The Chrysanthemums


John Steinbeck

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The “high grey-flannel fog of winter” has settled over California’s Salinas Valley, sealing it like a “closed pot.” The cut hay fields appear to retain the absent sunlight of summer, conveying a sense of optimism even in December. The valley, home to Elisa and Henry Allen’s farm, has entered a period of dormancy.

From her flower garden Elisa watches Henry negotiate with two businessmen in the distance. At thirty-five, Elisa is strong and has eyes “as clear as water.” Her appearance is surprisingly masculine, and her dress reflects her hard work in the dirt, where she uses a pair of scissors to cut down the old year’s chrysanthemum stalks. Her work is “over-eager” and “over-powerful,” and the small stems seem “too small and easy for her energy.” Her experienced hands quickly rid the flowers of unwanted insects and other pests. She is so focused on her work that Henry’s sudden appearance startles her.

Henry acknowledges Elisa gift with the chrysanthemums, but wishes she’d focus her efforts on growing apples in the orchard. Elisa asserts her prowess, saying she has “planters’ hands,” and asks Henry what he was discussing with the men in business suits. Henry says he sold thirty head of cattle and suggests that they go into town that evening to celebrate. He also jokes that maybe Elisa would enjoy the local fights, though Elisa quickly rebuffs the idea. She agrees to dinner, and Henry departs to bring the cattle down from the mountain.

As Elisa continues working in her garden, a dilapidated wagon approaches the farm, advertising “Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.” A dirty and disheveled man drives the wagon, which is pulled by an exhausted horse and a listless donkey. Elisa warmly welcomes the tinker with witty jokes about the state of his pulling team.

The tinker informs Elisa that he is lost, having left the usual route that he follows yearly from Seattle to San Diego, fixing household items along the way. Elisa is immediately drawn to the freedom and intrigue of the tinker’s traveling existence, even though she claims to have nothing for him to fix, and she becomes increasingly agitated with him as he continues to attempt to sell his services. Elisa’s hardened response begins to soften, however, as the tinker expresses an interest in her cherished chrysanthemums.

The tinker claims to know a woman on his usual route who has long been searching for good chrysanthemum seeds, and Elisa agrees to provide him with some sprouts to give to his customer. She kneels to dig up the chrysanthemums, her voice taking on a “husky” tone and her breast swelling “passionately” as she explains her connection to the plants. Elisa’s speech takes on a distinctly sexual overtone as she progresses from talking about flowers to fervently asserting that while she’s never lived as the tinker has, she knows the feeling of looking at up at a quiet night sky full of stars that “get driven into your body […] hot and sharp and—lovely.” Kneeling at the tinker’s feet “like a fawning dog,” she almost touches the cloth of his pants.

Elisa and the tinker are both embarrassed at Elisa’s display, and she quickly agrees to give him some work in the form of a damaged saucepan after digging up the sprouts and offering them to him in a red flower pot. Elisa again expresses the desire to live a free and exciting life like the tinker does, even going so far as to say that she shares his skillset in fixing household items. The tinker quickly reminds Elisa that his life of work and travel would be lonesome and frightening “for a woman,” and he is then on his way, nearly forgetting the chrysanthemum sprouts in the process.

Elisa hurries to the house to take a hot bath, during which she scrubs her entire body until her skin is red. Upon drying, she observes her naked body in the mirror, before carefully applying makeup and selecting her most beautiful dress, “the symbol of her prettiness.” When Henry returns home, he tells his wife that she looks “strong and happy.” As Elisa and Henry head into Salinas for their date, Elisa sees a dark speck in the distance, and realizes that the tinker has thrown her chrysanthemum sprouts out onto the side of the road. Elisa turns her head, “crying weakly—like an old woman.”