The Chrysanthemums

Themes and Colors
Gender, Power, and Ambition Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Desolation and Fertility Theme Icon
Deception and Authenticity Theme Icon
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Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon

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 is sexually neglected by Henry and hungry for any sort of attention directed toward her personal interests or desires. Elisa’s strength and ability as a gardener are also closely tied to her sexuality, and Henry’s indifference to her work leaves her feeling powerless and undesired. The tinker’s interest in Elisa’s chrysanthemums, then, serves as an affirmation of her entire being, including her work and her sexuality. With Elisa’s explicit display of longing, Steinbeck implies that sexuality is about more than just being desired by another person. For Elisa, a large part of feeling desired is being seen how she wants to be seen—as a strong, capable, and sexual woman.

As Elisa and Henry interact at the beginning of the story, they display little in terms of attraction or affection. In fact, they both appear to merely tolerate one another. As Henry approaches Elisa in her garden, for instance, she is startled by his presence. Elisa’s surprise perhaps implies that Henry rarely ventures into her garden, indicating a lack of attention to her personal interests. Furthermore, they exchange only basic information about their days, and when Henry proposes that they go into Salinas to celebrate his cattle sale, Elisa is hardly excited about the date. Henry teases Elisa, implying that she might like to attend the prize fights after dinner. While Elisa becomes “breathless” at the mention of the fights, Henry glosses over her interest, taking her comment that she “wouldn’t like” the fights at face value and noting that he was just “fooling” in suggesting it. When he suggests going to a movie after dinner instead, Elisa’s response could be read sarcastically: “Of course I’ll like it. It’s good to eat away from home.” This whole exchange shows how poorly they communicate and how deeply Henry misunderstands his wife—no wonder their marriage is sexless.

The lack of chemistry between Elisa and Henry becomes more apparent when Elisa finds herself quickly attracted to the travelling tinker. This attraction—evidenced by her sudden wit and her quick search for “fugitive hairs” under the brim of her hat— is clearly about more than the man’s physical presence, since Steinbeck describes the tinker as a large, greying man whose clothing is “wrinkled and spotted with grease” and whose laughter “disappeared from his face and eyes the moment his laughing voice ceased.” The tinker’s unattractiveness and his inauthentic demeanor contribute to a sense that Elisa’s attraction is misplaced—her sexuality in this moment seems less about who he is and more about her own general dissatisfaction and desire for something new. This becomes only more apparent as their interaction progresses.

Elisa begins to grow frustrated with the tinker, who wants her to pay him for work she can do herself, and it’s only when the tinker asks her about her chrysanthemums that her “irritation and resistance” dissipates. As she gathers sprouts for him (allegedly to take to another customer who has expressed interest in chrysanthemums), she removes her gloves and the men’s hat that she is wearing, shakes out her pretty hair, and begins to dig in the dirt with her bare hands. She kneels on the ground near the tinker’s foot, and her face becomes “tight with eagerness” while her breast “swelled passionately.” Clearly, the tinker’s interest in her—in particular, his interest in her skill and passion—has ignited her sexuality. The implication here is that Elisa has felt so unseen and overlooked in her marriage that curiosity about her skill alone is enough to make her feel sexually desired.

Elisa is thoroughly unfulfilled—emotionally, professionally, and sexually. Her passion for the chrysanthemums speaks to all three—she is someone whose interests are considered frivolous, whose skills are underused and unappreciated, and who (despite her association with fertility via the sprouts) is in a sexless marriage, as suggested by her lack of children. Therefore, when the tinker asks her to teach him about the sprouts, all the neglected aspects of her being come to life. She is suddenly an authority on something—an equal of a man—which makes her feel powerful and valuable. Furthermore, the emotional intimacy she feels by sharing her passion for gardening transitions seamlessly, for her, into sexual intimacy, as her description of the intuitive feeling of picking buds becomes a description of what sounds like an orgasm: “When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.” Elisa’s sexuality, then, seems contingent on feeling that she can express her deepest self: the passions, skills, and interests that her husband ignores. This suggests that sexuality is not about physical desire alone, but rather about creating conditions of broad fulfillment in which a person can feel powerful and known.

Of course, while Elisa feels empowered by her interaction with the tinker, the tinker has simply manipulated her by using her pride and loneliness to convince her to give him work. Before she realizes this, though, she seems changed: the tinker has awakened a part of her that has lain dormant for so long—in particular, a hope that she might be seen for who she is. After he leaves, Elisa scrubs herself clean, examines herself naked in the mirror, and puts on her nicest clothes, including a dress that is the “symbol of her prettiness.” Before they leave for Salinas, Henry tells her she looks “strong and happy,” but she presses further, asking “What do you mean ‘strong’?” It seems as though she is asking him to see her as she sees herself—to recognize her in the way she believes that the tinker did—and when he affirms her strength again, she seems satisfied. However, moments later, when she realizes that the moment of intimacy between her and the tinker had been a sham, it seems to break her. She cries (privately, behind her collar) “like an old woman,” which implies that her sexuality has been lost, and with it any possibility of being truly known.

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Sex and Sexuality Quotes in The Chrysanthemums

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chrysanthemums related to the theme of Sex and Sexuality.
The Chrysanthemums Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Elisa Allen, The Tinker
Page Number: 5
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Elisa’s voice grew husky. She broke in on him, “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark – why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and – lovely.”

Related Characters: Elisa Allen (speaker), The Tinker
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
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After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips.

Related Characters: Elisa Allen
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:
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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.”

Related Characters: Elisa Allen (speaker), The Tinker
Related Symbols: Chrysanthemums
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
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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.

Related Characters: Elisa Allen (speaker), Henry Allen
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:
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