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 is constantly belittled, ignored, and misunderstood because of her gender. Throughout the story, Elisa bravely asks to be seen for who she is and is thwarted by both her husband, Henry, and the tinker, while the tinker’s deception gets him exactly what he wants at no cost. This bitter injustice of deception reaping rewards for men while women are punished for authenticity emphasizes the obstacles facing women as they try to fulfill themselves.
Elisa is determined to be true to who she is, even if that means she is out of place within her marriage and society. For example, Elisa is strong and sturdy, not dainty and feminine as society would have her, and she is too powerful for the delicate work of gardening, as the chrysanthemum stems are “too small and easy for her energy.” Elisa is clearly capable of more challenging work, and she offers to take her gardening skill to the orchard, which would let her contribute food (and not just beautiful flowers) to the household. However, Henry rejects this possibility, emphasizing that the social norm is for her to be reliant on her husband (and showing, perversely, that she must ask permission to contribute to the family outside of the domestic sphere).
Elisa also asserts her competence in conversation with the tinker, noting that she has no work for him—and she might one day become his professional rival—because she can fix pots and pans as well as any man. Despite this capability, the tinker insists that Elisa could not do his job, as it “ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.” Finally, Elisa is openly sexual, not reserved or restricted her society would expect. When the tinker first arrives on the Allens’ farm, Elisa quickly transitions from warmly welcoming the stranger to delivering overt sexual innuendos, and both the tinker and Elisa become uncomfortable after the exchange. Sensing his discomfort, Elisa stands up “very straight,” and her face is described as “ashamed.” The uneasiness between the tinker and Elisa after her sexual expression underscores the widespread opinion that, as a woman, Elisa should be more restrained sexually rather than true to her feelings.
While Elisa is committed to being her authentic self, the tinker embraces deception and attempts to be someone he is not. The tinker is extremely friendly when he pulls up to the farm and even jokes with Elisa over the sad condition of his horse and donkey, but his eyes tell a different story. Steinbeck writes, “The laugher had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment his laughing voice ceased. His eyes were dark, and they were full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and sailors.” The tinker is vaguely menacing, despite his attempts to be warm, implying that he isn’t really as friendly as he acts. Worse, the tinker pretends to be interested in Elisa’s chrysanthemums only after it becomes clear that she does not intend to give him any work.
Since Elisa is open about her passion for the sprouts, the tinker can use her authenticity against her, manipulating her clear desire to be respected for her skill in order to convince her to give him work. This tactic succeeds—Elisa is carried away with her own passion once he asks her to explain how she grows such large flowers—and her subsequent embarrassment leads her to relent and hire him to do work that she could do herself. The tinker’s obvious duplicity (evident throughout their conversation by slips in his act, such as his observation that chrysanthemums “smell kind of nasty till you get used to them”) becomes clear to Elisa only when she sees that he has dumped her chrysanthemum sprouts on the road outside the farm. In this moment, she understands that he never saw her for who she was—a capable and ambitious woman—or respected her skill, but rather he used her passion against her, reducing her to a weak and silly woman made vulnerable by emotion.
That the tinker “wins” this interaction, getting exactly what he wants through deception and effectively punishing Elisa for her authenticity, suggests Steinbeck’s cynicism about human interaction and gender roles. Even though Elisa is strong, capable, and genuine, she is left unfulfilled and wanting, more devastated and broken than she was before. Meanwhile, a dishonest man easily reaps the benefits of a sexist society. Steinbeck’s story does not offer any solutions to this issue—he does not suggest that a continued commitment to authenticity will eventually allow Elisa to prevail. Instead, readers are left to consider that the interaction might have ended differently if Elisa had been less herself and more what society expected her to be: reserved, unambitious, and unwilling to ask a man to treat her as his equal.
Deception and Authenticity ThemeTracker
Deception and Authenticity Quotes in The Chrysanthemums
She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with.
Elisa saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were greying, he did not look old. His worn black suit was wrinkled and spotted with grease. The laughter had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment that his laughing voice ceased. His eyes were dark, and they were filled with the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors.
She tried no to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she exclaimed. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”
She relaxed limply in the seat. “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.” She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly – like an old woman.