The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A “high grey-flannel fog” has isolated the Salinas Valley like a “closed pot.” The cut yellow hay fields look as though they are “bathed in sunshine,” though there is none in December in the valley, and a slight southwestern breeze suggests rain despite the heavy fog. The valley is home to Henry and Elisa Allen’s farm, which has entered a period of “quiet and waiting.” 
Steinbeck’s description of the valley and the isolating fog is romantic and warm, lending comfort to the otherwise cold and barren landscape. The cut hayfields resemble sunshine despite the winter season and the farmers are optimistic of upcoming rain, suggesting that the desolate farmland will soon again be bursting with crops and life. 
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While Henry is across the field talking to two men in business suits, Elisa busies herself in her small chrysanthemum garden. At thirty-five, her appearance is strong and masculine, and she aggressively cuts down the old year’s chrysanthemum stalks with pair of powerful scissors. Her garden and her nearby home are both meticulously kept, and Elisa approaches her gardening with enthusiasm.  
The division of labor on the Allens’ farm reflects the strict gender roles present in the early twentieth-century. While Elisa busies herself in her garden, Henry tends to more important matters. Clearly, Henry’s work is considered more important than Elisa’s gardening and housework.
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As Henry approaches the garden, Elisa is startled by his sudden appearance. He compliments Elisa’s ability to grow such large chrysanthemums and suggests that she apply her gardening skills in the orchard, growing apples instead. Elisa is convinced of her skills—thanks to her “planters’ hands”—and is confident in her ability to grow anything, including apples. However, Henry doesn’t seem to have been serious in his invitation to work in the orchard. Henry informs Elisa of his successful business transaction and suggests they celebrate with a night on the town.
The fact that Elisa is startled by Henry’s appearance implies that he does not visit her in the garden often, and his suggestion that Elisa grow apples suggests that her time is wasted working with her flowers and would be better spent elsewhere, like in the orchard. However, he doesn’t actually want her to do more practical work, so his comment seems to be a subtle put-down about her frivolous flowers. Her gift with growing things makes her an asset on the farm, yet Henry has no intention of letting Elisa work more directly with business.
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Henry suggests dinner in Salinas and perhaps a picture show. He even suggests that they attend the fights afterward. Elisa quickly becomes irritated, reminding Henry that she doesn’t enjoy the fights. Henry insists he is only fooling around and promises her dinner at the Cominos Hotel. Elisa agrees, and as Henry departs to bring the cattle down from the mountain, she continues working in her chrysanthemum garden.
Henry does not suggest celebrating Elisa’s own accomplishments in the garden, only his own. He jokes about going to watch the fights, yet Elisa does not find him funny. During this short interaction, it is clear that Elisa and Henry barely know each other despite being married.
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As Elisa continues her meticulous work, a strange covered wagon approaches her farm drawn by a haggard horse and donkey and driven by an unkept man, advertising “Pots, pans, knives, scissors, lawn mores, Fixed.” As the tinker, a big man with a “worn black suit,” stops his wagon, he informs Elisa that he is off his usual route and is lost. Each year, the tinker drives his wagon from Seattle to San Diego fixing household items along the way, and he is happy to offer Elisa his services.
Elisa sees very little traffic on her remote farm and she is immediately curious about the tinker. His ramshackle wagon is in stark contrast to her own garden and home. The tinker is subtly deceptive. His eyes appear dark even though he is outwardly friendly. Also, since the tinker claims to have been making the trip down the coast for several years in a row, it seems unlikely that he would be off of his general route and lost. 
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Elisa is pleasant and warmly welcomes the tinker. She expresses an interest in his nomadic lifestyle—deeming it “a nice kind of a way to live”—and makes jokes about the state of his pulling team. Despite her friendliness, Elisa appears irritated with the tinker’s continued attempts to secure some sort of work from her, and firmly insists that she does not require his services. The tinker makes one last effort to sharpen Elisa’s scissors, claiming they are his specialty, even though she makes clear that she could do this work herself. 
Initially, Elisa is kind and seemingly excited for a bit of company. It is obvious that Elisa spends most of her time alone, and even a passing stranger is a welcomed sight. Elisa is immediately drawn to the tinker’s free and independent lifestyle. That the tinker wants money to do the work Elisa already does for free gestures towards her lack of power as a woman. Not only does he doubt that she could do the work, it’s clear that this society would not warm to paying her for sharpening like they do the tinker.
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As the tinker searches for another way to secure work from Elisa, his eyes fall on the chrysanthemum garden where she has been working and he engages her in a conversation about her flowers. Seeing Elisa’s resolve softening, the tinker continues to ask her questions about the flowers. He claims to have an established customer who is looking for good chrysanthemum seeds and asks Elisa if she is willing to part with some. Elisa happily agrees, informing him that chrysanthemums are best grown with sprouts, not seeds. 
When it becomes clear to the tinker that Elisa has no intention of giving him work, he begins to search for a way to manipulate her. He notices her work with the flowers and takes a chance, asking her about her prize chrysanthemums. It is clear that the tinker has no real interest in Elisa’s flowers, he simply wants to convince her to give him a small bit of work so that he may afford some food.
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Elisa runs excitedly to the back of her house and returns with a brand-new pot. She kneels in the garden and, forgetting her gloves, begins to unearth fresh chrysanthemum sprouts to give to the tinker. As she digs, Elisa tells the tinker how his customer should care for the sprouts. She informs him that if he keeps the sprouts moist in sand, his customer can later transplant them. The chrysanthemums should take root in about a month, but the most important thing that he must remember to tell his customer is to cut the chrysanthemums about eight inches from the ground in July, before they bloom in late September.
Elisa immediately responds to the tinker’s feigned interest. This interest leads Elisa to feel seen for who she is: a strong, talented, and knowledgeable woman. Elisa longs to be seen for her true and authentic self, and the tinker’s interest is the perfect opportunity for her to show of her skills and knowledge, which is her most profound desire. Notably, the chrysanthemums need to be cut down in July before they bloom later in the season. This has some symbolic significance for the story’s ending, as it’s possible that Elisa’s tragic ending is merely her being “cut down” before she inevitably blooms.
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The tinker is confused as Elisa explains her “planters’ hands” and her ability to grow anything in the dirt. Elisa tries to describe how she can “feel how it is” when working with plants, and how her hands “never make a mistake” in the garden. Her hands “can’t do anything wrong” where plants are concerned, and as Elisa continues to kneel and dig in the garden, her breasts “swell passionately” and her voice becomes “husky.”
Elisa is explicitly associated with fertility through her “planters’ hands.” Her gift means that she can grow any plant she desires, suggesting an inherent ability to create and nurture life. As Elisa describes this gift to the tinker, she becomes increasingly sexual, suggesting a longing and desire to share her interests and talents with another person, something that she is lacking in her marriage to Henry.
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The tinker becomes uncomfortable and tells Elisa that her “planters’ hands” are similar to how he feels at night in his wagon. Elisa quickly interrupts the tinker, insisting she knows how he feels, even though she has never lived the way he does. Elisa begins to describe the quiet night sky and stars, exclaiming, “Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.” As Elisa kneels before the tinker, she nearly touches him, but quickly drops her hands to the ground, crouching “low like a fawning dog.”
Elisa’s immediate sexual attraction to the tinker reflects her loneliness and isolation. Also, her knowledge of the chrysanthemums and her “planters’ hands” make her a type of authority and place her on more equal ground with the tinker. This causes her attraction to the tinker to progress so quickly that her description of the night sky seamlessly becomes a description of an orgasm. Still on her knees in a submissive position, Elisa nearly touches the tinker before dropping her hands. 
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The tinker quickly interjects that while the night sky may be lovely, it is difficult to enjoy on an empty stomach. Elisa, feeling ashamed, hands him the pot of chrysanthemum sprouts and goes to find something for him to fix. She returns with a broken saucepan and offers it to the tinker. 
As the tinker is not truly interested in Elisa or her chrysanthemums, he interrupts her sexual display to remind her that he is hungry and is in search of work so that he might buy some dinner.
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As the tinker begins to mend Elisa’s old saucepan, his demeanor instantly changes. He becomes “professional,” and as he assembles his tools and pounds out the dents in the pan, his mouth grows “sure and knowing.” When his work becomes difficult, he begins to suck on his lower lip.
As the tinker begins to fix the old pot, his true identity begins to surface. He is clearly an expert in repair and his business of fixing small household items gives him much pride, just as Elisa’s chrysanthemums do. 
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Elisa chats with the tinker as he works. She asks him if he sleeps in the wagon at night, and when he reports that he does, Elisa is openly jealous of his life, stating that she wishes “women could do such things.” The tinker responds, “It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.” When Elisa asks the tinker how he could know that, the tinker says, “Of course I don’t know.” Elisa pays him fifty cents for his work and states that he may soon have a rival in the tinkering business, since she can easily mend pans and sharpen scissors too. As the tinker readies his wagon to depart, he tells her that it would be “a lonely life for a woman.” 
Elisa takes this opportunity to ask the tinker about his lifestyle. She expresses an explicit longing to live an independent and free life just as he does; however, this is unheard of for a woman and the tinker reminds her of this. The tinker tells Elisa that traveling is not appropriate for her, a woman, yet he doesn’t really know exactly why, outside of it being a lonely life. This comment is highly ironic since Elisa’s life with Henry is already incredibly lonely.
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Elisa reminds the tinker to keep the sand moist in the pot of chrysanthemums. The tinker responds, “Sand, ma’am?” and drives his wagon away from Elisa’s farm. As Elisa stands and watches the tinker leave, she audibly whispers good-bye, startling herself with the sound of her voice. Elisa says, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” 
The fact that the tinker forgets about the chrysanthemums so quickly again suggests that his interest is not genuine, although Elisa does not seem to notice this. Her preoccupation with the direction that the tinker is going in and the bright light implies that there is opportunity away from her life on the farm.
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Elisa runs hurriedly into the house to ready herself for her date with Henry. She checks the water tank for hot water and scrubs herself clean with a pumice stone until she is “scratched and red.” After her bath, Elisa examines her naked body in a mirror and carefully applies makeup and does her hair. Elisa selects her nicest underwear and dress which is the “symbol of her prettiness.” As she dresses, she hears Henry return from rounding up the cattle. Elisa sets “herself for Henry’s arrival.”
Elisa’s interaction with the tinker has left her feeling empowered and seen. The sensuality that she experienced while talking to the tinker lingers as Elisa looks at her naked body in the mirror, and it is the reason she dresses so carefully and beautifully. The tinker’s interest in her desires and talents suggests that sexual fulfillment is more than merely physical, but is also about Elisa being seen how she wants to be seen – as a strong, capable, and sexual woman.
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As Henry takes a bath, Elisa sets his dark suit out on the bed, including his shirt, tie, and socks. She stands his polished shoes on the floor near the bed and goes to the porch to wait. Elisa sits “primly and stiffly” as she waits for Henry, and she notices the beauty of the willows in the foggy grey of the Salinas Valley afternoon. She does not move for a long time, and even her eyes rarely blink. When Henry appears on the porch, Elisa’s face grows “stiff” and “tight.”
As Elisa goes about being Henry’s wife, her charged sexuality from her interaction with the tinker begins to fade. Setting out Henry’s clothing is another mindless chore expected of Elisa—she even shines his shoes. As she waits for him, she becomes stiff and uptight, and even the beauty of the valley is lost on her.
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As Henry loudly exits the house, he is caught off-guard by Elisa’s appearance, remarking, “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!” When Elisa puts him on the spot and questions what he means by “nice,” Henry stutters and stammers before stating that she looks “different,” and then finally, “strong and happy.” She continues to question his meaning and he grows increasingly uncomfortable, making a joke to compensate. Henry states, “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.” Elisa finds herself laughing, but not before she boasts about how strong she truly is. Henry goes to fetch the car and Elisa returns to the house to find her coat. 
As Henry is so surprised by Elisa’s polished and beautiful appearance, it appears as if he doesn’t usually truly see her. Elisa longs to be seen in the way that the tinker did—to be appreciated and respected for her knowledge and abilities. As Elisa explicitly questions Henry about what he means by “nice,” he becomes increasingly uncomfortable and again makes jokes to deflect. It is clear that Henry is unaware of her true strength. After all, Elisa has only just realized herself.
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Elisa hears Henry drive to the gate, yet she takes a long time putting on her hat. She spends extra time fussing with it, “pulling it here” and “pressing it there.” She does not put on her coat and leave the house until she hears Henry turn the car off.
Elisa is aware that she is keeping Henry waiting and she is unconcerned. She spends needless time on her hat and doesn’t move to go outside until it appears that Henry is becoming impatient when he turns the car off. Here, she’s exerting power over him just for the sake of doing it.
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As Elisa and Henry drive into Salinas, Elisa notices a small speck in the road and instantly knows what it is. She tries to ignore the sight of her chrysanthemum sprouts discarded on the side of the road, “but her eyes would not obey.” As the road bends, the tinker’s caravan comes into view, and Elisa turns and looks at Henry so that she is unable to see the tinker’s wagon as they pass. Elisa does not look back.  
For the first time, Elisa becomes aware that her interaction with the tinker was not what it appeared to be. The discarded chrysanthemums prove that he was never interested in her or her flowers, and Elisa is crushed. The tinker had not really seen Elisa as capable and knowledgeable; rather, he had only manipulated her to get work. 
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Elisa loudly tells Henry that it will be nice to have a good dinner out. Noticing the change in her demeanor, Henry states that they should get out more often. Elisa asks if they can have wine with dinner, and after a moment of silence, she further asks Henry if the men at the prize fights hurt each other very much. Elisa reveals that she has read about the violent and bloody fights, which surprises Henry. Elisa asks Henry if women ever go to the fights, and he states that while some do, “I don’t think you’d like it.”
Henry immediately notices the change in Elisa. His suggestion that they get out more implies that a date is an infrequent occurrence—it is no wonder that they don’t really know each other. Elisa becomes preoccupied with the fights, shedding light on her clear interest in the masculine sport. Her desire to watch the violence of the fights mirrors her anger with Henry and the tinker.
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Elisa sits listlessly in her seat. She claims she really doesn’t want to go to the fights and turns her face away from Henry. Hiding behind her coat collar so that he cannot see her, Elisa cries “weakly—like an old woman.”
Elisa becomes lifeless in her seat and all of her previous energy and empowerment is gone. Instead of going to the fights as she desires, she settles for wine—a more appropriate activity for a woman. Elisa hides her face from Henry, suggesting shame, and cries like a weak, old woman. Elisa is now worse off than when she started. As an old woman, Elisa has lost her sexuality, and with it, all her chances of ever being known.
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