illustrated profile of a woman's head with cracks running through it set against a chrysanthemum background

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

Start Free Trial

Style and Technique

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Great Depression
Steinbeck wrote ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ in 1934, as the United States was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression. The Depression began with the collapse of the New York Stock Market in October 1929, and eventually affected employment and productivity around the world. Banks collapsed and businesses folded. Millions of people lost their jobs, and with less money to spend they bought fewer goods, leading to factory closings and more unemployment. There was no federal ''safety net'' at that time, so poor and hungry people had to rely on individual states for assistance beyond what their families could provide. In many states, there was no help available. In 1932 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated a series of programs, called the New Deal, to get the country back on its feet. He reformed the banking and stock market systems to make them more stable, created the Public Works Administration to create jobs, and gave new protection to labor unions to help workers get fair wages and decent working conditions.

The Depression did not affect all Americans equally, and many people even grew wealthier during the 1930s. With prices lowered by the Depression, it was possible to live well...

(This entire section contains 608 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

on less money. Necessities like food and housing, and luxuries like restaurant meals and fashionable clothing, were actually cheaper, because so few people worldwide could buy them at all. Some areas not directly affected by coal-mining, cotton-growing, and other devastated industries—California among them— continued to thrive. Elisa and Henry Allen seem to be among those who were not much affected by the Depression. They have a tractor and a car, and do not seem to be in desperate need of the money Henry brings in by selling his steers.

Steinbeck, too, lived relatively comfortably if simply through the early 1930s, even before he started to earn large sums for his writing. His wife Carol earned a small salary as a typist, while he devoted all his time to writing. They were able to supplement their diet with fish they caught in the ocean and with cheap local produce. But Steinbeck was not oblivious to those who were less well off. His novel In Dubious Battle (1936) is about migrant workers who go on strike in the California apple fields. Investigative newspaper stories that he wrote about migrant worker camps in 1936 led to his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Forgetting Their Troubles
Even in stable and productive pockets of the country, the mood was grim during the depression. To escape their troubles for a short time, Americans turned their attention to the movies and to sports as never before. For its part, the movie industry tried to provide a refuge by erecting lavishly ornamented movie theatres where worried people could watch elaborate musical comedies, fantasy horror films, and sentimental family films like those starring Shirley Temple. Movie tickets were inexpensive, and about forty percent of the population of the United States went to the movie theatre every week. One in four people went at least twice each week. With the new technology for making talking pictures, Hollywood, California, became world's most important center for filmmaking. The year 1931 saw the first television broadcast, but the days of commercial networks and televisions in most people's homes were still years away.

Sports provided other diversions for a gloomy population. The 1932 Summer Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, and the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, the first time the Winter Games were held in the United States. Football and baseball drew large crowds. Boxing was a popular spectator sport, as Americans Jack Sharkey, Max Baer and Joe Louis held world heavyweight titles.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As is typical of Steinbeck's fiction, ''The Chrysanthemums’’ uses clusters of images to subtly reinforce important themes and ideas. For example, imagery of seasons and weather reinforces the contrast between Elisa's life and the tinker's. Elisa's life is confined, closed in, as described in the story's opening line: ''The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.'' The atmosphere in Elisa's world is grim; there is ''no sunshine in the valley now’’ and the air is ‘‘cold and tender.’’ The tinker, however, moves about freely, and he is free ‘‘to follow nice weather.’’ He is not confined to this closed off place, and when he drives away Elisa notices, ''That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.’’ Later, as she again looks off in the direction he has taken, she notices that ''under the high gray fog'' the willows look like ''a thin band of sunshine.’’ For Elisa there is ‘‘no sunshine in the valley,’’ but for a man who can travel, the horizon holds promise.

The story contains other image clusters that function in much the same way. As Ernest W. Sullivan, II, observes in Studies in Short Fiction, ‘‘The correspondences between people and dogs elucidate the social and sexual relationships of the three humans, as well as foreshadow and explain Elisa's failure at the end of the story to escape from her sterile and unproductive lifestyle.’’ R. S. Hughes examines the color yellow, in the ‘‘yellow stubble fields’’ and the willows' ‘‘positive yellow leaves,’’ and finds ''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.’’ Images of hands, animals, enclosures and, of course, the chrysanthemums themselves, may be profitably lifted from the text and examined side-by-side for clues to Steinbeck's and the characters' intentions.

Point of View
‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ is told by a third-person narrator who reports clearly about the actions of the characters, but who cannot read their thoughts or their motivations. This limited third-person narrator helps establish the mood of the story by recreating for the reader the experience of Elisa and Henry hearing each others' words but having to guess at their meanings. When the tinker praises the beauty of the chrysanthemums, the narrator does not step forward to explain that he is being insincere; the reader must discover his deceit as Elisa discovers it. And when Henry tries to find the words to please Elisa and explain himself, the reader shares Elisa's frustration at not being able to read his thoughts.

But the third-person narrator does not reveal Elisa's heart, either, and this contributes greatly to the air of mystery surrounding the story. Although Elisa is the protagonist and the reader feels closest to her, she too is revealed only through her actions and words. Why does Elisa "start" at the sound of her husband's voice? Why does she attack the weeds with such fury? What does she think about during those long hours in the garden? The reader never learns. After the tinker has gone away, Elisa gets dressed for her evening out. The narrator describes her preparations in fascinating detail: ‘‘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.'' Clearly these strange actions signal moments of contemplation for Elisa, continued when she sits on the porch and looks toward the river, ‘‘unmoving for a long time.’’ Steinbeck calls attention to these strong emotional responses, but refuses to fill in the blanks. The result has been a large body of criticism of ''The Chrysanthemums,'' each essay revealing perhaps as much about the critic as about Elisa Allen.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1930s: The Great Depression swept across the United States and abroad, creating massive unemployment and poverty. Soup kitchens and bread lines were familiar sights. In the early 1930s, however, California still prospered because of the motion picture, oil, and fruit industries.

1990s: The worldwide economy is relatively solid and stable, and the economy of the United States is strong, with low unemployment and high productivity. Some economists believe that rapid fluctuations in Asian economies could spell trouble for the United States.

1930s: Popular movies included King Kong (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), and the movies of Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, and the Marx Brothers. They tended to be glamorous and optimistic, providing audiences a refuge from economic and political troubles. Movies were mostly black-and-white, and a ticket cost about twenty-five cents. Roughly a third of Americans went to the movies at least once a week.

1990s: Popular movies showcase special effects and science fiction, and are almost exclusively in color. Many present a grim view of human problems. A ticket costs six to eight dollars. Fewer Americans go to the movies, but many watch movies at home on videocassette.

1930s: Although newly built homes were wired for electricity, most older homes did not have it. Housework was done by hand, without electric appliances, and keeping a house clean was hard work. The first electric washing machine for home use was manufactured in 1937.

1990s: Most families in the United States have either washing machines in their homes or inexpensive laundromats nearby. Typical homes have electric lights, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and other tools to make housework easier.

1930s: Many farmers in the United States still used animals to pull plows and other equipment, but some, like Henry Allen, had tractors and other machines to help do their work. The sight of a horse-drawn wagon used for long-distance travel was uncommon, but not startling.

1990s: Except for communities which have rejected modern technology, like the Amish, American farmers use gas-powered tractors and technologically advanced equipment. Most roads do not permit horse-drawn vehicles.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

''The Chrysanthemums'' was adapted as a twenty-three-minute film by Pyramid Film and Video in 1990. It is available from Pyramid as a 1/2-inch VHS videocassette.

The making of the film adaptation has itself been captured on film, in the ''Behind the Camera'' segment of Fiction to Film. The forty-minute program, which shows the mechanics of producing a film, was produced by Mac and Ava Motion Picture Productions and is distributed on videocassette by the Indiana Department of Education, Instructional Video Services.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Beach, Joseph Warren, American Fiction, 1920-1940, New York: Macmillan, 1941; reprinted New York: Russell & Russell, 1960, pp. 3, 311-14.

Benton, Robert M., ‘‘Steinbeck's The Long Valley,’’ In A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974, p. 71.

Davis, Elmer, Review of The Long Valley: The Saturday Review of Literature, September 24, 1938, p. 11.

Gide, Andre, The Journals of Andre Gide, translated by Juston O'Brien, London: Secker and Warburg, 1951, Vol. 4, p. 79.

Hughes, R. S., John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: Twayne, 1989, p. 26.

Marcus, Mordecai, ''The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in 'The Chrysanthemums,'’’ Modern Fiction Studies, 1965, Vol. 11, p. 55.

Osborne, William, ‘‘The Education of Elisa Allen: Another Reading of John Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums',’’ Interpretations, 1976, Vol. 8, p. 11.

Renner, Stanley, ''The Real Woman Inside the Fence in 'The Chrysanthemums'.’’ Modern Fiction Studies, 1985, Vol. 31, pp. 306, 313.

Steinbeck, John, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by John Steinbeck and Elaine and Robert Wallsten, New York: Viking, 1975, p. 91.

Sweet, Charles A., ‘‘Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums','' Modern Fiction Studies, 1974, Vol. 20, p. 211, 213.

Timmerman, John H., John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986, pp. 63, 67.

Further Reading
Benson, Jackson J., The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography, New York: Viking, 1984.
At over one thousand pages, the most complete of the Steinbeck biographies, and the one that explores most thoroughly Steinbeck's writing process. Includes many photographs.

Burg, David F., The Great Depression: An Eyewitness History, New York: Facts on File, 1996.
Over one hundred first-hand accounts of life in the 1930s, including newspaper stories, interviews, letters, memoirs, photographs and documents from leaders and from common people, give the reader a strong sense of what it was like to live during this period.

French, Warren, John Steinbeck, Boston: Twayne, 1975.
An overview of Steinbeck's life and works, intended for the general reader. The volume includes a chronology, an annotated bibliography, and an indexed discussion of all of Steinbeck's major writings in chronological order.

Ockenga, Starr, Earth on Her Hands: The American Woman in Her Garden, Clarkson Potter, 1998.
Interviews with eighteen women master gardeners, who discuss horticulture and the affect gardening has had on their lives. Lavishly illustrated with color photographs.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. Hemet, Calif.: Western Flyer, 2002.

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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide