The Chrysanthemums


John Steinbeck

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Themes and Colors
Gender, Power, and Ambition Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Desolation and Fertility Theme Icon
Deception and Authenticity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Chrysanthemums, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Gender, Power, and Ambition

John Steinbeck’s 1937 story “The Chrysanthemums” depicts the strict gender roles that govern the life of Elisa Allen, a farmer’s wife living in the Salinas Valley during the early 20th-century. Elisa and her husband, Henry, live a modest life on their California land, and as the story opens, Elisa meticulously tends to her small chrysanthemum garden while Henry is engaged in business matters, brokering a cattle deal with a large meat company. Their…

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Sex and Sexuality

While Elisa’s husband, Henry, is cordial and provides her with a comfortable life, their marriage is devoid of any romantic spark. Their verbal exchanges are short and formal, and they never seem to make eye contact or linger over an intimate touch. What’s more, Elisa becomes sexually attracted to the tinker the moment that he shows the slightest interest in her cherished chrysanthemums. Elisa’s immediate attraction to this stranger suggests that she…

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Desolation and Fertility

In “The Chrysanthemums,” Steinbeck draws a clear parallel between Elisa and the Salinas Valley where she lives. The farm is far away from the nearest town, which emphasizes Elisa’s own isolation and loneliness. Furthermore, the Valley has entered a period of winter dormancy in which the usual crops are not growing, which mirrors Elisa and Henry’s childless marriage. However, even in the face of this obvious desolation, there is a sense of latent beauty…

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Deception and Authenticity

In “The Chrysanthemums,” Steinbeck contrasts Elisa—a character desperate for authenticity—with the tinker, who uses deception to get what he wants. In order to manipulate Elisa into giving him work, the tinker pretends to be interested in Elisa’s expertise with the chrysanthemums, a feigned admiration that nonetheless makes Elisa feel seen for who she is. Being seen as her authentic self (someone capable, smart, and ambitious) is Elisa’s most profound desire, as she…

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