. Urging Eliza to stay with him at the end of the play, he offers her only a cozy triangle of her, Higgins, and Pickering, “three bachelors.” He defines a complete life thus: “I care for life, for humanity, and you are a part of it that has come my way and been built into my house. What more can you or anyone ask?”3 For him, Eliza Doolittle exists as an object, a useful piece of furniture. Triumphantly, he brags of the transformation she desires and he effects—not a sexual change but a social one, a change of class. Yet the metamorphosis does not free her. “Until the last scene of the play,” notes one commentator, “Eliza is in a position of economic, as well as emotional and intellectual dependence on Higgins. She is a kept woman.”4 Pygmalion/Henry's dominance effects one metamorphosis, one that is, in effect, static, the creation of an articulate and finely dressed lady. But Lady Eliza must effect a second metamorphosis, specifically that from a kept woman to a free one. She must define life on her own terms. Thus, while making class the central issue, Shaw's play also studies the inadequacies of Pygmalion/Henry's intellectual ideal. The creative mind in both the classical and the nineteenth-century versions envisions an ideal woman who must live in order to respond. In Ovid, life rewards the creator; in Shaw, life reveals the inadequacies of the creator.

Steinbeck fuses the different emphases found in Ovid and Shaw. He shows the sexual repressions a woman feels, not just in a broad social sense, but in the sense that class differences imply various degrees of empowerment and repression.5 He has taken Ovid and Shaw and made their myths his own representation of men and women in a bourgeois world they uncritically accept as the only one imaginable, despite the possibilities for revolution held out, albeit deceptively, by the tinker. The open road is really a dead end for Elisa.

In the beginning of the story Steinbeck's Elisa, like Shaw's Eliza, is a kept woman. The opening paragraphs that describe the valley suggest her isolation, and, as Louis Owens notes, her “suspended life, awaiting the fertilizing imagination of the tinker.”6 But the figurative language also conveys a sense of mechanized, transformed nature, and this, too, helps characterize Elisa. Fog sits like a lid; the Salinas Valley is a closed pot; earth gleams like metal; willow shrubs “flame with sharp and positive leaves,”7 as if etched. Nature, now held in check, has undergone a metamorphosis into something static and vaguely forbidding. And Elisa, the woman closest to nature, is similarly checked—fenced in when we first see her. In one of the best analyses of the story, Marilyn Mitchell argues that both Eliza and Mary Teller of “The White Quail” are “trapped between society's definition of the masculine and the feminine and are struggling against the limitations of the feminine.”8 More pointedly, it is the middle class—with all of the sexual, spiritual, and social inhibitions it enforces—that traps Elisa, as it does many throughout Steinbeck's work. She has been repressed by the very things which, while gardening, she achieves physical distance from—the tidy house behind her and the men conversing “down” to her. But no psychological escape follows. The syntax of the first sentence describing Elisa conveys her awareness of male prerogatives: “Elisa Allen, working in her flower garden, looked down across the yard and saw Henry, her husband, talking to two men in business suits” (LV, p. 4). The main clause addresses her awareness of the empowered male, but the phrase suggests her avocation. In the second page of the story that describes her gardening activities, there are four references to Elisa's glances toward this authoritative group, each of whom stands “with one foot on the side of the little Fordson” tractor. Steinbeck repeatedly shows that the bourgeois world restricts Elisa's self definition and creativity. When first described, she wears male clothing like a shield: “Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured spring dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets. … She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked” (LV, p. 4). The male attire compromises Elisa's sexual identity, and this blurred identity causes much of her frustration. The softness that she later so poignantly reveals is, initially, concealed beneath the unwieldy clothing. Unconsciously, she “pulls on the gardening glove again” when Henry approaches, not only steeling herself against him, but revealing the impossibility at this point of identifying herself outside a male sphere. Furthermore, nothing in Elisa's world gives her pure pleasure. Even her creative outlet, gardening, is an adulterated delight: “The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (LV, p. 10). When Henry first speaks to her, he taints their beauty by applying the language of commerce to the flowers, noting their size and wishing that she'd “work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (LV, p. 5). Henry speaks the language of power, particularly when compared to the tinker's later poetic rendering of a chrysanthemum as “a quick puff of colored smoke” (LV, p. 10). The paragraph that precedes the arrival of the tinker further reveals the psychological limitations of Elisa's gardening:

With her trowel she turned the soil over and over, and smoothed it and patted it firm. Then she dug ten parallel trenches to receive the sets. Back at the chrysanthemum bed she pulled out the little crisp shoots, trimmed off the leaves of each one with her scissors and laid it on a small orderly pile. (LV, p. 6)

Her garden is as ordered and controlled as she is. The outlet she chooses is an inadequate substitute for the more fulfilling life that she, at this point, barely recognizes that she subconsciously craves.

For this earthy Elisa, like her Shavian predecessor, accepts the place that Henry/Pygmalion assigns her in his world, although chafing at its boundaries that limit physical, psychological, and sexual freedom. Throughout, it is the conversation between the two that best reflects the conventional nature of their partnership, the degree to which the metamorphosis that a husband effects is complete. Here, I would suggest that Steinbeck deliberately parodies the profession of Shaw's Henry Higgins, the grammarian. Although this Henry is a man of plain words, when Elisa is with him, his speech patterns hers. She speaks as plainly as he, often echoing his words. Coming toward her after completing his business deal, he first notes her “strong” crop, and she replies that “They'll be strong this coming year” (LV, p. 5). Henry then observes that she has a “gift with things” and Elisa agrees that she has “a gift with things, all right.” When the conversation shifts from flowers, her responses become rote. To Henry's news and his proposal that they go to town, she repeatedly notes that his actions and suggestions are “good,” a word to which she returns at the end of the story when she once again accepts her lot as the dutiful wife:

She said loudly, to be heard above the motor, “It will be good, tonight, a good dinner.” “Now you've changed again,” Henry complained. He took one hand from the wheel and patted her knee. “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.” (LV, p. 17)

The blandness of “good” or “nice” reflects the sterility of their marriage. The word “heavy,” earlier used to describe Elisa's male clothing, here suggests the oppression that she, in particular, feels on the ranch. And “strong,” the other word that so frequently identifies Elisa or her activities, ironically underlines her powerlessness, in spite of her undoubted vitality. The few words that Henry knows, that Elisa echoes, and that the author uses to characterize both, identify not only the constrictions on their marriage, but more broadly the limitations of the bourgeois world.

In sharp contrast to this tight and tidy sphere, the tinker's entourage lacks order: “Up this road came a curious vehicle, curiously drawn” with squeaking wheels, a “crazy, loose-jointed wagon. … It was drawn by an old bay horse and a little grey-and-white burro,” a mismatched team. “Words were painted on the canvas, in clumsy, crooked letters,” some misspelled; paint drips beneath each letter (LV, p. 7). The wagon itself, compared to a prairie schooner, suggests a world far different from Elisa's—the myth of the West, of freedom, of enterprising souls, of self-sufficiency. Critics have suggested various reasons for her attraction to the tinker. In him, argues Marilyn L. Mitchell, she “finds a man whose strength seems to match hers” (Mitchell, p. 312). She responds, notes William V. Miller, to the romanticism of his “vagabond life”9; and to her “desire for the freedom of the male,” Richard F. Peterson maintains.10 Without discounting any of these suggestions, I would argue that she responds first not to his mode of life but to the man himself, a man from a class different from her own. Unlike her husband, he is a laborer, as the emphasis in Steinbeck's description of him makes vividly clear: his suit is “worn” and “spotted with grease,” his hat battered; his eyes “were full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors”; and his “calloused hands” are “cracked, and every crack was a black line” (LV p. 8). This big, disheveled itinerant works with his hands (an important focus throughout the story), as her bourgeois husband seemingly does not.

It is of less importance, I think, that this craftsman is false than that Elisa does not notice or care that he manipulates her. Both the tinker and Johnny Bear, observes Miller, embody “Steinbeck's ambiguous vision of the artist's morality,” although “the tinker's manipulative art is conscious” (Miller, p. 71). This con artist immediately transforms Elisa, just as Steinbeck intended his own tale to have a startling impact on readers. This story, he wrote, “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.”11 Similarly, this rough-hewn Pygmalion causes something profound to occur; a dark Lawrentian man, as Peterson notes, he is the catalyst for Elisa's metamorphosis into a sexual, fulfilled woman.12 With Henry she is cautious, stiff, and careful. With the tinker she expands immediately, laughing with him on his arrival. Then she stands up, takes off her gloves, and, when he mentions her flowers, she “melts,” and her actions become eager and excited. Her language flows freely; gone are the staccato responses of her dialogue with Henry. Only when he uses the language of commerce, a speech all too familiar to her, does she resist him. But unlike Henry, he speaks both a commercial and a poetic language, and to the latter she responds, most particularly when he mentions her flowers. Elisa changes rapidly as she prepares her sprouts for the tinker to take, her gift to him of herself. Without discounting Mordecai Marcus's argument that the flowers represent her maternal urges, I would suggest that these “big,” “strong” chrysanthemums more forcefully represent Elisa herself, just as the white quail represents Mary Teller.13 So when the tinker seems to understand her soul—as Harry Teller cannot comprehend Mary's—Elisa imparts to him its meaning, the feeling expressed in her “planter's hands.” Unlike her terse comments to Henry about these hands, Elisa's comments to the tinker are expansive. “I don't know how to tell you,” she begins (LV, p. 11). Although Steinbeck again focuses on the potential inadequacy of language, in Elisa's longest, most impassioned speech, she finds words to express what Edward F. Ricketts called the experience of “breaking through,” from contact with the earth to knowledge of the stars. It is an Emersonian moment of transcending the physical to the spiritual, what Steinbeck envisioned as “a section of great ecstasy” when he was still struggling to write the opening paragraphs.14 And the climax, as most commentators have noted, is overtly sexual. To complete the metamorphosis from somebody's woman to her own, she must find both spiritual and physical fulfillment. From the tinker she needs only the briefest encouragement, for the moment is truly her own, and the change effected in her is complete, if, as all such heightened awareness must be, it is also transitory.

The rest of the story tells of Elisa's gradual withdrawal from this moment. In The Long Valley there are at least five stories about female sexuality, “The Chrysanthemums,” “The White Quail,” “The Snake,” “The Murder,” “Johnny Bear,” and possibly more, and each is patterned like a sexual encounter—expositions, a climax where the language is rather explicitly sexual, and the aftermath. After her own orgasmic moment, Elisa engages herself once again with her physical reality, first by reaching for another, the tinker, to share awareness: “her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog” (LV, p. 12). When she reaches for his leg, she reaches out her “planter's hands” to connect with human life, and retreats. She is “like a fawning dog” because the spiritualized moment known only to humans is gone, and she must return to the physical world, to a man whose real concerns are not with her feelings but with a meal on the table and a pot to mend.15 Her brave assertions about female capabilities—so similar to the speeches of Shaw's Eliza at the end of the play—and her dreamy farewell to the tinker once again identify precisely what her bourgeois existence lacks—ecstasy:

“That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.” The sound of her whisper startled her. She shook herself free and looked about to see whether anyone had been listening. Only the dogs had heard. (LV, p. 14)

Once again, the dogs suggest her retreat to a world without visions, where she seeks physical compensations. The tinker's road is one she travels only in a car with her husband.

Unlike Shaw's flower girl, who is changed first to a lady, then to an independent woman, Steinbeck's Elisa, however “strong,” cannot define herself in either sphere of male empowerment. A Shavian woman who has declared her independence is often unmarried, like Eliza, so can assert and act upon her sexual, economic, and social freedom. Elisa Allen, however, is trapped by the institution of marriage, the bulwark of middle class values. Whereas her predecessor exits triumphantly, Elisa shrinks in defeat. But she does not forgo her “strength” easily. After the tinker departs, she tries to transfer her heightened awareness into the physical pleasures that are hers also in her garden—vigorously scrubbing in the bath, carefully assessing her body, slowly dressing for dinner. But once again, the male presence begins to sap her strength, her sense of herself. She must “set herself for Henry's arrival,” and, delaying his approach, sit “primly and stiffly down.” Just as Elisa changes gradually back to her accustomed self, so, too, does the story return to the language and imagery of the first pages. As she awaits Henry, she “looked toward the river road where the willow-line was still yellow with frosted leaves so that under the high grey fog they seemed a thin band of sunshine. This was the only color in the grey afternoon. She sat unmoving for a long time. Her eyes blinked rarely” (LV, p. 15). Readjusting herself to her static world, Elisa is as unmoving as a statue—Henry/Pygmalion's creation once again. As a wife, she looks with clarity at the fog and the light that so poignantly suggest, as Miller argues, her feelings of entrapment and squelched hopes (Miller, pp. 69–70).

The end of the story reinforces her sense of failure. But readers are often unsettled and puzzled about Elisa's final retreat. Why does she ask about the fights? A glance at the original text may help answer that question. In an article entitled “The Text of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” William R. Osborne discusses the differences between the text Steinbeck first published in Harper's Magazine in 1937 and the one included in his collection of stories, The Long Valley, in 1938.16 One of the most substantive changes is in the paragraphs about Elisa's reaction to the “dark speck,” her flowers thrown on the road. The original text ends with these sentences:

She felt ashamed of her strong planter's hands that were no use, lying palms up in her lap. In a moment they had left behind them the man who had not known or needed to know what she said, the bargainer. She did not look back. (Osborne, p. 481)

Obviously more expository than the later version, this passage also returns the reader more insistently to her earlier transcendent moment with references to her hands, her explanation, and her shame. Through these verbal echoes, Steinbeck emphasizes the finality of her retreat from fulfillment. Furthermore, the reference to her hands gives us a clue, I believe, to the resolution of the story. Touch is Elisa's most acute sense, and she is attracted to the hands of a different class—to the tinker's calloused and skillful hands, to the “fighting gloves [that] get heavy and soggy with blood” (LV, p. 17). These males from a class lower than her own seem in contact with life, movement, freedom, and violence. As in Shaw's Pygmalion, Steinbeck contrasts the enervating effects of one class with the freedom and energy possible to the lower class. It thus seems wrong to argue that Elisa queries Henry about the fights because she wishes to punish men. Elisa does not hate men, but is fascinated by their power, the kind denied her. “Do any women ever go to the fights?” she asks her husband. “Some,” but not many, and certainly not the wife Elisa who knows that she is once again inside her fence, or, at this point, inside Henry's car. Wine suffices because it must, and Elisa cries weakly—“like an old woman”—because she accepts her fate. She will never take the road again.

Steinbeck's treatment of the Pygmalion legend is thus much bleaker than either Ovid's or Shaw's, both of which, however different, end in self-assertion. As she exits, Elisa Allen cries not because she is yet weak or old, but because she is defeated by the bourgeois vision she must accept as her own. Ironically, the water that the land and the farmers so eagerly await at the beginning of the story arrives at last: tears of death, however, not of life.


  1. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1984), pp. 250–51.

  2. John Steinbeck, unpublished ledger book, Steinbeck Research Center, San Jose State University, p. 29.

  3. George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1912), p. 95.

  4. A. M. Gibbs, “The End of Pygmalion,” The Art and Mind of Shaw: Essays in Criticism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), p. 170.

  5. Critics have been divided on precisely what oppresses and frustrates Elisa. Peter Lisca, among others, suggests that her role as a woman is the source of her unhappiness. Mordecai Marcus disagrees, quoting F. W. Watt's observation that Elisa's desires are “ambiguously sexual and spiritual” and arguing that this “ambiguity combined with Elisa's pervasive combination of femininity and masculinity” is central to the story (p. 54). It does not seem to me that the two are mutually exclusive, and I wish to give the broadest possible definition for her unhappiness as a woman in a culture that frustrates many desires.

  6. Louis D. Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 109.

  7. John Steinbeck, “The Chrysanthemums,” The Long Valley (New York: Viking Press, 1938), p. 3. Subsequent citations from this work will appear as LV.

  8. Marilyn L. Mitchell, “Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories,” Southwest Review, 61 (Summer 1976), 306.

  9. William V. Miller, “Sexual and Spiritual Ambiguity in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Steinbeck Quarterly, 5 (Summer-Fall 1972), 71.

  10. Richard F. Peterson, “The God in the Darkness: A Study of John Steinbeck and D. H. Lawrence,” Steinbeck's Literary Dimension: A Guide to Comparative Studies, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1973), p. 69.

  11. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, eds., Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p. 91.

  12. Both Richard F. Peterson and Roy S. Simmonds note the similarities between Steinbeck and Lawrence; Simmonds observes that the tinker is a “romantically virile man of nature who (only symbolically in this story, however) seduces her.” I would add emphasis to this point by noting that class differences here, as in Lawrence, contribute to the attraction. “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Steinbeck Quarterly, 7 (Summer-Fall 1974), 107.

  13. Mordecai Marcus, “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 11 (Spring 1965), 54–58.

  14. Simmonds, 104. It seems fairly certain that Steinbeck is referring to this section of the story; he envisioned both his scene and the one where Elisa sees the chrysanthemums on the road, as discussed above, before he wrote the story, showing how significant that moment of change or insight is to his conception of the tale.

  15. In a recent article, C. Kenneth Pellow argues that Elisa is “like a fawning dog” because she retires, as do the tinker's dogs, “from a potential fight, the struggle to free herself from a situation in which she feels trapped” (p. 10). His interpretation of this moment is close to my own. “‘The Chrysanthemums’ Revisited,” Steinbeck Quarterly, 22 (Winter-Spring 1989), 8–16.

  16. William R. Osborne, “The Texts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (Winter 1966–67), 470–84.

Christopher S. Busch (essay date 1993)

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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 described by Jackson J. Benson as “a throwback to the frontier towns of a half-century before.”1 This vital interest in the frontier West remained with him throughout his life, impelling him in America and Americans to validate traditional mythic conceptions of the nation's Western heritage. He writes:

The dreams of a people either create folk literature or find their way into it; and folk literature, again, is always based on something that happened. Our most persistent folk tales—constantly retold in books, movies, and television shows—concern cowboys, gunslinging sheriffs and Indian fighters. These folk figures existed—perhaps not quite as they are recalled nor in the numbers indicated, but they did exist; and this dream also persists.2

While a number of critics have noted Steinbeck's focus on frontier themes, several seek to distance Steinbeck from the traditional Wild West mythology he embraces above, as well as from traditional visions of pioneers' agrarian and westering experiences on the frontier. In “‘Directionality’: The Compass in the Heart,” for example, John Ditsky argues that The Grapes of Wrath shows “mere westering leads nowhere,”3 and Chester E. Eisinger describes “the bankruptcy of Jefferson's ideal” in “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath” and claims that “we must seek another road to the independence and security and dignity we expect from democracy.”4 Warren French argues that Grapes represents “an attempt … to explode rather than perpetuate the myths and conventions upon which Western genre fiction [is] based.”5 And in his recent study, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America Louis Owens holds that

Steinbeck again and again in short story and novel held the dangers of the westering myth up to view. … Steinbeck saw no cornucopia of democracy in the retreating frontier, but rather a destructive and even fatal illusion barring Americans from the realization of any profound knowledge of the continent they had crossed.6

Though these views reflect a developing critical consensus regarding Steinbeck's vision of the frontier, Steinbeck's own words in America and Americans, and the words of a sympathetic farmer he presents in Travels with Charley, who laments, “This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone?”7 haunt us and call us back to reconsider the nature of Steinbeck's deeply held vision of the frontier past.

Though French has distanced Steinbeck's work from the western genre, in fact Steinbeck's preoccupations closely parallel issues central to literary western stories and novels, particularly those that examine contemporary cultural degeneration. William Bloodworth discovers in the literary western “the sense of a vanished world in which action, gesture, and character had more significance than it does [sic] in the present.”8 Similarly, David Lavender, citing the works of Conrad Richter and Willa Cather, describes the frequent appearance of characters plagued by “a vitiation of energy” who experience “the universal tragedy of lost strength.”9 In “Steinbeck's ‘The Leader of the People’: A Crisis in Style,” Phillip J. West describes Steinbeck's affiliation with this tradition, reflected in his depiction of the “diminished stature of society in the Salinas Valley … [which] is … hinted at in the epic devices that outlive epic greatness.”10 In fact, not only in The Red Pony but throughout his career, Steinbeck frequently exhibited concern that when compared to the frontier past, contemporary American life often lacks integrity and meaning, and that contemporary Americans increasingly resemble “a national kennel of animals with no purpose and no direction.”11 In delineating these deficits in culture and character, Steinbeck consistently represents the mythic frontier past and its prototypical figures—yeomen, cowboys, scouts, frontier fighters, hunters, wagonmasters, and westering pioneers—as an ideal or standard, while at the same time portraying modern characters who are, at best, diminished descendants of these idealized frontier types.

This comparative strategy appears, for example, in Steinbeck's characterization of such diverse figures as the hapless “hunter,” Hubert Van Deventer, in The Pastures of Heaven (1932), the inept “scout,” Pimples Carson, in The Wayward Bus (1947), and even the effete store clerk, Ethan Allen Hawley, in The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), who painfully recognizes the disparity between his own experience and that of his legendary ancestor.12 Valuing the skill, self-reliance, and forthright vision of their cultural (and at times biological) forebears yet incapable of similar achievement themselves, such characters often live destructive lives that can only be described as diminished perversions of mythic frontier life. Steinbeck's effort to illuminate modern personal and cultural degeneration through reference to frontier types is also convincingly revealed in two stories from The Long Valley collection, “The White Quail” and “The Chrysanthemums.”

In “The White Quail,” Steinbeck describes the protagonist, Mary Teller, as a diminished modern yeoman who attempts to create a perfect garden in the post-frontier West. Mary's husband, Harry, contributes to this project for a time, but ultimately recognizes its perverse nature and hunts down and kills the white quail, which, in Mary's mind, symbolizes the garden's perfection. Owens argues that “Mary's garden is an attempt to construct an unfallen Eden in a fallen world, a neurotic projection of Mary's self.”13 He concludes that the story ultimately reveals “the futility of holding to the Eden myth—even the danger of the illusion.”14 In describing Mary as yeoman and Harry as hunter, however, Steinbeck does not sharply undercut the myth of agrarianism as Owens suggests. Instead, by revealing the degenerate nature of the characters' personalities and actions, Steinbeck satirizes the narcissism and pathological self-delusion that cripple the modern American imagination and reflect the culture's degeneration.

As a frontier-based narrative, Steinbeck's story achieves much of its power through the dualistic quality of its setting and characters. Steinbeck purposely sets the story on a “frontier,” or borderland possessing attributes of both a wilderness and a Crèvecoeurian “middle region” to emphasize the story's thematic connection with frontier history:

Right at the edge of the garden, the hills started up, wild with cascara bushes and poison oak, with dry grass and live oak, very wild. If you didn't go around to the front of the house, you couldn't tell it was on the very edge of town.15

This setting functions as a modern suburban frontier, similar in appearance to the historical frontier, but diminished in size, a kind of mock frontier. The setting is both like the historical frontier and unlike it at the same time, just as the characters are both types and antitypes of mythic frontier figures.

In her effort to tame this frontier and transform it into a garden, Mary Teller appears to be a descendant of the homesteader, or yeoman, celebrated in the agrarian myth. Yet, in actuality, Mary is a diminished yeoman whose approach to nature inverts the yeoman's traditional approach to the land. Where the pioneer yeoman saw opportunity in the wilderness and approached it with expectancy, Mary sees danger in “the dark thickets of the hill”: “‘That's the enemy,’ Mary said one time. ‘That's the world that wants to get in, all rough and tangled and unkempt’” (pp. 26–27). Where the yeoman gained strength and virtue through contact with the soil, Mary protects herself from contact with nature by wearing a “sunbonnet” and “good sturdy gloves” (p. 25), and hires workers to carry out the actual labor.

Harry joins his wife on this suburban frontier as a diminished hunter, reminiscent of the Wild West hunter in the Leatherstocking tradition, yet curiously distinct from the type as well. Like the hunter. Harry appears near the story's end as a skilled marksman more at home in the wilderness of the hill beyond the garden than in the garden itself. But in his unconsidered acquiescence to Mary's neurotic wishes, his choice of an air gun as a weapon, and his pursuit of the harmless white quail as prey, Harry becomes a ridiculous figure, scarcely resembling the self-reliant frontier hunter whose “physical strength, adaptability to nature, resourcefulness and courage”16 defined him as a heroic type.

As the story progresses, Steinbeck intensifies the distinction between the ideals of frontier yeoman and hunter and the modern setting and characters. Robert S. Hughes, Jr., argues that in both setting and plot, the story is “unusually static.”17 Implicit in the idea of frontier development is change and progress, but here stasis becomes the ideal: “‘We won't ever change it, will we Harry?’” Mary begs. “‘If a bush dies, we'll put another one just like it in the same place’” (p. 24). Whereas the yeoman harvested trees to build a shelter and food crops to feed a family, Mary's “harvest” consists of the sight of birds that “come to my garden for peace and for water” (p. 27), “bowls of flowers [which] were exquisite” (p. 25), and ultimately the white quail, “an essence boiled down to utter purity” (p. 33). And whereas the yeomen faced life-threatening challenges from Indians seeking to reclaim their land, droughts, floods, and fires, Mary and Harry must defend themselves against such dubious adversaries as snails and slugs:

Mary held the flashlight while Harry did the actual killing. … He knew it must be a disgusting business to her, but the light never wavered. “Brave girl,” he thought. “She has a sturdiness in back of that fragile beauty.” (p. 26)

Near the story's end, the diminished Tellers face a final threat to their garden world in the form of a cat pursuing the quail. James C. Work argues that the white quail is a “life force,”18 and Owens claims that the cat represents “the real world that Mary cannot keep forever from her garden.”19 Yet the Tellers' reaction to these two animals further emphasizes the protagonists' degeneration. As “an albino. No pigment in the feathers” (p. 35), the quail is indeed rare. But like the bowls of flowers and the garden itself, the quail is valued not for its genuine affinity with nature but rather for its distinctiveness, or isolation, from the “impurity” Mary imputes to the uncontrolled natural world. Similarly, though the cat is obviously a threat to the quail, it presents no real danger to the Tellers. What is significant in this minor conflict is that the Tellers elevate it to the stature of crisis, just as the snail hunt takes on exaggerated meaning earlier. The story's final episode thus becomes a testament to the Tellers' diminishment.

Harry's decision to kill the white quail, instead of the cat, at the end of the story may be seen, as Owens suggests, as an attack in frustration against “the heart of Mary's illusory garden.” But Harry is not “an exile from the unreal Eden” as Owens claims.20 Though they are at odds in their valuation of the white quail, the Tellers are much more alike in their misplaced values than they are different. As Steinbeck depicts them, they are both degenerate types: she a modern yeoman, he a modern hunter. They are Americans whose contracted imaginative vision interprets cats, slugs, and snails as adversaries to be destroyed, and whose unproductive suburban pleasure gardens provide meaningless challenges that ironically prove insurmountable. In their effort to create a “pure” landscape to mirror Mary's obsessive preconceptions and to give them both sensate pleasure, the Tellers lose perspective and forfeit any authentic relationship with the complex reality of nature and with each other. Their world is, as Owens argues, “an emotional wasteland without any certain hope for fructification, spiritual or physical.”21 Through this satire on modern western “settlement,” Steinbeck exposes the suburban frontier and its “settlers,” and questions what remains in American character of the physical capability and expansive vision of the West's pioneers.

In “The Chrysanthemums,” a second story in The Long Valley collection, Steinbeck again addresses the issue of cultural degeneration, this time in connection with the idea of westering. Work argues that “Elisa's life [on the foothill ranch] is dull, repetitive and vaguely frustrating,” whereas “the itinerant tinker who pulls up to her fence one afternoon is a virile life-force who comes into her closed valley, arouses and confuses her emotions, and leaves.”22 Owens agrees with Work's assessment of Elisa's situation, claiming that “Elisa is seeking symbols of commitment in a world of physical, spiritual, and emotional isolation and sterility,”23 a world revitalized in the story by “the fertilizing imagination of the tinker.”24 As Hughes persuasively argues, however, the tinker is a self-serving character who “lives for his own pleasure.”25 French identifies him as an “unscrupulous confidence man,” and reads the story as an indictment against “the manipulation of people's dreams for selfish purposes.”26

In contrast to the tinker's ambiguous character, Elisa can be seen as the truly vital life force in the story. Although her frustration with the limitations placed on her by her situation causes her to find the tinker's life attractive, Elisa's authentic connection to the earth validates her own life and serves as a strong contrast to the basic deception practiced by the tinker. The tinker, far from being a symbol of vitality, is rather a symbol of the degeneration of westering mythic energies, which were founded on acts of discovery and exploration. Although troubling in its apparent denigration of Elisa's situation, in actuality, the story celebrates her authentic connection to a realistic garden and reveals through the character of the tinker the absence of significant direction or purpose that debilitates modern American culture.

The story opens in late autumn, traditionally associated with the decline of the year and here symbolic of cultural decline as well.27 In his portrayal of Elisa, Steinbeck creates an image of a person at home in nature, comfortable in a garden of her own making, and free of the neuroses that plague Mary Teller:

Her face was eager and mature and handsome. … She brushed a cloud of hair out of her eyes with the back of her glove, and left a smudge of earth on her cheek in doing it. Behind her stood the neat white farm house with red geraniums close banked around it as high as the windows. (p. 4)

In tending her garden, Elisa has “a gift with things,” Steinbeck writes, “planter's hands that knew” how to work in concert with nature's seasonal cycles (p. 5). Although critics often emphasize the sterility of Elisa's life, in fact, she operates, in contrast to both her husband and the tinker, as a vital force that maintains the yeoman's idealized connection with the land.

The tinker contrasts sharply with Elisa, functioning as a symbol of both personal and cultural degeneration. Steinbeck emphasizes the importance of this figure as a symbolic descendant of the westering pioneers by placing him at the reins of an anachronistic vehicle, “an old spring-wagon, with a round canvas top on it like the cover of a prairie schooner” (p. 7). Elisa and her husband own a roadster. The tinker enters the scene, then, as an important symbol of frontier westering that seems to emerge again on a post-frontier landscape. Yet degeneration, not vitality, distinguishes this modern westerer, who becomes an antitype of the pioneers. His condition reflects both his own degenerate moral “vision,” which neither values Elisa's patient nurturing of the land and gift of chrysanthemum sprouts nor exhibits any scruples about deceptively manipulating her emotions, and the decay of a central, once-grand westering tradition. Steinbeck highlights the disjunction between the tinker and the pioneers through his description of the wagon:

Elisa … watched to see the crazy, loose-jointed wagon pass by. But it didn't pass. It turned into the farm road in front of her house, crooked old wheels skirling and squeaking. … Words were painted on the canvas, in clumsy, crooked letters. “Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.” Two rows of articles, and the triumphantly definitive “Fixed” below. The black paint had run down in little sharp points beneath each letter. (p. 7)

Reminiscent in shape only of the frontier settlers who pioneered the vast reaches of the continent and etched their destination and the epic stature of their adventure—“California or Bust”—on their canvases, the tinker and his rig, trade, and lack of direction all point symbolically to his degenerate state as a diminished descendant of the pioneers. In marked contrast to Elisa's vibrant flowers, the tinker's “horse and … donkey drooped like unwatered flowers” (p. 7), and unlike the westerers Grandfather celebrates in “The Leader of the People,” the tinker has no destination, no purpose or goal in mind: “‘I ain't in any hurry, ma'am. I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather’” (p. 8). Roads and the places they lead figure prominently throughout Steinbeck's fiction. By contrasting the tinker's journey with the mythic westering trek in terms of both its directionality and relative significance of purpose, Steinbeck argues that not only this representative man but much of the culture is off its “general road,” its historical road of destiny (p. 8). Unlike the pioneers, whose linear movement became a metaphor for both personal and cultural progress, this modern-day westerer simply travels in circles, not building a new culture but patching up the old, broken, worn-out one symbolized in the pots and pans he repairs.

The great irony of “The Chrysanthemums” is that a woman of tremendous vitality and connection with the natural world would be attracted to the aimless life of the tinker. Some critics argue that the narrowness of Elisa's life, symbolized by the fog-shrouded farm that resembles a “closed pot” in Steinbeck's opening description (p. 1), prompts her to idealize the tinker's carefree existence. Though Elisa's life clearly is not entirely satisfying, she seems nevertheless to misapprehend the truly bankrupt nature of the tinker's life. “‘That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there,’” (p. 14) Elisa comments as the tinker departs, and through her gift of chrysanthemum sprouts she vicariously joins him on his circuitous route. But the trip into town undeceives her, for on the roadside she discovers her discarded chrysanthemums, symbol of her earth-based vitality, cast aside by the tinker, providing ample evidence, in Owens's words, of “the tinker's broken faith.”28

Here Steinbeck clearly indicates that despite Elisa's dissatisfaction with human relationships in her life, her connection with the earth, a realistic yet beautiful garden, is authentic, just as her gift of chrysanthemums is authentic and vital. The life of the tinker, on the other hand, lacks physical, moral, and spiritual direction. By consciously manipulating Elisa's fascination with the pioneer spirit of freedom and adventure—in fact, by fraudulently posing as the modern embodiment of that spirit—simply to increase his trade, the tinker crushes Elisa's vital nature and destroys the momentary emotional and psychic pleasure she experiences by vicariously joining the tinker on his “adventurous” journey. Through his depiction of the tinker as a degenerate modern descendant of the westering pioneers, Steinbeck contrasts the aimlessness of modern American culture with the purpose and accomplishment of the westering heritage in American history. In his intrusion and despoilment of Elisa's imperfect but significantly productive and life-giving garden, the tinker becomes for Steinbeck a dark portrait of modern America's physical and transcendentally spiritual distance from its agrarian and westering past, a figure entirely lacking any respect for Elisa's wholesome connection with her land or a supra-material, visionary conception of personal or cultural advancement and progress.

Like Travels with Charley, America and Americans, and The Wayward Bus, among others, “The White Quail” and “The Chrysanthemums” reveal an important dimension of Steinbeck's fascinating, often paradoxical vision of America's frontier heritage. Whereas Ditsky, Owens, and French emphasize Steinbeck's self-distancing from traditional frontier mythology and history, here we see his appropriation of that legacy as a kind of ideal against which to measure contemporary American culture. Perhaps the greatest significance of these two stories, in addition to their thematic embrace of frontier ideals, is their date of publication; for although it may be argued that Steinbeck's celebration of the frontier past in Travels with Charley and America and Americans represents the nostalgic musings of an aging writer, these stories appeared, of course, as Steinbeck neared the pinnacle of his artistic powers in the thirties, indicating an early (and enduring) fascination with the mythic frontier West not yet fully appreciated.


  1. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1984), 138, 134.

  2. John Steinbeck, America and Americans (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 33–34.

  3. John Ditsky, “‘Directionality’: The Compass in the Heart,” The Westering Experience in American Literature, Bicentennial Essays (Bellingham, Washington: Bureau for Faculty Research, Western Washington University, 1977), 219.

  4. Chester E. Eisinger, “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath,” A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Agnes McNeill Donohue (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968), 150.

  5. Warren French, “Another Look at The Grapes of Wrath,” A Companion to “The Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Warren French (Clifton, New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1972), 222.

  6. Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 4.

  7. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1963), 168.

  8. William Bloodworth, “Literary Extensions of the Formula Western,” Western American Literature 14 (Winter 1980), 295.

  9. David Lavender, “The Petrified West and the Writer,” American Scholar 37 (Spring 1968), 301–302.

  10. Philip J. West, “Steinbeck's ‘The Leader of the People’: A Crisis in Style,” Western American Literature 5 (Summer 1970), 140.

  11. Steinbeck, America and Americans, 139.

  12. John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven (New York: Viking Press, 1932); The Wayward Bus (New York: Viking Press, 1947); The Winter of Our Discontent (New York: Viking Press, 1961).

  13. Owens, Re-Vision, 113.

  14. Ibid. 114–115.

  15. John Steinbeck, “The White Quail,” in The Long Valley (1938) (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 21. Subsequent citations refer to this edition.

  16. Delbert E. Wylder, “The Western Novel as Literature of the Last Frontier,” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, eds. David Mogen et al. (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1989), 121.

  17. Robert S. Hughes, Jr., Beyond the Red Pony: A Reader's Companion to Steinbeck's Complete Short Stories (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1987), 63.

  18. James C. Work, “Coordinate Forces in ‘The Leader of the People,’” Western American Literature 16 (Winter 1982), 280.

  19. Owens, Re-Vision, 114.

  20. Ibid., 116.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Work, “Coordinate Forces,” 280.

  23. Owens, Re-Vision, 112.

  24. Ibid., 109.

  25. Hughes, Companion 61.

  26. Warren French, John Steinbeck (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961), 83.

  27. John Steinbeck, “The Chrysanthemums,” in The Long Valley (1938), (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 3. Subsequent citations refer to this edition.

  28. Owens, Re-Vision, 112.


Essays and Criticism