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The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

Summary
&
Semiotic Criticism

J. Samonte (2016)
johnsamonte128@gmail.com

Summary: The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck


It is winter in the Salinas Valley, California, foggy and quiet. As she works on her
chrysanthemum sprouts in her flower garden, Elisa Allen watches from a distance as her husband
negotiates a cattle deal with two strangers.
Eventually, her husband Henry approaches. He praises her gardening skills, nonchalantly
musing that Elisa could do wonders in their apple orchard, but dismisses the idea as soon as she
shows enthusiasm. He tells her about the cattle deal, and suggests they go into town that night for
dinner and a movie to celebrate. She agrees. He jokes that they could go to the boxing matches,
but she insists she wouldn't like that. He explains it was just a joke - they'll see a movie.
They make plans to leave at five. Elisa continues to garden as Henry rides away to finish his
work.
A vehicle approaches from the road - it is a wagon driven by a stubble-bearded man,
advertising the man's services as a tinker, able to fix various household objects. The man stops
his wagon in front of the Allens' house. Elisa and the tinker begin bantering, as he angles for
work. Although Elisa refuses, insisting she has no scissors that need sharpening and no pots to
mend, the tinker lingers, continuing their conversation.
Eventually, the tinker asks about Elisa's chrysanthemums , which instantly melts her
defenses. She engages with him animatedly about the flowers, and when he mentions a woman
down the road who doesn't have any chrysanthemums in her garden, Elisa offers to prepare some
sprouts in a flower pot for the tinker to take to her.
Elisa prepares the sprouts, and gives the tinker instructions to pass along to the woman on
how to plant them. She begins speaking passionately about her intuitive way with the buds,
becoming quite moved as she compares the connection she has with the flowers to a spiritual or
emotional experience one might have observing the stars at night. Charged, she almost touches
the man's leg, but restrains herself.
In response, the tinker again references his lack of work, and his hunger, and Elisa,
ashamed, finds a few pots for him to mend. He does so. They discuss his life, and she wishes

J. Samonte (2016)
johnsamonte128@gmail.com

aloud that a woman could travel independently like the tinker, but he responds that it wouldn't be
the right kind of life for a woman. She pays him for the pots, and he prepares to go.
She remarks that she could do his work, but he repeats that his life would be
inappropriate for her. He leaves, and she offers a final piece of advice on the chrysanthemum
sprouts, which he appears not to understand, as though he'd forgotten she'd even given them to
him. She watches him drive away, whispering to herself. Elisa returns to her house, removes all
of her clothes and bathes. When she's finished, she stands in front of her bedroom mirror and
studies her body. She slowly gets dressed, taking her time to put on her nicest, prettiest clothes
and carefully style her hair and do her make up.
Henry returns, and Elisa waits while he bathes and gets dressed. He tells her she looks
nice, but when she presses him about what he means, he seems confused and repeats that she
looks nice, and different. She remarks that she feels strong.
They drive to town together, and Elisa notices a dark speck on the road in the distance.
She realizes it's the chrysanthemum sprouts that the tinker has dumped by the side of the road,
keeping the pot. Eventually, they overtake the tinker's wagon, but Elisa refuses to look at it as
they pass. Elisa asks Henry about the boxing fights in town, then asks if they can get wine with
dinner. He agrees. She again asks him about the fights, and if fighters hurt each other a lot - she
explains that she's read they can be quite violent. Henry, surprised, asks her what's wrong, and
tells her that if she wants to go to the fights, he'll take her, but he doesn't think she'll like it. She
answers that she doesn't want to go to the fights - wine will be enough. As they continue to drive,
she turns up her coat collar so he can't see that she's crying.

J. Samonte (2016)
johnsamonte128@gmail.com

Semiotic Criticism: The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck


A flower cannot blossom without sunshine, and man cannot live without love. Just living
is not enough... one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower. Love is the flower you've
got to let grow. The chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa's role as a woman. It symbolizes her
children and represents her femininity and sexuality. Elisa feels frustrated with her life because
children and romance are missing in her marriage with Henry. Further, her husband fails to
appreciate her womanly qualities and her emotional needs. The encounter with the tinker
reawakens her sexuality and brings hope to Elisa for a more exciting and romantic marriage, but
her realization that her life is not going to change is crystallized when she sees the flowers
thrown on the road. It devastates her completely to have to settle for such an unfulfilling life. Its
about a proud, strong woman named Elisa Allen who feels frustrated with her present life. Her
frustration stems from not having a child and from her husband's failure to admire her
romantically as a woman. The only outlet for her frustration is her flower garden where she
cultivates beautiful chrysanthemums. Steinbeck uses chrysanthemums as symbols of the innerself of Elisa and of every woman.
The chrysanthemums symbolize both Elisa and the limited scope of her life. Like Elisa,
the chrysanthemums are lovely, strong, and thriving. She explicitly identifies herself with the
flowers, even saying that she becomes one with the plants when she tends to them. When the
tinker notices the chrysanthemums, Elisa visibly brightens, just as if he had noticed her instead.
She offers the chrysanthemums to him at the same time she offers herself, both of which he
ignores and tosses aside. His rejection of the flowers also mimics the way society has rejected
women as nothing more than mothers and housekeepers. Just like her, the flowers are
unobjectionable and also unimportant. Both are merely decorative and add little value to the
world. On the other hand, the Salinas Valley which the setting of the story, symbolizes Elisas
emotional life. The metaphor of the valley as a closed pot suggests that Elisa is trapped inside an
airless world and that her existence has reached a boiling point. This description of the weather
and the general spirits of the inhabitants of the valley applies equally well to Elisa, who is like a
fallow field, quiet but not beaten down or unable to grow.

J. Samonte (2016)
johnsamonte128@gmail.com