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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Irony and symbolism in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.”


In "The Chrysanthemums," Steinbeck uses irony and symbolism to highlight Elisa's confinement and unfulfilled desires. The chrysanthemums symbolize her potential and creativity, which are ultimately discarded by the tinker, representing society's disregard for women's talents. The irony lies in Elisa's initial hope and enthusiasm, which turn to disappointment and resignation as she realizes her limitations within a patriarchal society.

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What is the role of irony in "The Chrysanthemums"?

Irony, a contrast between what is expected and what actually occurs, serves to increase the impact of the story as well as its tone, the air of mystery that exists in "The Chrysanthemums."  In fact, John Steinbeck wrote of his story to a friend,

''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 or how. It has had that effect on several people here.''

Because of the use of the limited third person narrator, the reader must infer along with the characters of the narrative what has been said between Elisa and the tinker, and Elisa and Henry.  By accompanying this ambiguity in narration and mystery of tone, the irony has a great impact at the end of the narration.  For, throughout the narrative, Elisa seeks to free her spirit from the male-dominated world, "the closed pot," in which she lives.  When the tinker comes, he manipulates Elisa, drawing out her passion and desire for self-expression.  By pretending interest in her chrysanthemums, the tinker causes Elisa to release some of her womanly passions and to think that she can be part of a larger world than the Salinas Valley.  For, as the tinker drives away with a red pot of chrysanthemums, she whispers, "That's a bright direction.  There's a glowing there."

But, when she excitedly rides with her husband to town for dinner, Elisa sees far ahead on the road "a dark speck.  She knew."  Hurt by the tinker's deception, she realizes the terrible irony of his taking her flowers.  Rather than giving her art expression elsewhere, he has destroyed it by merely casting it off the wagon as he drives down the road.  Elisa says 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."

Elisa feels especially hurt that he has not even troubled to conceal his deceit because he wishes to keep the pot. The moments of passion, beauty, and artistry have all been shattered for Elisa.  The irony is that what had previously made her so happy and hopeful has now caused her to weep for her loss of feminine fulfillment: "she was crying weakly--like an old woman."

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What are the irony and symbolism in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums?"

In John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums,” the protagonist is Elisa, a lonely farm woman who struggles to find happiness in the isolated location where she and her husband, Henry, live. Her attempt to improve her environment is represented by the flowers that give the story its title. The couple have no children and wresting their subsistence out of the farm occupies most of Henry's time and energy.

Steinbeck creates irony in the story by introducing an outsider. A man who makes a spare living as an itinerant peddler and handyman comes by the farm while the husband is away. He seems to be friendly and genuinely interested in what the woman has to say. Through their conversation, she reveals the energy and care that she invests in growing the flowers. Part of the irony comes from the disjuncture between the peddler’s apparent attitude and his subsequent behavior. Rather than actually appreciating the flowers she gives him, he tosses them by the wayside, keeping the pot that held them.

The author presents the contrast between the harsh environment and the bright, colorful touches that the flowers impart. They function as the primary symbol of Elisa’s attitude toward her life and of her limited success. Through growing the flowers, she tries to make a positive impact, but they prove fragile and short-lived.

The author further develops the irony by showing that the peddler’s visit had a positive effect on Elisa’s permanent emotional relationship with her husband. Her mood improves after getting a break from the monotony, including male attention, and making a small gift. Another twist comes as they head out to dinner—a rare treat—and she sees the flowers tossed away, making her realize how she had misinterpreted the peddler.

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Identify and explain one symbol in "The Chrysanthemums."

Since the original question is "Name ten objects in the chrysanthemums that symbolize something [sic]," here are other symbols that John Steinbeck employs in his short story in addition to the chrysanthemums that are symbolic of Elisa's appreciation of aesthetic and natural beauty. 

  • the chrysanthemums also symbolize Elisa's frustration and desire to be tended and appreciated as she does the flowers. Her "strong new crop" are her renewed desires.
  • the "grey-flannel fog of winter [that] closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world," symbolizes the life of Elisa Allen, who is isolated from other women.
  • "a closed pot" that the Salinas Valley becomes symbolizes Elisas isolation, as well, and suggests that she holds much passion inside her.
  • the river that separates Henry Allen's "foothill ranch" symbolizes the divide of life between him and his wife.
  • "a man's black hat pulled down over her eyes" suggests that Elisa is prevented in this man's world that she dwells from seeing and sharing in other facets of life.
  • the scissors that are "over-eager" and "over-powerful" suggest Elisa's desire for new life as she cuts the old stalks of the chrysanthemums. The blades suggest legs; the scissors can be symbolic of Elisa's rebellion against the passive role she has been assigned.
  • Her "terrier fingers" that dig quickly in the dirt of her garden suggest, again, her liveliness and her lively desires along with her rebellion against the passive womanly role she must assume.
  • the "ten parallel trenches" dug to receive the chrysanthemums represents a certain perfection--10 is the perfect number representative of the universe  and of human knowledge.
  • the "pale yellow hillside" that her husband rides up with another man represents how separate their lives are. Yellow is usually a symbol of evil or foreboding, as well.
  • the red flower pot that Elisa places the chrysanthemum and the "gloves that were forgotten now" represent Elisa's passion that beats within her
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Identify and explain one symbol in "The Chrysanthemums."

The dominant symbol in this excellent short story is of course the symbol that gives it its title: the chrysanthemums that Elisa invests so much time and effort into. These flowers are so much a part of Elisa, as we are told that she is the one who works so hard on cultivating and nurturing them. There seem to be many parallels between Elisa and these flowers, as the following quote suggests:

She was cutting down the old year's chrysanthemum stalks with a pair of short and powerful scissors... Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissors was overeager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed to small and easy for her energy.

Later on, Henry praises her for the strength and vitality of her chrysanthemums, and we can see how much of her own energy and character Elisa pours into her flowers. Elisa even goes as far as to say that when she looks after her flowers she becomes one with them, and the tidiness of the flowerbed corresponds with the tidiness of Elisa's house.

However, at the same time, the chrysanthemums are also a powerful symbol of Elisa's limited life with all of the restrictions she has to face with. When the tinker rejects the chrysanthemums that Elisa offers to him, he is also rejecting Elisa herself, and this act represents how society as a whole treats women as nothing more than domestic workers and mothers. The flowers, like Elisa, are treated as being nothing more than decorative without any importance. Elisa is so identified with her flowers that the way they are thrown on the floor represents how both Elisa and women in general feel treated by society.

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Identify the symbolism in Steinbeck's story, “The Chrysanthemums.”

The chrysanthemum is an ancient flower that dates back to the 15th century B.C.  Named from the Greek prefix -chry which means "golden," which was its original color, chrysanthemums now are in a variety of colors with a golden center.  Somewhat like a daisy with longer petals, chrysanthemums are symbolic of optimism and joy.  For the Japanese, chrysanthemums, with their orderly unfolding are considered symbolic of perfection.

In John Steinbeck's story, Elisa channels her creative and reproductive powers into her chrysanthemums which she tends lovingly since her husband is always preoccupied with tending his ranch.  Living with him in the Salinas Valley, a "closed pot" offers Elisa no outlets for her feminine nature.  However, when the tinker arrives, Elisa, like the chrysanthemums "unfolds" and releases her feminine urges and optimism:

Her eyes shone.  She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.

"It's the budding that takes the most care," she said hesitantly.  "I don't know how to tell you."  She looked deep into his eyes, searchingly.  Her mouth opened a little, and she seemed to be listening....

She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him.  Her breast swelled passionately.

Believing that the tinker was genuinely interested in the flowers causes Elisa's nature to bloom.  However, after she appears beautiful and perfect like her flowers in her womanhood and dresses to go to town, Elisa discovers the chrysanthemums and a broken pot on the side of the road, ending her romantic dream.  They have become what the tinker called them, a "quick puff of colored smoke":

In a moment it was over.  The thing was done.  She did not look back.

Elisa's description of the flowers as having a "good bitter smell" suggests that like the chrysanthemum, the beauty of the moment is ephemeral, indeed.

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Identify the symbolism in Steinbeck's story, “The Chrysanthemums.”

In the story "The Chrysanthemums," I believe the flowers are symbolic of Elisa and her personal sense of value.  The blooms are beautiful and strong, just as Elisa is. They are unusual from other flowers in the area, and it is safe to assume that Elisa is as well: she approaches life with vigor—she's not just a rancher's housewife.

Where her flowers are larger and more beautiful than the flowers of other neighbors, they grow exceptionally well in Elisa's garden.  Elisa, too, is exceptional.  She is very strong, driven and energetic. As the story progresses, we find she is not satisfied with not being taken seriously, but wants to be credited with being able: being just as good as a man.

When she finds the rooted chrysanthemums discarded by the roadside, it is as if someone has trampled on her perceptions of her value in the world. She had told the tinker who took them that if they were gently cared for, they would take root and thrive, and all he does is throw them away because he never cared about the flowers, only that she would pay him to fix household items.

Like the "spent" chrysanthemums she cuts down at the beginning because they are no longer valuable, she feels the same way as the truth of her place as a woman and wife in the world dictate who she is allowed to be, and what she is allowed to do.

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What do the chrysanthemums symbolize in Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums?"

"The Chrysanthemums" can be read in a feminist context as what Peter Lisca calls a "silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman." This is a good starting point to contextualize the story but it is worth noting that it is not limited to a feminist interpretation. For example, it could be framed as Elisa's frustration with her under-appreciated sexuality; the flowers being a traditional symbol of feminine sexuality. 

But, sticking with the feminist idea, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa. They also symbolize beauty as well as potential strength and possibility. Given the right care and attention, the flowers can grow to be very beautiful and strong. Henry notes how strong, "ten inches across," they are and the tinker notes how beautiful they are. "Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?" Elisa appreciates both comments and we can look at these descriptions as parallels with herself. She is beautiful and strong. Ironically, she wants Henry to notice her beauty which he does not, an innocent mistake since he loves her and just looks at the world in practical ways. Elisa wants the tinker to notice her strength and he does not, saying "It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman." 

When the tinker leaves, there has been a very subtle sexually charged interaction. But the tinker had only been playing in order to get some work. Later, on the way to dinner, Elisa notices he had thrown out the flowers and kept the pot. The chrysanthemums symbolize opportunity as extensions of Elisa herself. By sharing them with the tinker, the flowers actually travel beyond the confines of the ranch. In a way, a part of her goes on the road with the tinker. This is significant because she tries to convince him that she could do what he does. She feels betrayed by the tinker at the sight of the discarded flowers as if she herself has been cast aside. The tinker has cast aside their shared notions of beauty and the idea that she could compete with him. 

In a last ditch effort to assert herself as a strong woman, especially in light of Henry's obliviousness to her attempts to pretty herself up for him, she supposes they go to the fights. But in the end, she retreats from the idea, leaving her dejected again. Had she received the care and consideration (from Henry and/or the tinker) which she had shown the chrysanthemums, her strength and beauty would be more evident to the two men and therefore, more appreciated. 

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 Discuss the significance of the symbolism used in Steinbeck's  "The Chrysanthemums", especially the use of the flower.

In Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," the flowers are symbolic of Elisa's life—specifically as they are like her children.

When the tinker arrives in his wagon, looking for work, Elisa is working with her flowers. She really has nothing for him to do and is cool toward him. However, he is persistent, and as the peddler begins to show interest in her flowers, Elisa's attitude warms and she finds a few things for the man to repair. When he expresses interest in the flowers on behalf of a woman he knows on his route, Elisa generously gives him some young plants to take to the woman he speaks of.

The man leaned farther over the fence. "Look. I know a lady down the road a piece, has got the nicest garden you ever seen. Got nearly every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums. Last time I was mending a copper-bottom washtub for her (that's a hard job but I do it good), she said to me, 'If you ever run acrost some nice chrysanthemums I wish you'd try to get me a few seeds.' That's what she told me."

This interest (as it is intended by the tinker) creates a bond of sorts between him and the Elisa. Like a woman who has been complimented on the beauty or talent of her child, her heart warms toward the man—and the subject of the chrysanthemums. She offers to give him some, tells him how to care for them, and provides advice as to how the woman can take care of the sprouts Elisa gives him.

Elisa also asks the peddler about his life—the ease with which he moves from place to place, how he can sleep out under the stars—she envies his lifestyle, imagining what it much be like:

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...

She wishes she could live his kind of life, but he tells her:

It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman.

Elisa gives the tinker sprouts carefully transplanted after he finishes his work. He departs and Elisa gets ready to go into town with her husband. On the drive there, she sees something glowing in the darkness along the side of the road, and her intuition tells her what it is even before they are close enough for her to see. There are the sprouts she had tended so carefully. 

Elisa is devastated.

She is forced to live the life as condoned by society. She cannot be a free spirit. And unfortunately, she has never had children. So her plants have come to take the place of the babies she was unable to have. While the flowers symbolize her love (in the form of a nurturing mother), and their careless treatment breaks her heart, the entire experience simply brings home even more strongly how isolated she is, and that she lives an unfulfilled life. She is alone in a world of men who cannot understand her.

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How is loneliness symbolized in John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums"?

The symbol of loneliness is the clump of chrysanthemums Elisa carefully pots for the tinker to take with him. When she later sees them lying in the road, unceremoniously dumped with the pot missing, it is disheartening to her, and the reader understands the depth of her loneliness.

Elisa and Henry live a fairly isolated existence on their farm in the Salinas Valley. Even during the relatively slow period just before the harvest, Elisa and Henry go through their days separately; she busies herself in her flower garden while he attends to business matters. Elisa is described as full of energy; it is clear that she is not entirely fulfilled with her life. The windows are "hard-polished," and the "mud-mat" is clean; with "terrier fingers," Elisa dispatches any garden pests around the chrysanthemum shoots.

Even though there is little reason for the reader to think that Elisa is unhappy with Henry and their life together, it is significant that she takes an inordinate interest in gaining the tinker's admiration. She indulges him by giving him some dented pots to repair, though it is clear to the reader that she does not consider it a necessity. Only after the tinker feigns interest in her flowers does Elisa soften and give him the pots. He listens as she has pours out her heart about her expertise with the flowers, and she takes him at his word that he will deliver the plants and her instructions to his next customer.

The fact that Elisa has taken such care to pot the chrysanthemums makes the tinker's callous disregard for them all the more poignant. Elisa has reached out to make a connection: first with the tinker and then to the woman to whom he has promised to deliver them. The sight of the discarded flowers underscores Elisa's isolation as she turns back to Henry on their way into town.

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