The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Steinbeck

Steinbeck was born the third of four children in a working, middle-class family. His father, John Ernst Steinbeck, Sr., worked as the Monterey County treasurer, and his mother, Olive Hamilton, was a school teacher. Steinbeck grew up in a small settlement town deep in the Salinas Valley and worked side-by-side with migrant laborers, gaining insight and empathy into their difficult existence. After graduating high school in 1919, Steinbeck studied English Literature at Stanford University. He remained in attendance there until 1925, at which time he left without completing his degree. While spending time traveling and writing, Steinbeck met his first wife, Carol Henning, and the couple returned to California following the publication of his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. Steinbeck and Henning moved into a home outside of Monterey County owned by Steinbeck’s father, who continued to support the couple financially so that Steinbeck could focus on his writing. During this time, Steinbeck wrote some of his most famous works, including Of Mice and Men in 1937 and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. In 1940, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. By 1943, Steinbeck and Henning divorced, and he quickly married his second wife, Gwyn Conger. Conger and Steinbeck had two sons, John and Thomas, between 1944 and 1946, but were divorced by 1948. Steinbeck married his third and final wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950. He served as a war correspondent during World War II and Vietnam, where he was wounded both physically and mentally. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature under controversial circumstances; some critics considered Steinbeck’s work lacking the talent implied by the prestigious award. He died in 1968 of congestive heart failure having never written another word of fiction. Steinbeck remains one of North America’s most celebrated writers, with his works required reading in many high schools and universities.   
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Historical Context of The Chrysanthemums

  Steinbeck wrote and published “The Chrysanthemums” in 1937, one year after the New Deal, a series of public programs and projects implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to bring relief and reformation to those who were hit hardest by the Great Depression, and Steinbeck was an open supporter of his efforts. Programs stemming from the New Deal, such as the Farm Security Administration and the Social Security Administration, provided social support for the poor, the unemployed, and the elderly. Public reception to the New Deal was split, with many conservatives maintaining it was counterproductive to new business and economic growth. Steinbeck’s sympathies for those most affected by Depression-era hardships can be seen in much of his writing, as his attention is frequently focused on struggling farmhands and other disenfranchised members of society. Steinbeck’s preferred settings of the Salinas Valley and other American prairies have become part of what is known as Dust Bowl fiction, chronicling the plight of rural Americans during the Dirty Thirties—a time in which a decade-long dust storm ravaged the Great Plains and worsened the economic disaster of the Great Depression.    

Other Books Related to The Chrysanthemums

Steinbeck was part of the artistic movement known as modernism, which originated in Europe and North America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other modernist works such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and James Joyce’s Ulysses sought to “make it new,” the modernist maxim coined by Ezra Pound, and did so by challenging traditional literary forms and other common beliefs and values, including social inequality and sexism. Works like Steinbeck’s The Long Valley and The Pearl reflect this attempt to break from old-fashioned ideals and principles and serve as understated—yet biting—critiques of society’s many injustices, while simultaneously experimenting with non-standard literary forms. Steinbeck was also known to admire American writer and contemporary William Faulkner, best known for Southern novels such as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Steinbeck’s greatest influence, however, was marine biologist and philosopher Ed Ricketts. Steinbeck met Ricketts in early 1930 when Steinbeck’s first wife took a job in one of his laboratories. Ricketts was a great supporter of ecological thinking, which espouses that humankind is only a small part of a greater chain of being, one that is too large and complicated for any one person to understand. This influence, along with an intense interest in environmental science, is reflected in Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.”
Key Facts about The Chrysanthemums
  • Full Title: “The Chrysanthemums”
  • When Written: 1937
  • Where Written: Salinas Valley, California
  • When Published: 1937
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Fiction, Short Story
  • Setting: Salinas Valley, California
  • Climax: Elisa discovers that the tinker has thrown her chrysanthemum sprouts onto the side of the road.
  • Antagonist: The Tinker
  • Point of View: Third person limited

Extra Credit for The Chrysanthemums

Steinbeck hated typewriters. Despite having the available technology, Steinbeck refused to write using a typewriter and wrote all of his works by hand. He reportedly used in excess of sixty pencils on any given day and only agreed to begin using a typewriter very late in his career when his editor, allegedly the only person who could read his handwriting, died.

Steinbeck as a secret agent. During World War II, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent and worked with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor for what would later become the CIA. Steinbeck again offered his services to the CIA in 1952 during the Cold War while he was planning a tour of Europe. Reportedly, the Director of Central Intelligence, Walter Bedell Smith, was enthusiastic of Steinbeck’s suggestion; however, what service he provided, if any, is unknown.