Essay Topics On The Chrysanthemums

  • 1

    Describe Elisa's behavior before and after her encounter with the tinker. What does this say about the effect this encounter has on her emotionally? 

    Before meeting with the tinker, Elisa behaves much like a traditional 1930s wife: she gardens, provides gentle support to her husband, and otherwise fulfills her gender role. After the tinker leaves, however, she engages in behavior that deviates from this prescribed role. After bathing, she studies her body in the mirror for a long stretch of time, then dresses in her prettiest clothes, indicating that the tinker's visit has somehow sparked a renewed interest in her own sexuality. Later, she questions her husband's banal compliments, indicating that she's somehow no longer content with the traditional, superficial relationship they've previously had. Her comments that she's "strong" also support this idea - and suggest that she's begun to develop a sense of independence and agency despite her submissive position in life. 

  • 2

    Why does Elisa cry at the end of the story? Discuss what you believe her tears indicate, and what they suggest about what rest of her life will look like. 

    While a few critics have argued that Elisa's tears are more an indication of emotional catharsis, the vast majority believe that Elisa cries out of a renewed despair about her lot in life. Although she was invigorated and compelled initially by her encounter with the tinker, her realization that he dumped her chrysanthemum buds at the side of the road led her to an even more profound sorrow by reminding her of her inability to find creative fulfillment, her lack of independence, and her utter dependence on the men around her for stability. These tears seem to indicate an agony rooted in a sad acceptance of her misery, which would suggest that Elisa's future is just as bleak. Although she hopes for a way to find more independence and an outlet for her excess energy, she has no hope for escape from her provincial, isolated life. 

  • 3

    Discuss the setting in "The Chrysanthemums." How does Steinbeck use the location, and specifically the weather, to heighten the mood of the story?

    "The Chrysanthemums" is a story about a woman who feels isolated and bleakly despairing at her position in life. By setting his story on a ranch that, too, is isolated in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck emphasizes Elisa's emotional isolation through a literal physical isolation. Elisa needs a car or a wagon to leave her ranch - things the men in her life have, but she doesn't. 

    Additionally, by setting the story in winter, when plants and vegetation are dormant or dead, Steinbeck enhances the overall feeling of bleakness. He frequently describes the weather as grey, emphasizing the lack of sunlight, which perpetuates this tone. Thus, when watching the tinker's wagon drive away, Elisa remarks "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there" (345), it indicates the momentarily renewed hope that Elisa's encounter with the tinker has created. By referring to the tinker's wagon as "bright," it stands in direct contrast to the grey, cold environment that Elisa is used to living in. 

  • 4

    Is Henry Allen a good husband? Why or why not? 

    On the surface, Henry is a good husband - he compliments his wife, offers to take her on dates, and treats her with respect. Indeed, he most likely considers himself a good husband and has no reason not to. One implied challenge of their relationship however, whether it be Henry's fault or Elisa's, is a lack of sexual intimacy, demonstrated by Elisa's sudden, intense thirst for the tinker when they meet. 

    Ultimately, though, whether or not Henry is a "good husband" by 1920s or 30s standards, this is not what Elisa needs to feel satisfied. When she tries to engage with Henry as his equal, he becomes confused and cannot match her. He can only treat her like a "good husband" would, which serves to make her more unhappy. 

  • 5

    How does "The Chrysanthemums" comment on gender relations? What does it say about the place for women like Elisa Allen in the world? 

    Elisa is a character who is profoundly unhappy. She is described as being smart, energetic, and otherwise in the prime of her life, but she is forced to limit her work to the narrow sphere of "wifely duties" - gardening and keeping house. Although she clearly has a robust creative energy, she has no outlet for it. Unlike her husband, Henry, who has responsibilities and independence (he provides for them by working on the ranch, he drives the car, he comes and goes as he pleases), Elisa is kept isolated and submissive, literally confined to the ranch on which she lives. When she is visited by a strange man, she expresses her interest in his itinerant, independent life, but he dismisses this interest, telling her it "ain't the right kind of life for a woman" (344). Ultimately, the story seems to suggest that there is no place for a smart, energetic woman like Elisa Allen in the patriarchal world - she must remain repressed by her place in society. 

  • “The Chrysanthemums” John Steinbeck

    The following entry presents criticism of Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums,” first published in 1937. See also Johnn Steinbeck Short Story Criticism.

    One of Steinbeck's most accomplished short stories, “The Chrysanthemums” is about an intelligent, creative woman coerced into a stifling existence on her husband's ranch. The story appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1937; a revised version, which contained less sexual imagery, was published in the 1938 collection The Long Valley. Many critics believe the story reflected Steinbeck's own sense of frustration, rejection, and loneliness at the time the story was written. Some scholars also have speculated that the female protagonist of “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen, was inspired by Steinbeck's first wife, Carol Henning.

    Plot and Major Characters

    “The Chrysanthemums” opens at the Allen ranch, which is located in the foothills of the Salinas Valley. Elisa works in her garden, cutting down old chrysanthemum stalks, while her husband Henry discusses business with two men across the yard. After the men leave, Henry leans over the fence where Elisa is working and comments on her gardening talents. Elisa admits to her “gift,” noting her mother also had “planters' hands.” Henry then suggests that they dine out that evening. After Elisa agrees, Henry teasingly proposes that they go to the fights that night as well. Once Henry departs, a battered covered wagon driven by a tinker pulls up to the house. The tinker asks Elisa if she has any pots to mend. She declines several times, but once the tinker notices and compliments Elisa's chrysanthemums, her mood changes from slight irritation to exuberance. The tinker tells Elisa about a woman on his route who would like chrysanthemum seeds, and Elisa happily places several sprouts in a red pot for him. She then finds two saucepans for the tinker to repair before he leaves. Elisa rushes into the house, where she bathes, studies her naked body in the mirror, and dresses for the evening. As the couple leaves for dinner in their roadster, Elisa notices the chrysanthemum sprouts she had given the tinker lying in the road and asks her husband if they could have wine with dinner. A few minutes pass before she wonders aloud whether the boxers at the prize fights hurt each other very much and whether women ever attend. Henry asks Elisa if she would like to go to the fights, but she answers no, that “it will be enough if we can have wine.” She then begins to cry, though unnoticed by Henry.

    Major Themes

    The primary theme in “The Chrysanthemums,” one that appears throughout Steinbeck's canon, is Elisa's creative frustration. Some critics have viewed Elisa as a feminist figure, while others—arguing that Elisa both emasculates her husband and engages in an infidelity with the tinker—have argued that the story is an attack against feminism.

    Critical Reception

    “The Chrysanthemums” has garnered critical acclaim since publication. André Gide, who particularly admired the story, compared it to the best of Anton Chekhov. Other critics have detected the influence of D. H. Lawrence in “The Chrysanthemums.” John Ditsky called the story “one of the finest American stories ever written.” John H. Timmerman regarded the story as “one of Steinbeck's masterpieces,” adding that “stylistically and thematically, ‘The Chrysanthemums’ is a superb piece of compelling craftsmanship.” According to Mordecai Marcus “the story seems almost perfect in form and style. Its compelling rhythm underlines its suggestiveness, and nothing in the story is false or out of place.” While some critics have praised Steinbeck's objectivity in the narrative, Kenneth Payson Kempton found the story “arbitrary, self-impelled, and fuzzy work … its effect annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.” Most critics concede that it is Elisa Allen who makes “The Chrysanthemums” a memorable short story. Even so, R. S. Hughes argued that while the facets of “Elisa's personality are no doubt responsible for much of the story's appeal, ultimately Steinbeck's well-crafted plot and his skillful use of symbol make the story great.”

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