“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.
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.
“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.”