The Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Chrysanthemums | Symbols


The Chrysanthemums

The chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa Allen's passion and ability to do a job better than anyone else. They symbolize her pride in herself and her own skills, and they provide an opportunity for her to connect with another adult who is not her husband. She doesn't want the tinker himself, though she loses touch with that boundary for a minute, but she wants the freedom he has, and the opportunity to decide for herself what she will do for work and where she will go. She may not be able to get off the farm at that moment, but she sends her chrysanthemums out into the world, a substitute for herself.

She also nurtures the chrysanthemums, and the reader may be tempted to assume that these flowers symbolize the children she doesn't have, but her energy and skills with plants go beyond the idea of motherhood and nurture. She shares knowledge about them with another person and conveys her passion for them as well, in the way a person would talk about any type of work in which they are highly invested, not just parenting. The chrysanthemums reveal Elisa as a character who is a master of a particular job, representing her expertise and her energy. They are rejected by the tinker, since he throws them onto the road after he drives away, which cuts Elisa to her core and makes her sad enough to cry, hiding her tears from her husband. In this way the chrysanthemums finally symbolize Elisa herself, her desires and her energies. The tinker's rejection of the chrysanthemums, to Elisa, is a rejection of her as a person.

The Wagon

The wagon, also referred to as a caravan and a prairie schooner, symbolizes both work and freedom. The tinker drives, he says, from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. This journey is farther than Elisa can even imagine going, as isolated as she is on the ranch. For the tinker the wagon is his livelihood and his home. He doesn't have a traditional home, sleeping in his wagon at night, and there is no break in his schedule. The wagon is the place where he advertises his services, albeit in paint that drips and using misspelled words to list the articles he repairs. When he first talks with Elisa, he asks her if she has noticed the sign on his wagon. This is how he introduces what he does for a living, so he can ask for work. Elisa also sees the wagon as a type of traveling workshop, and since the tinker does work she already knows how to do well, she envies the tinker's ability to take his work all over the region. She sees he is extremely proud of his abilities, but instead of recognizing them, she brags about her own, similar abilities and tells the tinker he may have competition.

The wagon allows the tinker to go wherever he wants to go to find work, and Elisa immediately covets this kind of freedom. She starts off their conversation by saying it must be a "nice kind of a way to live," traveling everywhere and meeting different people, using his skills to do work he loves. The tinker tells her that this life is not for a woman to live, because it is too lonely and frightening. He says there are animals that come in the night and hide under the wagon. His life, exemplified by how he maintains a professional distance from Elisa once he gets work from her, is extremely solitary. Elisa knows what it feels like to be lonely and isolated, and she thinks a dose of freedom on the road would make that solitude worth enduring. Several times throughout their conversation, Elisa claims that the tinker's life is one she would like to live, though women are not allowed to do so. She romanticizes his experience at night, looking at the stars from his wagon, but he brings her right down to earth when he notes it's not so great a view when he hasn't eaten anything all day. His scruffy appearance and the rickety state of his wagon show that he may have freedom but he doesn't have material comforts. Elisa doesn't know what it is like to live without the comforts of home, but the freedom that the wagon represents to her is extremely attractive. Elisa knows that the world outside the ranch is geared toward men, not women, doing what they want, when they want, and where they want to do it. The wagon, to her, is a way into that world.

The Fights

The fights are first mentioned when Henry Allen jokes with Elisa that he might take her to see them after they go to dinner in town. Elisa doesn't want to go see people beating each other up, and he knows it, but he uses this typically male activity in an attempt to be funny. Elisa doesn't see it as funny; to her it represents a male world that is completely closed to her and impossible to understand. However, she has read about the fights; it seems Elisa has been exploring the world of men for a while, and Henry hasn't known about her interest in a world that is closed to her, she thinks.

When Elisa realizes that the tinker has thrown out her chrysanthemums, she reveals to Henry that she has read about the harm the men cause to each other in fights. She knows about the blood-soaked gloves and the broken bones. Henry is surprised, but he doesn't act as if he wants to keep her out of this world if she wants to enter it. Henry is a character who is open to whatever Elisa wants to do that will make her happy and allow her to feel fulfilled, though Elisa doesn't seem to recognize this side of him. She asks about women at the fights, discovering that there are women who go to them. Her line of questioning shows that she is trying to find another way into the world of men, which she sees as a freer world than her own. However, not every single stereotypically male activity appeals to her. The fights represent another attempt to recall the feeling of connection and entry into the world of free men, but they also represent a barrier to that world, one Elisa isn't willing to traverse just for the sake of spreading her wings.

The Mongrel Dog

The mongrel dog makes only one appearance at the beginning of the story, but he represents protection against dangers in the outside world. He also represents withdrawal from a fight. This dog is usually fierce, but as the tinker says, it takes him a while to get himself going and show his ferocity. One could say that the dog is similar to Elisa, in that it is protective of what it considers its own property, just as she is protective of her chrysanthemums, of her yard, and of her worth and skill as a hard worker. Elisa also retreats from fights, literally. Henry offers to take her to the fights, but when she is confronted with the possibility of being exposed to the blood and gore that is part of the fight experience, she declines the offer. The dog hides under the wagon, growling and baring his teeth, hiding from a fight with the two ranch dogs. Elisa, at one point, also exposes her teeth when her lip curls as she says to the tinker, "How do you know? How can you tell?" She is responding to his insistence that the life of a nomad tinker is not "the right kind of a life for a woman." She defends her position, but she doesn't go further than that, watching the wagon drive away in a direction she wishes she could go.

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