The Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Chrysanthemums | Themes


Loneliness of Rural Life

The setting Steinbeck describes on the ranch is vast and sparsely populated. Elisa Allen can see to the horizon, but there is nothing on it. Steinbeck doesn't describe any other buildings or houses within view except for the outbuildings at the ranch. To make matters worse for Elisa, her husband, Henry Allen, spends his time working on the ranch while she is up at the house, and the only thing she can put her vast store of energy into is the garden. Elisa doesn't see anyone on the ranch except for Henry, Scotty, and the occasional visitors doing business with Henry. Steinbeck doesn't mention Elisa having any friends, so her life is spent primarily alone. Steinbeck uses the description of the fog surrounding the Salinas Valley as a lid on a pot to show how isolated the farm is, and how the outside world beyond the valley is beyond Elisa's reach.

When the tinker comes to Elisa's house, she instantly begins joking with him about the dog and happily gives him directions that will make sure he and his horse and burro are safe. She enjoys the contact with another adult, a stranger, and also enjoys providing knowledge to someone else, proving she has it herself. Her ability to describe the route helps her feel as if she isn't just confined to the ranch but knows about the world around it. However, she closes up when she realizes the tinker is just trying to sell her his services. Her loneliness is obvious to the tinker, and he keeps trying to find a way to get on her good side so she will give him work, which, from the condition of his suit and wagon, he obviously needs. He manipulates this knowledge of how isolated she must feel as he searches for something to use to connect with her. He knows that if he finds the right thing to talk about, she will open up, because she needs a friend more than a tinker. Once she begins to see him as a fellow night-sky lover and thinks he is willing to transmit the love of chrysanthemums to someone else in the valley, he has her hooked. Her loneliness and isolation in this very rural setting make her an easy target for the tinker.

Sense of Self

The action in the story opens with Elisa working on her garden. While Henry stands and talks with men in suits, Elisa is powering through her chrysanthemums, trimming them and dividing them to transplant. Steinbeck describes her energy as almost too much for the job at hand, which implies that Elisa could do far more with her talents. When Henry comes up to compliment her on her work, she is extremely proud of it. She thinks his desire that she would work on the orchard too is a good idea. Elisa is looking for a way to be more than a lonely farm wife, and this one gift is her pride and joy and gives her confidence. Her husband readily recognizes her strengths, but Elisa seems to have a problem pushing past the confines of her current role to take on more in her life. However, she recognizes that using her talents to complete a bigger job and do it well would prove to people, and to herself, that she is a woman to be reckoned with.

Steinbeck describes Elisa as a woman with a strong face, and a handsome woman. His word choice to describe this character presents Elisa as a highly capable person whose talents are waiting to be tapped. However, Elisa struggles with the realization that the free life she wants to live, with hard work as part of it, is not open to her as a woman. She insists that a woman could handle being alone and doing the tinker's job, because she's already alone, and her scissors are, as she says, "all sharp." The only thing missing is a wagon and the permission from society to be out on the road. Elisa would have more confidence and a more complete sense of self if she broke out of the mold and got off the farm to use her skills.

Price of Rejection

The tinker spends a long time trying to find the way in to convince Elisa that she should give him paying work. A direct request doesn't get him what he wants because Elisa isn't looking for someone to do a job she already does quite well. He tries cultivating pity, which is a classic way to play on a woman's emotions. But Elisa is different. The way to Elisa's heart and purse is through a job she does with passion and skill. The reader knows that the tinker is trying to find something in the yard that will allow him to continue the conversation and get Elisa to warm up to him, and he takes a chance on the plants she is splitting. He first calls them "plants" because he truly doesn't know what they are and asks her about them. When she tells the tinker they are chrysanthemums, he remembers what they look like and describes them, saying they have a "nasty smell." His quick switch to saying he likes the smell is another clue to the reader that he is using Elisa's interest as a way to manipulate her. If he wants Elisa on his good side, he has to agree with her about the chrysanthemums.

He keeps going by claiming that there is a customer he knows who has lots of flowers but no chrysanthemums and has asked him to get her seeds. The reader knows that a woman who has every kind of flower except one is unlikely to be that ignorant of one more flower's growth patterns, but Elisa doesn't catch the tinker in his lie. The lie is so elaborate that Elisa falls for it, even risking inappropriate behavior, though she quickly reverts to being the customer. Her passion has led to her wanting to keep the tinker there, talking, so she gives him work. Now, she can ask him about his life and talk about how she thinks she would like it out there. She also brags to him about her abilities at his job, which he ignores. When he leaves, Elisa sees both the tinker and the direction he travels in as a "bright direction" that she could take if she wanted to.

This entire encounter builds up Elisa's pride in herself and her abilities, and opens up possibilities she has not considered before. Her husband doesn't understand why she is short with him when he compliments her. Henry knows his wife is amazing in many ways and tells her so. But when Elisa sees the spot in the road, she knows immediately that she has been duped. Her strengths and her desires have been used against her. It pulls the rug right out from under her, and her spirits fall. The disappointment goes far beyond losing a few chrysanthemums. It is a rejection of what she has already shown she can do better than anyone around, a rejection of her attempt to connect with the tinker, and a moment in which she feels as if all she can be is an old fool. She works at connecting with Henry as one strong person to another, talking about the fights, but realizes almost immediately that she is not interested in them. Her interest is one that men from the outside world see as unimportant, and it is devastating to be fooled into thinking that the tinker appreciated what she has to offer the world. It is so disappointing that she can't see how Henry supports who she is, recognizes her strengths, and would give her whatever she wants if only she would ask.

Need for Understanding

Elisa wants someone to understand how strong she is, and while her husband clearly sees her strengths, she doesn't work side by side with him. She doesn't feel as if Henry understands her, though he makes an effort to do so, offering her whatever she wants, even a trip to the fights. The reader gets the sense that being understood by only one person is just not enough. Elisa wants to live in a world where she can go where she wants and do what she is best at. She also wants people beyond the farm to appreciate what she does and understand her passions. The speed with which she becomes passionate about planting hands and transplanting chrysanthemums shows how much she wants someone besides Henry to share her experience. When Elisa shares how she feels when she looks at the night sky, she is also trying to connect with the tinker on a subject she thinks they have in common. However, the tinker puts up a barrier between himself and Elisa by immediately losing the aura of friendship and sexual innuendo and becoming the professional tinker he is proud to be.

Elisa tries to connect with him again by offering to show him what a woman can do, and she means that she can fix pots and sharpen knives. However, the reader gets the sense that she wants a deeper, more intimate connection. She hopes that by telling the tinker what she can do well, he might understand her because his repair work is obviously his passion. When her attempts don't work, she is wistful but still hopeful that the direction he travels still might be open to her. The dumped chrysanthemums on the road dash all of her hopes for being understood by the tinker, and she can't share this feeling with her husband because it was cultivated by a conversation with another man. Her conversation with Henry about the fights also shows a desire to connect, but it's a subject she can't claim to love, and she knows it. Her lost opportunity to be understood is gone, and it makes her cry.

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