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

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

John Steinbeck published “The Chrysanthemums” in a collection of stories called The Long Valley (1938). They are set in the Salinas Valley in California where he was born, the fertile farmland that the “Okies” settled after their flight from the Dust Bowl. Freed from the crushing burden of absolute poverty and social disintegration, Steinbeck’s characters, like Henry Allen, are quite pleased to be able to make a decent living, but equally important, like Elisa Allen, they are beginning to sense that not everybody can be satisfied by bread alone.

In a subtle prefiguration of feminist philosophy, Steinbeck challenges the tradition of woman’s “place”; although Henry Allen is well-meaning and basically decent, his concentration on his own role as provider, organizer, and decision-maker has blinded him to the fact that Elisa needs something more in her life than a neat house and a good garden. He is ready to offer what he can (a share in the work; brighter lights and bigger cities for occasional recreation), but Elisa’s urgent need for someone to talk to who can understand the essential nature of her yearning for a poetic vision of the cosmos is, unfortunately, beyond Henry’s range and insight. The question Steinbeck poses is whether one should settle for security and a lack of pain, or risk one’s dreams in an attempt to live more completely and intensely. The retreat from action at the conclusion suggests that the risks are high, but there is a possibility that Elisa might not be permanently crushed by her pain.

The situation recalls D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Shades of Spring,” in which a woman reconciles herself to a steady man when the sparkling boy of her youth goes off to seek his fortune. However, she knows what she misses, and tells him on his return, “The stars are different with you.” Elisa Allen is not ungrateful for her husband’s kindness and for his provision of security, but the dark stranger brings thoughts of a life she has only sensed she was missing, and her response to his vague romantic encouragement startles her in its suddenness and its force. The paradox here is that the stranger has actually lost his spontaneity and manipulates her emotions not to satisfy his own romantic longings but to earn the money he needs for survival: money with which she no longer has to be concerned.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Limitations and Opportunities
The most discussed theme in ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ is limitations—the limitations under which a married woman lives. The idea of limitation or confinement is presented as the story opens: ''The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.’’ Within this closed pot, Elisa operates within even narrower confines. The house she shares with Henry is enclosed ''with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows,’’ and the garden where she grows her flowers is surrounded by a wire fence. From these enclosures Elisa watches men come and go, the cattle buyers in their Ford coupe, Henry and the hired man Scotty on their horses, and the tinker in his wagon drawn by a horse and a burro.

Elisa does not express any regret at staying put while the men move about. She clearly is not always confined to the ranch, since she has enough knowledge of the roads to give the man advice. She knows that the dirt road to the ranch...

(This entire section contains 1064 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

''winds around and then fords the river'' in sand, and suggests, ''I think you'll save time if you go back to the Salinas road and pick up the highway there.’’ Does she know how to drive the family roadster? Perhaps she stays at home because she chooses to, or because she has nowhere to go. However, when the tinker describes his journey (‘‘from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather’’) she replies, ‘‘That sounds like a nice way to live.’’

After she talks with the man and gives him some chrysanthemum cuttings, she asks him more about his life. ‘‘You sleep right in the wagon?’’ she asks, and he answers affirmatively. ‘‘It must be nice,’’ she replies. ‘‘It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.’’ Of course, as the man points out, women cannot do such things, but just the thought of it gives her courage and strength. One day, she says, she might give the man some competition. ‘‘I could show you what a woman might do.’’ Again, he tells her that it would be an unsuitable job for a woman, too lonely and frightening. But she does not believe him. When Henry sees her a bit later she glows and boasts, ‘‘I'm strong. I never knew before how strong.’’

Her sense of strength comes from her encounter with the man, from the sexually charged moment they shared over their appreciation of the chrysanthemums and the wandering life. This connection enlarges her, takes her out of her confined self. When she sees she has been betrayed, by the man and by her romantic ideas, she feels limited again. Eagerly, desperately, she looks for some small way to break out of her confines. Henry senses her feelings, and observes, ‘‘I ought to take you in to dinner oftener. It would be good for both of us. We get so heavy out on the ranch.'' He means well, but after Elisa's disappointment she needs more. Still, she does not have the strength or the power to take what she needs, just as she would never leave the ranch and pursue a different life. She asks permission: ''Henry, could we have wine at dinner?'' A bit later she asks, ‘‘Do any women ever go to the fights?'' But the feeling passes. Although the narrator, Henry, and Elisa have all praised her for her strength, she is not strong enough to overcome her limitations, and she breaks down in weak tears ''like an old woman.''

Beauty and Aesthetics
Although there are other ways to describe it, the tension between Elisa and Henry, the reason they cannot communicate with each other or satisfy each other, is that they do not share an aesthetic sense. Elisa needs to experience beautiful things, but Henry values things because they are functional. He appreciates Elisa's ‘‘gift with things,’’ her ‘‘planter's hands,’’ and he praises her for this gift. But the quality he admires in the chrysanthemums is their size: ‘‘Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across.’’ He would place more value on Elisa's gift if she could use it for production, to ‘‘work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.’’

By contrast, the tinker appears to share Elisa's aesthetic sense. Although Elisa mentions the flowers' size, the man describes their beauty: ''Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of smoke?’’ His aesthetic appreciation brings out a response in Elisa that her husband is unable to evoke. Her eyes shine, she shakes out her hair, she runs excitedly and talks rapidly. Her breast swells passionately, her voice grows husky, and she talks about passion in language Henry would never understand: ''When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.’’

After the man leaves, Elisa dresses for her evening out with Henry, and tries to get an aesthetic response from him. She puts on her nicest clothes, ''the symbol of her prettiness,'' and waits for him to see her. But Henry fails the test. He notices at once that Elisa looks ‘‘so nice,’’ but he is unable to explain what he means. He knows he is being tested, and comments, ‘‘You're playing some kind of a game.’’ But he tries again to say the right thing. ‘‘You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.’’ There is no unkindness in Henry's evaluations. He is a good man who admires and respects his wife. But he does not appreciate beauty as she does.

Neither, as it turns out, does the tinker. Apparently, all of his words of appreciation were false, calculated to gain Elisa's confidence. Like Henry, he values what is practical. He has saved the flowerpot, but tossed the flowers into the road. As important as beauty is to her, Elisa has no one in her life who shares her feelings.