The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, 1938

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by John Steinbeck, 1938

On 25 February 1934 John Steinbeck wrote George Albee that he had completed a new story, "The Chrysanthemums," and commented that "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 nor how." Ever since its publication in Harper's (October 1937) and The Long Valley (1938), this story has been "striking" readers more forcefully than any of Steinbeck's others, leading André Gide to call it "remarkable for its adroitness" and Mordecai Marcus to praise it as "one of the world's great short stories." Steinbeck foresaw correctly when he jotted "This is to be a good story" on the first page of the draft.

Set in the foothills of California's Salinas River valley during the depression years of the early 1930s, "The Chrysanthemums" chronicles a crucial Saturday afternoon in December in the life of Elisa Allen, perhaps Steinbeck's most memorable depiction of a repressed woman. Henry, her husband, has managed to sell 30 three-year-old steers to the Western Meat Company and offers to take Elisa to dinner and perhaps a "picture show" in Salinas that evening. He then rides off with a ranchhand to herd in the steers. Thus Elisa's adventure begins.

With astounding deftness and economy, Steinbeck quickly establishes the complexities and depths of the 35-year-old Elisa in this study of the repression of her feminine, sexual, and creative impulses. Elisa, whom Joseph Warren Beach has called "one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book," enters the story looking "blocked and heavy," wearing a man's hat, heavy gloves, and a print dress "almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron." From a distance, she could easily be mistaken for a man. She channels her frustrated energies into caring for her "hard-swept looking" house, her red geraniums, and her "forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts." Henry longs for Elisa to exercise her creative, nurturing "planter's hands" in practical ways on the ranch's apple orchard, but she reserves her "gift" for the flowers. Paul McCarthy has noted the ironic contrasts developing early in the story between "the rich land and the sterile marriage, the fertile plants and Elisa's inner emptiness" to enrich the story.

This day, though, things change, because the antagonist, an itinerant tinker, turns into the ranch road as Elisa reroots her chrysanthemums. Exotic, sexually attractive in an unkempt way, and extremely skillful at exploiting potential customers, the tinker immediately discerns Elisa's vulnerabilities, joking with her about his dog's reaction to the ranch's dogs, complimenting her chrysanthemums, and capturing her sympathies by describing her flowers as looking "like a quick puff of colored smoke." Elisa responds, doffing her gloves, tearing off her hat, and shaking out her "dark pretty hair" in ways not unlike Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. As he encourages her to talk more about her flowers, Elisa's voice grows "husky," her "breast swell[s] passionately," and she "crouche[s] low like a fawning dog" before him. When Steinbeck revised the story for The Long Valley he cut several explanatory passages and made Elisa's sexuality much more explicit. Expressing her wish that women could be as free to lead the life he does, she claims an equality, even a superiority, to the tinker. As she pays him 50 cents for repairing two saucepans, she brags, "I could show you what a woman might do."

Awakened sexually and creatively, perhaps for the first time in many years, Elisa goes into the house and subjects her body to a cleansing, almost a ritually purifying bath, appraises her body's reflection in a mirror, then dresses slowly in her "newest under-clothing" and her dress, "the symbol of her prettiness." When Henry returns from rounding up the steers, he is startled by her transformation, telling her that she looks "nice … different, strong, and happy." Her appearance so discomposes him that he breaks into metaphor, telling her, "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon," an image to which numerous Steinbeck critics have objected as being inappropriate, but one that surely alludes to the Dionysian energies with which she has been infused.

This new self collapses, however, during their drive to Salinas, because she sees the chrysanthemums she had so carefully prepared for the tinker dumped on the road. She feels crushed and discarded. He had kept the "bright new flower pot" but threw away the shoots Elisa had packed for him. She surprises Henry by asking about the bloodiness of prize fights, and the story ends with her "crying weakly—like an old woman." When one weighs the symbolic weight of the chrysanthemums, the crucial question remains whether or not Elisa has been destroyed. She had told the tinker that chrysanthemums needed to be pinched back, but not so far as to be killed. Has Elisa been "pinched back" just enough to ensure later blooms, or has she been "pinched back" so far as to destroy her? This point remains tantalizingly ambiguous, and critical opinion remains much divided over the extent to which "The Chrysanthemums" is or is not a feminist story, especially since the reader is never allowed access to Elisa's own thoughts.

—David Leon Higdon

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The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, 1938

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The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, 1938