The Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Chrysanthemums | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Life in the Salinas Valley

The story begins with a description of a ranch in the Salinas Valley on a crisp yet gray December day, with fog hemming in the valley as if to close a pot with a lid. Only the yellow leaves provide a "positive" burst of color to an otherwise colorless landscape. There is a small bit of color, though, in the soil. Across the river in the foothills Henry Allen has a ranch, with an orchard and cattle, but it is "a time of quiet and of waiting" rather than of planting, so most of the work is done. Elisa Allen, however, is working hard, cutting last year's growth of chrysanthemum stalks and trimming the green shoots that have begin to leaf out. Elisa is 35, a "handsome" woman, who is "lean and strong" with eyes as "clear as water." Her figure is obscured by her big apron, and she wears a man's hat and leather gloves. She stops for a moment to notice two men talking with her husband. The men are in suits. Elisa goes back to her work.

Henry slips up behind Elisa, startling her, and compliments her on her work. He says she has a gift for working with plants and wishes she would lend her gift to raising the apples in the orchard. She tells him she has "planters' hands," which she gets from her mother. Elisa thinks she could do the orchard job. She asks Henry about the men, and he tells her that he has sold off 30 steers and gotten a good price for them. He wants to take Elisa to dinner in town to celebrate. Henry jokes, asking her if she wants to go see the fights, and she takes him seriously, declining the offer. He tells her he is only kidding, and that they'll see a movie. He thinks he'll be ready in a couple of hours to head into town but first has to round up the steers. He asks if she'll like the plans they have made, and she says, "Of course I'll like it." Henry goes off with the ranch helper, Scotty, to round up the steers. Elisa decides she has enough time to split the newly grown chrysanthemums and transplant a few sets; after digging she sets the new shoots in a neat little pile.

The Tinker Arrives

Elisa hears the tinker before she sees him. The creaky wagon wheels and hooves of a horse and burro make her look up. The wagon, covered in canvas, plods along the main road, and a "big stubble-bearded man" is at the reins. A "lean and rangy mongrel dog" walks underneath the wagon. On the side of the wagon crooked black letters, the paint having dripped, read "Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed." She watches the wagon and is surprised when it comes up the drive to the house. Her two ranch dogs run at the mongrel, scaring him into baring his teeth and hiding under the wagon. The man tells her the dog is a fighter once he starts, and Elisa jokes with him, saying he must take a long time to do so. The man laughs, but his expression becomes dark again as soon as he stops. Elisa notices his suit is filthy and greasy. He gets down from the wagon and comes to the fence. She sees his hands are calloused and also filthy. He removes his hat and asks for directions to the Los Angeles highway. Elisa tells him he should go back to Salinas to get to the highway because the river is too much for his horse and burro to cross. He claims they would be fine.

Elisa puts her gloves and scissors into a pocket as the man tells her he goes from Seattle to San Diego in six months and takes the next six months to return the same way. He asks if she has read the sign on the wagon and wants to know if Elisa has anything on his list that she would like repaired. Elisa stiffens up and tells him she doesn't have anything that needs fixing. He tells her about his special technique for sharpening scissors, and she informs him that her scissors are already sharp. He asks about pots, and she insists she has nothing for him to fix. The tinker tries pity, telling her he won't have any dinner if he doesn't get work because he isn't on his regular route. Elisa curtly tells him she has nothing for him. The tinker scans the yard and sees the plants. He asks Elisa what they are, and she tells him they are chrysanthemums. Her face loses its determination and becomes soft. He presses further, telling her how he thinks they look, and she confirms he is right. Then he says they "smell kind of nasty." Elisa takes on a curt tone again and tells him chrysanthemums do not smell bad. He changes his tone and tells her he likes how they smell.

Then the tinker tells Elisa there is a woman on his route who has all kinds of flowers but doesn't have any chrysanthemums, and he claims the woman has asked him to get her some seeds for the flowers. Elisa chimes in with her knowledge about how chrysanthemums grow best, from sprouts, saying that the woman must not be familiar with the flowers if she wants to use seeds. The tinker says, "I s'pose I can't take none to her, then." Eliza beams and tells him she can pot up some sprouts for him. She lets the tinker into the yard.

Elisa Crosses Boundaries

Once she has placed sand and the sprouts into a pot for him, she looks up at him and tells him he needs instructions to give to the woman so the sprouts will grow. Elisa says to cut the stems down in July, and then in September remove unwanted buds, leaving only the ones that will flower. She tries to explain to him how planters' hands work, that they just know which buds to take off. Elisa begins to reveal more of herself, saying that there is a feeling in her hands that just knows, and "you can't do anything wrong" when you have that feeling. She looks increasingly passionate, and she looks up at him from where she is kneeling, desperate for him to understand. The tinker acts a little embarrassed and begins to tell her that maybe he feels that way a little at night in his wagon, but she cuts him off and assumes he is talking about the night sky and the stars. She feels the same, she says in a husky voice, and feels like the stars are entering her body, "hot and sharp and—lovely." Elisa reaches out to the tinker's pant leg and almost touches him but pulls her hand back. The tinker tells her it's great but not when he doesn't have anything to eat. Elisa feels ashamed by her outburst and decides she has to get him something to fix.

Elisa gives the tinker a couple of old pots from a refuse pile, and he starts to fix them. His attitude completely changes, and he is immersed in his work. Elisa asks about his life on the road, sleeping in his wagon, and tells him she wishes "women could do such things." The tinker insists that life on the road is not right for women. She gets irritated and asks how he could know if it's right for women, and he admits he doesn't know, handing her the fixed pots. Elisa gives him the $0.50 he asks for and tells him she might end up being his competition because she can do all of the fixing he does. She says she "could show you what a woman might do." The tinker tells her that life on the road is too lonely and scary for women and that dangerous animals come to the wagon at night. He gets into the wagon, tells Elisa he'll take her suggestion to go to the Salinas road after all, and leaves. Elisa watches him go and catches herself silently saying goodbye, telling herself the place he's headed is "a bright direction." She realizes she is talking to herself and snaps out of her reverie, heading into the house to get ready for dinner in town.

Everything Has Changed and Nothing Is Right

Elisa takes a bath and then looks at her body. She tries to pull it up into a more youthful position, puts on all of her best clothes, and meticulously does her makeup and hair. Henry comes in before she is ready, and she tells him to get into the bath quickly or they'll be late. She lays out his polished shoes and all of his good clothes, right down to the socks and tie. Elisa goes out onto the porch and sits, transfixed by the landscape, an empty look on her face. Henry rushes out, tucking in his tie, and stops, amazed at how good his wife looks. Henry compliments her, telling her she looks "nice," and she demands to know what he means by "nice." Henry is confused by this outburst and says she looks "different, strong and happy." Elisa agrees she is strong but then demands to know what Henry means by "strong." Henry is now flustered and tells her she looks "strong enough to break a calf" on her knee and "happy enough to eat it like a watermelon." Elisa realizes she is being harsh and backs off but tells Henry she never knew how strong she really was until then. Henry, wondering what is wrong with Elisa, goes to get the car, and they drive into town. Elisa sees a "dark speck" on the road and knows instantly that the tinker has thrown out her chrysanthemums. She says quietly to herself that he must have kept the pot, and he could have at least put the chrysanthemums to the side. A sadness falls over Elisa, and she can't look as the car passes the caravan and the tinker.

Elisa tries to brighten up, telling Henry it will be good to go out to dinner. Henry notes that she has suddenly changed again and agrees, saying he ought to take her out more often because being on the ranch all the time is "heavy" for both of them. Elisa asks if they can have wine with dinner, and Henry thinks that's a great idea. Then Elisa asks Henry about the men in the fights, wondering if it is true that they hurt each other badly. She tells him about the blood and gore she has read about. Henry is surprised that she has read such things and wonders what is wrong again. Elisa asks, "Do any women ever go to the fights?" Henry says yes, there are a few women there. Henry asks again, "What's the matter?" and offers to take her to the fights if she really wants to go. Elisa realizes she really wouldn't like to go and claims that wine "will be plenty." However, she has to hide her face from her husband, because she is "crying weakly—like an old woman."

Analysis

Steinbeck's Characters and Setting

In this story Steinbeck uses precise descriptions of the Salinas Valley and the ranch where the story takes place. He tells the reader about each of the colors that appear in the landscape and how they make the place feel to the people in the valley. For example, the leaves on the willows have "sharp and positive yellow leaves." The adjective positive is not one that the reader would expect, but Steinbeck wants the reader to feel what the people in the story feel when they see bright yellow leaves in the middle of such a gray, foggy December landscape. The sun can barely get through the "closed pot" of the fog, but the leaves perk things up. Steinbeck also zooms in for a close-up, as he describes the chrysanthemums that Elisa Allen is working with, comparing the dead stems with the "little crisp shoots" of the new growth. The house is "hard-swept" and the windows are "hard-polished," with a "clean mud-mat on the front steps." The sounds of the words Steinbeck chooses are almost as important as the words themselves, engaging multiple senses not only to describe appearances but also to evoke personalities and emotions.

Steinbeck's character descriptions also benefit from precise word choices in a visual and emotional way, but there are only two characters who get the full descriptive treatment. The main character, Elisa Allen, has a "lean and strong" face, and everything else about her speaks of comfort with the outdoors and hard work. The descriptions evoke for the reader a person who understands the time and effort it takes to produce quality, whether it is in her own appearance or a job she accomplishes. She is hidden by her gardening clothes and looks "blocked," but her hands are sure and quick and the clothes are meant for the job. Steinbeck describes her energy level as too high for the easy job of clipping stems, and there are no pests in Elisa's garden because her "terrier fingers" have done away with them. By the end of her interaction with the tinker and with her husband, Henry Allen, as she goes out, the reader knows that Elisa is full of passion for the things she does well, wants to be recognized for them, and is a bit of an overachiever with the small stuff. The reader learns that she has "dark pretty hair," works hard on her hair and makeup before she goes out, and has a "dress which was the symbol of her prettiness." When Elisa gardens, she means business, though, wearing a man's hat and leather gloves, and an apron that covers nearly her entire body. Steinbeck also describes the expressions on her face when her mood changes, especially the set of her mouth, the light in her eyes, and the position of her body. Everything about Elisa says she has far more potential than she uses, or is expected to use, in her life the way it stands. The descriptions of her—after she is fooled by the tinker and knows it—show a completely different Elisa, deflated and limp, talking to herself, misconstruing what her husband says, and "crying weakly," as if she has aged instantly and can't cope anymore. She feels the betrayal of being a strong woman but discovering that even in the thing she loves she still has nowhere to use that strength and no one except her husband to impress.

The other character whose appearance and mannerisms Steinbeck uses to create a vivid picture is the tinker. He is not old but is graying, has a stubbly face, and is a very big man. He is dressed in a "worn black suit," which is "wrinkled and spotted with grease." Words on his sign are misspelled, the painted letters have dripped, and the wagon looks like it's going to fall apart. Everything about the tinker is shabby, but he insists his work is high quality. It's hard to believe this, judging from the appearance of everything else he has.

The tinker's mannerisms create a sneaky, creepy picture, as he develops a whiny voice when he tries to elicit Elisa's pity, when he leans on and fingers the wire fence, and when he casts his eyes around for something he can use to manipulate her. The sounds he makes can't help but add tension and questions for the reader. Running a finger on a wire fence to make it "sing" does not evoke a warm feeling about this man, and pushing his way into the yard with lies about the flowers is particularly disturbing. The laughter and camaraderie that he started with ends instantly when he doesn't get his way, which makes the reader feel like the tinker is faking his friendliness. He just wants his job, his money, and to be headed to the next job. But this guy will do anything for a sale, and his expressions and actions show it. Strangely, it is Elisa who makes a move toward intimacy, nearly touching his greasy pant leg in the throes of her passion for planting and night skies. The description of the tinker's self-conscious head turn shows the reader that he is about to say something he shouldn't. Elisa, however, is so wrapped up in her effort to connect that she assumes he is talking about looking at stars. Elisa's body position is that of a "fawning dog"—not a good look, and she knows it.

Lies, Lies, Lies

The tinker is a master liar. He searches for a way to manipulate Elisa into giving him work and tries to get on her good side by pretending to be interested in a flower for which she clearly has a passion. The tinker changes his tune about the smell of the flowers when Elisa tells him they don't smell bad. He fabricates a tale about a woman who is supposedly a great gardener but wants chrysanthemum seeds, a request that a knowledgeable gardener would never make. The strange thing is that Elisa, who seems to be such a sharp character, doesn't catch this lie. The love of her subject and the chance to transmit her passion to someone else overrides her good sense.

Elisa also desperately wants to be recognized for her skills and her strengths. She has nowhere to show what she can do except in the house and garden, and Henry has mentioned working in the orchard, but that's the extent of her options. The tinker's arrival gives her someone else whom she can impress with her abilities, and she goes overboard in doing so. Steinbeck uses her rapid-fire talk to show that Elisa's quest for connection, recognition, and independence are more important to her than stopping to recognize she is being conned. The tinker stretches his lie by getting Elisa to give him chrysanthemum shoots in a pot, which he knows will make her so happy that she might give him work. There is situational irony (in which what happens is the opposite of what is expected to happen) in the fact that it is not the lie that makes Elisa give him work, but her own embarrassment at going over the line and not realizing he is there to make money, not make a friend.

Elisa also lies to cover her shame over her initial reluctance to help the tinker by giving him a job. When she transgresses into more personal territory, sharing with him her passion and gift for gardening, she realizes that he may be as passionate about his craft as she is about hers—he has talked about his gift as well—and that he needs to commodify his gift as she does not because of her higher, more stable, class and economic status. Elisa scrambles for something to give the tinker, pulling two old pots from the can pile, a pile of metal refuse. She doesn't need pots from the garbage to be repaired, but she manages to smooth out her earlier faux pas. Now, though, as the tinker is making repairs to the pots, his professional face on for good, Elisa tries to get back to talking about the freedom his life must give him. Again, she shows she doesn't understand how hard a life on the road is, though one would think that Elisa would see the struggle in the tinker's scruffy appearance and broken-down wagon. The deeper reason for her questions comes out when she says she wishes women could live the way he does. The tinker shuts down her dream, telling her that life on the road is not right for women. This is also a lie, but social conventions make the tinker believe he is telling the truth.

Elisa gets angry and asks him how he would even know that a woman couldn't do his job on the road. She brags about how she can actually do his job quite well, and given the state of her pots and scissors, the reader can believe this statement. The tinker is done, though, and just wants his money so he can leave. He protests he "of course" doesn't know for sure that a woman couldn't do the job he does. But his parting words give the reader a small window into what his life is really like: lonely and sometimes frightening. The reader gets the sense that he does it, but he wouldn't wish it on a woman. That may be the first time he has come close to the truth in his entire conversation with Elisa.

Elisa's elaborate preparation to go to town seems a bit mechanical, especially the "dress which was the symbol of her prettiness." Her affect on the porch, waiting for Henry, also shows that her heart is not in the mood for a night out. She is prim and stiff, looking like she is expected to look. However, this is a lie, a cover for how she is really feeling inside. She has been emotionally turned upside down, realizing that, in telling the tinker all about what she can do, she actually could take her freedom if she wanted, and she is perfectly capable of doing things a man does. Her disguise is pushed aside when Henry tries to compliment her and she lashes out at him, thinking he must mean something weak when he describes how she looks. But even Henry sees the strength in her, and the happiness that self-realization brings.

The extent of the tinker's lie about the chrysanthemums is revealed when Elisa and Henry go to town and Elisa sees a dark spot on the road. The author says, "She knew." That two-word statement lands with a thud in Elisa's heart and in the mind of the reader. Elisa's strength is deflated. Even her tears are weak. Her posture is limp, and she is hiding from her husband. The person who represented a freer life and seemed to understand her passions turns out to be just another con man out to get a buck any way he can. Elisa tries to resurrect her strength by asking about the fights, but she can't fake it—the fights are not for her because she doesn't like the idea, not because it's a bad place for a woman to be. Steinbeck shows how the lack of recognition of a person's strengths, combined with dishonesty toward someone who is honestly sharing something she loves, tears a person down.

Encounters Between Men and Women

The first encounter between Elisa and Henry shows interest in each other's successes, and Henry provides an opening for Elisa to toot her own horn. The work he does in the orchard could actually be done better by Elisa, who is the plant person of the couple. Henry's communication with Elisa shows he thinks highly of her and her abilities and doesn't limit her strengths to the house and garden. However, Elisa seems to approach Henry with the expectation that he is going to be like men she might encounter in other areas of her life, who likely maintain a strict division between jobs a man can do and jobs a woman should do. When Henry asks Elisa if she likes his idea for a night out, Elisa responds in a way that makes it sound as if he has asked a stupid question or doesn't know her very well. Elisa is happy to have the chance to eat somewhere besides home, any time. Henry realizes this later when he says it would be good for both of them to get out more. His description of the farm as being "heavy" reveals that he knows the emotional toll that the isolation and the lack of opportunity take on Elisa. Henry's response to Elisa's primping for going out is also uncharacteristic of a typical 1930s man. However, Elisa assumes he means "nice" and "strong" in the way a woman of her time is supposed to be, not in the way she feels she is.

Elisa's encounter with the tinker is a loaded meeting. Steinbeck has managed to pack into one short encounter the class and economic differences between a ragged tinker and a rancher's wife, as well as the emotional need for understanding and connection with another human being. He has also shown readers the dynamic between customer and service person, the notion of what is acceptable for each sex in terms of job and behavior, and erotic tension between a man and a woman. The way the tinker is dressed and the condition of his wagon, compared to Elisa's incredibly clean and polished little house and yard, shows he is far poorer than she is. He is also not educated, shown by the misspelled words on his wagon, while Elisa reads about fights and blood-soaked gloves. They have a connection, though, in their pride for their work and their insistence on doing a good job. The tinker may be despicable for manipulating Elisa into giving him work, but he does the job well and doesn't charge much for the service. Each shares their pride and their work with the other. Elisa is truly interested in him as a person—in his experiences being on the road, in his passion for his work, and in living for the moment in the spark of sexual attraction she feels toward him.

The push and pull of the conversation between Elisa and the tinker reveals the invisible boundary between a customer and a service person. The service person is nice to the customer, until it serves his purpose and makes the customer hire him for a job. He is also extremely polite at the end of the encounter, to leave a good impression for his next visit. Elisa is curt with him when she is rejecting his services but friendly once she finally decides she has to give him work. The conversation about what a woman can do is a struggle between the two, and ends up revealing more of what the tinker finds difficult about his life than the idea that a woman could not possibly do the job.

The erotic tension between Elisa and the tinker shows up when she tries to explain her deep passion for working with plants. It gets her so worked up that she is overcome by her own emotions, and since no one has ever really asked her to share her ideas (except for Henry in the orchard), she gives all she has to the conversation. The near touch of the pant leg may be just like a hand on an arm, except she is on her knees and a leg is decidedly not a socially acceptable place to touch a stranger. She realizes it, too late, and also realizes she has done this with a person who only wants a job, not a person who cares about her needs and desires. There is one small sidetrack into a possibly sexual conversation when the tinker gets self-conscious and says he might know what she is talking about, the feeling shooting through her arm, when he is in the wagon at night. Elisa cuts him off with her description of how the stars are so sharp at night they enter her body, and her language is blatantly sexual, though she may not intend it as such. She wants to share a strong emotional experience with someone who gets it, and he seems to think they're talking about sexual feelings and actions. His comment that it's all wonderful unless you're starving pulls both of them back to reality and places the wall between them. Elisa breaks it down a little when she says she could show the tinker what a woman could do, which also sounds a bit like a sexual proposition. However, given how proud Elisa is of her skills and how much she likes to brag about them, she may really mean that she wants to show the tinker that she can bang the dents out of a pot with the best of them.

Elisa's downfall comes when she realizes the person who unwittingly showed her that she has strengths beyond what she has known about herself is actually a liar. Everything he said and did was to get her to give him a job. Her interaction with Henry at this point is painful to read, as she tries to connect with Henry about the fights and seems to be thinking about going there herself with him. Elisa knows, though, that she doesn't want to see people hurting each other. She just wanted a chance to be a strong, competent woman in a stranger's eyes and a chance to break out of her isolation on the farm. But the encounter with the tinker wasn't all that. The dejection of the tears, the weakness, and the phrase like an old woman shows how hard this realization is for Elisa.

The Chrysanthemums Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Elisa Allen gardens. Henry Allen offers to take her out to dinner.

Rising Action

2 As Elisa digs up chrysanthemum sets, a tinker arrives.

3 Elisa declines to give him work. The tinker complains.

4 Elisa gives him some seed sets.

5 Elisa talks passionately and nearly touches the tinker.

6 The tinker says his life is interesting, but not when he hasn't had dinner.

7 Elisa, embarrassed, gives the tinker pots to fix.

8 Elisa wants to live his life; he says it's too scary.

Climax

9 As the tinker leaves, Elisa sees a bright path.

Falling Action

10 Elisa dresses up; Henry compliments her, but she lashes out.

11 Elisa sees tossed sets, is sad, and asks about boxing fights.

Resolution

12 Henry offers to take her to the fights; she hides her tears.

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