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 and fertility in the language Steinbeck uses to describe the Valley and in Elisa’s gift with the chrysanthemum sprouts, which suggests both her potential for fertility and for a rich and fulfilling life. The cyclical nature of the Valley’s crops and the imagery of chrysanthemums, which thrive only after they are pruned with scissors, suggest some hope to Elisa’s otherwise bleak ending. If the Valley will come back to life from its current dormancy, then perhaps Elisa will, too.
At the story’s start, the Valley has entered a period “of quiet and of waiting” in which there is “little work to be done.” The hay has been cut and the orchards have been harvested, lending a sense of emptiness to the Allens’ farm. While farming usually conjures images of life and vitality, the winter landscape of the valley appears barren and cold. The Valley is also incredibly isolated. Steinbeck writes of the winter fog “closing off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.” He further adds to the remoteness of this image by describing the fog as “a lid on the mountains” making the valley feel like a “closed pot.” All of these details echo Elisa’s own secluded existence, as well as the fact that she is utterly alone on the dormant farm. Although Elisa is described as thirty-five and healthy (evident by her “lean and strong” face and eyes that are “as clear as water”), there is no evidence to suggest that Elisa has any children. Her childless state is emphasized by her obvious loneliness, and Henry’s neglect and the indifference with which he regards Elisa and their marriage reinforces the seclusion of the Salinas Valley.
Despite Steinbeck’s dismal description of the Valley, there remains evidence of obvious beauty and fertility, subtly indicating the land’s potential to produce and sustain life. For example, although Steinbeck notes that “fog and rain do not go together,” a light wind from the southwest makes the farmers “mildly hopeful of a good rain before long” and the orchards are plowed and ready to “receive the rain deeply when it should come.” Even in the bleakness of winter, then, there is a sense of optimism that rain is coming, and that the fields will continue to grow and produce. Furthermore, though it is December and there is no sunshine in the valley, Steinbeck writes that the “stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine.” The willows have “sharp and positive yellow leaves” that, under the contrast of the heavy grey fog, “seemed a thin band of sunshine.” Much like the rain, sunshine is felt in the Salinas Valley even when it is absent. The warmth of this “sunlight” diminishes the harshness of winter and reminds readers of the upcoming growing season and the potential for new life.
Likewise, Steinbeck describes Elisa—even in her frustration, barrenness, and isolation—as full of potential. Although she does not have children and is stuck in a sexless marriage, Elisa is still explicitly associated with fertility through her “planters’ hands.” Elisa has a special connection to the soil and, just like her mother, she can “stick anything in the ground and make it grow.” Therefore, even though Steinbeck portrays Elisa as childless, she still has the inherent ability to create and nurture life.
Furthermore, while early in the story Elisa is described as “blocked and heavy” in her frumpy and masculine gardening costume, this description gives way to beauty after her interaction with the tinker. As Elisa readies herself for her date with Henry, she works “carefully on her hair” and accents her eyebrows and lips with makeup. She puts on the dress which is “the symbol of her prettiness” and is suddenly transformed from drab and plain to lovely. While Henry is surprised by her appearance, it’s clear that Elisa has always had the potential for this beauty, much as the farm always has potential for new life. Finally, Elisa clearly has the potential to do challenging work on the farm. While she tends the chrysanthemums with pride and care, Steinbeck describes them as being “too small and easy for her energy.” This—and her curiosity and capability throughout the story—suggests that she is not yet living up to the full potential of her life, but that someday she might.
The story’s ending, however, seems pessimistic for Elisa: she does not renew her connection with her husband, he dismisses her curiosity about the prize fights (which reiterates the limitations on her as a woman), and—worst of all—she learns that the tinker never admired or respected her skill with the sprouts. The final image of Elisa weeping into her collar on the way to Salinas suggests a desolate fate for her: the wasting of her potential leading to an unfulfilling life. However, the parallel between Elisa and the Salinas Valley complicates this tragic ending. After all, the landscape is also desolate and barren in this moment, but readers are sure that the crops will return come springtime, and Elisa’s chrysanthemums—which she has pruned, much as the tinker metaphorically cut Elisa down by dumping the sprouts on the road—will come back stronger as a result of being cut. Perhaps, then, there is reason for optimism; maybe this setback will leave Elisa stronger and better prepared to one day seize the life she wants.
Desolation and Fertility ThemeTracker
Desolation and Fertility Quotes in The Chrysanthemums
The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made the great valley a closed pot.
It was a time of quiet and waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together.
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.
Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it.”
Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progression of the caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently, forming the words “Good-bye – good-bye.” Then she whispered, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” The sound of her whisper startled her. She shook herself free and looked to see whether anyone had been listening. Only the dogs had heard.