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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What does Elisa do after the stranger leaves in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck?

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The visit that Elisa has had with the stranger has awakened a desire to inject more excitement into her life and her marriage. Her vigorous bathing with a pumice stone is meant to suggest her desire to slough off the dullness and timidity of the life she has been living....

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She reexamines her body and rearranges her posture into that of a more confident and bold woman and applies makeup to complete her transformation. The detail of her "newest underclothing" hints to her recognition of her sexual power. When her husband observes how she looks "different, strong and happy" Elisa is at first disarmed, then agrees that she is strong, adding, "I never knew before how strong." But soon after Elisa spots the discarded chrysanthemums, her surging confidence falters, and she lowers her expectations for the evening--and her future.

Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums." Harper's Magazine, 1937.

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Elisa finds herself revitalized by the presence of the stranger, and after he leaves, she suddenly takes delight in re-directing her energy toward making herself feel attractive. Having long spent her days in shapeless clothing and in a sexless marriage, Elisa tears off her dirty gardening clothes, scrubs her skin clean with a block of pumice, and examines her newly cleaned body in the mirror. She dresses carefully in a dress that is the "symbol of her prettiness" and applies makeup. 

After Henry, her husband, gets cleaned up and puts on the clothes that Elisa has meticulously picked out for him, the pair head out to enjoy a romantic evening. Elisa's good mood comes crashing down when she spots a "dark speck" in the road and realizes that the stranger has discarded the flowers she had gifted him with, keeping only what was useful to him: the pot which held the flowers. The story concludes with Elisa emotionally crumbling in on herself, "crying weakly--like an old woman."

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After the stranger leaves, Elisa feels energized.  She feels profoundly alive and attractive.  So to make herself appear on the outside the way that she feels on the inside, she applies her normal house cleaning zeal toward herself.  She bathes and shaves and scrubs herself clean.  She then picks out some of her newest and nicest clothes.  The story even hints that she picks out some sexy underwear.  

She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.

Elisa takes time to do her hair and her make up.  She gets a hot bath ready for her husband.  She sets out the clothes that she wants her husband to wear, and she made sure that they are clean and polished.  Basically, she's getting herself ready for a romantic night on the town with her husband.  

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