The Unearthing of Chrysanthemums
Through imagery, characterization, and symbolism, John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” portrays a woman’s thwarted fertility after meeting an itinerant tinker.
In the opening scene, the main character Elisa Allen is shown planting her precious chrysanthemums in the garden of her husband Henry’s ranch.
Henry comes from across the ranch, where he has just sold thirty steer and offers to take Elisa out on the town for dinner and a movie.
After returning to her garden, Elisa is approached by a vagabond from behind the fence who, through conversation, reminds Elisa of her foiled womanhood.
The imagery used in “The Chrysanthemums” hints at the main character’s lack of fulfillment as an adult woman. The remote setting of the disparate area of California known as the Salinas Valley shows the emptiness and loneliness of Elisa.
For instance, in the opening of the story, Steinbeck describes “the high grey-flannel fog of winter” that hovers over the town, normally a chronically sun-filled place; the fog represents the thoughts of unhappiness and discontentment with life that loom over Elisa on a daily basis (Roberts 347).
Elisa’s life consists of monotonously tinkering with her garden and occasionally going out to dinner with her husband; there is not much variation.
In addition, Steinbeck goes on to characterize the lack of life in the valley: “No aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms” (348).
On the other hand, the story is spotted with textured, earthy descriptions, possibly to contrast the nature of Elisa’s existence. For example, when Elisa is in the car with her husband, Steinbeck paints the outskirts of the pages with poetic nuances like “Two cranes flapped heavily over the willow-line and dropped into the river-bed” (353).
The two birds are meant to contrast husband and wife; Elisa, discontent with her role and Henry, ignorant of his wife’s inner thoughts.
Furthermore, Steinbeck’s story features distinct characterization that bolsters the notion of thwarted fertility. For instance, the main character Elisa Allen is cast as the good wife who has dreams and aspirations of her own, gone unfulfilled.
She appears mostly content with her marriage, but the monotony of keeping up with the “hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows”, along with the usual dinner dates seem to become apparent when she meets an interesting passer-by (348).
After her exchange with this passer-by, she immediately dresses herself uncharacteristically pretty in “her newest under-clothing…stockings…and dress” and stares at the mirror “unmoving” (352).
The encounter with the tinker forces her to really think about who she is and what life she is living; she wants to be an attractive housewife for her husband, but can’t shake the notion of strength for her own sake.
Moreover, the itinerant tinker fits into the classic archetype of the outsider and further frustrates Elisa’s fertility. With his cracked, calloused hands and “worn black suit. . .wrinkled and spotted with grease” he represents everything Elisa secretly wants to be (349).
Elisa doesn’t want to fit the stereotype of the typical pretty, dress-wearing housewife; she attempts to set herself apart from the rest by wearing “a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes” and “clodhopper shoes” (348).
As she states to the tinker, Elisa wants to be seen as the one who can fix “pots, pans, knives, [scissors], [lawn mowers]” with her bare hands just as skillfully as she can plant her chrysanthemums (349); she wants nothing more than “to do such things” (351).
She boldly tries to prove her abilities to the tinker by telling him that she can “sharpen scissors, too. And [she] can beat the dents out of little pots” while he tries to get himself back on the road to continue his vagrancy (352).
Elisa wants her unexciting life to be fixed, all the while knowing that she is in a fixed position, immovable and incapable of living her life to the fullest.
Elisa longs to experience the freedom that the curious stranger’s existence is marked by. She sighs and “her breast swell[s] passionately” when she tries to convey to the stranger the deep feeling that arises from handling her flowers (351).
Elisa and the passer-by both spend hours using their hands when they work, and Elisa yearns to make this similarity apparent to the stranger so that she can inch that much closer to his world, a world she will never be absorbed in; the farthest she reaches is a brief touch to “his legs in the greasy trousers” (351).
In addition, Elisa’s husband Henry fits into the character type of the oblivious spouse; a man who wants to please his wife but is completely clueless of her needs and wants. Henry has no earthly idea that Elisa wants to take take off with the tinker “like a fawning dog” in hopes of experiencing a riskier life (351).
Henry thinks that by his wife’s mentioning of prize fights while on the way to dinner, she literally wants to go to one; but in actuality, she is hinting at the deeper craving she has for a greater life, one that fulfills her need to be a strong woman.
Henry thinks he knows what is best for her and is surprised to hear that she would “read things like that” in the newspaper about fighting (353).
Although Henry is incapable of decoding Elisa, she chooses to live a meager existence with him because she accepts the fact that she is never going to be an independent-minded, multi-faceted woman.
Once the tinker turns into a “dark speck” on the road and the chrysanthemums she gives him are tossed out, she realizes her opportunity has left and “the thing was done” (353).
Moreover, the chrysanthemum, as an actual plant, is symbolic of Elisa’s thwarted fertility. Quite possibly, the delicate flowers represent Elisa’s volatile emotions, serving as her emblem.
Throughout the short story, Steinbeck uses a literary strategy where, when Elisa’s feelings suddenly change, the chrysanthemums are mentioned or vice-versa. For instance, while she talks with the vagabond “the irritation and resistance melted from [her] face” when he asks what plant she is cutting (350).
Throughout their tension-filled conversation, Elisa stabs violently into the earth with her naked hands when she is frustrated and her “voice [grows] husky” while plucking the bulbs from the soil (351).
On the other hand, when she feels content and powerful with the conversation, she gingerly handles the plant with her protective gloves on and her “face [gets] tight with eagerness” as is the case when she is describing how to care for the bulbs (351).
Interestingly, the tinker refers to the flowers as “puff[s] of colored smoke”, as if Elisa and his encounter were only an illusion (smoke and mirrors), a false glimpse of hope for the frustrated Elisa and a quickly fading moment at that (350).
Her hope, her “little pile of shoots”, would not “take roots in about a month” because they would be carelessly tossed to the side of the road just like Elisa’s dreams and aspirations (351).
Moreover, the chrysanthemums might represent the incompleteness of the family: the lack of a child. Elisa nurtures the flowers like they are her babies, watering them until they are “bigger than anybody around [the Salinas Valley]” (350).
Women are expected to raise children, and quite possibly Elisa is trying to avoid falling into the role of mothering children. She attempts to purge herself of her daily duty of taking care of the flowers by giving away her chrysanthemums to another man to give to another woman.
She wants to avoid being a housewife. Yet, her husband quietly hints at the prospect of starting a family. He wishes she would “work out in the orchard and raise them apples”; the apples represent a different fruitfulness, the fruitfulness of family and the spreading of his seed (348).
In conclusion, John Steinbeck uses imagery, characterization, and symbolism in “The Chrysanthemums” to convey Elisa’s foiled chance at blooming into a strong woman. Women to this day, still struggle with fitting into society’s view on what a woman should and shouldn’t be.
Not all women in the world are cookie-cutter prototypes of housewives, pre-packaged and sent out to the world wrapped in pretty bows for mass consumption; some females break the mold.
Unfortunately, in Elisa’s case, she didn’t take the opportunity to flourish and thrive as an individual in the garden of life; instead, she chose monotony and the eventual shriveling up of herself.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums”. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008. 347-353