Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

It is clear from Steinbeck’s epic novel of American experience, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), that he is particularly sensitive to the effect of landscape on a person’s life. Because Elisa Allen’s sense of her own self-worth is so closely tied to the land, Steinbeck has chosen to connect her psychic state to the season, the climate, and the terrain she inhabits. The mood of the story is set by his description of a fogbound valley in winter, a description that is also applicable to Elisa’s mood. She is entering middle age, and when the valley is likened to a “closed pot” with “no sunshine . . . in December,” there is a close parallel to the condition of her life at that point, a sealed vessel with little light available. Steinbeck calls it “a time of quiet and waiting,” and the land, Elisa’s only field of action, is dormant, with “little work to be done.”

Elisa is earthbound, rooted securely in her garden but also held down by her connection to it. It is significant that her excitement in talking to the stranger is expressed by a vision of the stars and by her exclamation that “you rise up and up!” The stranger is not bound to a particular place, and although his freedom to roam is only a step removed from endless exile and rootlessness (as exemplified by Elisa’s uprooting her plants, only to have them thrown away and left to die on the road), it is appealing in contrast to her chainlike connections to the earth.

Elisa is also seen alternately as a part of a larger landscape and as a small figure in an enclosed area. The story unfolds from an inventive cinematic perspective, as Steinbeck first describes the entire valley in a panoramic view, then moves closer to focus on the ranch in the valley, and then moves in for a close-up of Elisa working in her garden. Throughout the story, the perspective shifts from Elisa’s narrow and cramped domain, walled or fenced in, to the entire ranch, and to the world beyond. Then, in a final shift, Elisa’s shock is reflected by an image of multiple confinement, as she is enclosed by a wagon, surrounded by her seat and hidden within a coat that covers her face. It is not an image designed to create confidence in Elisa’s prospects.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Great Depression
Steinbeck wrote ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ in 1934, as the United States was just beginning to recover...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

As is typical of Steinbeck's fiction, ''The Chrysanthemums’’ uses clusters of images to subtly reinforce important...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1930s: The Great Depression swept across the United States and abroad, creating massive unemployment and poverty. Soup kitchens and...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Many critics have found it useful to compare ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ with another Steinbeck short story from the same collection,...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

''The Chrysanthemums'' was adapted as a twenty-three-minute film by Pyramid Film and Video in 1990. It is available from Pyramid as a...

(The entire section is 80 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about migrant farm workers pursuing a happy life that is always...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Adams, Carol J., Introduction to Ecofeminism and the Sacred, New York: Continuum, 1993, p. 1.


(The entire section is 382 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Benson, Jackson D. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984.

French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

George, Stephen K., ed. John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute. New York: Praeger, 2002.

George, Stephen K., ed. The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A New Study Guide to Steinbeck’s Major Works, with Critical Explications. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993.

Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1989.

Johnson, Claudia Durst, ed. Understanding “Of Mice and Men,” “The Red Pony,” and “The Pearl”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, eds. John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Shillinglaw, Susan, and Kevin Hearle, eds. Beyond Boundaries: Rereading John Steinbeck. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Tamm, Eric Enno. Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004.

Timmerman, John H. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.