The Unfulfilled Elisa in John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums
“The Chrysanthemums” is a short story in The Long Valley, a collection of short stories by John Steinbeck. This story dramatizes the efforts made by a housewife, Elisa Allen, to compensate for the disappointments which she has encountered in her life. Steinbeck makes it clear that Elisa yearns for something more in her life then the everyday routines of farm life. While Elisa is portrayed as strong, in the end, her strength serves to be insufficient in having the courage to effect any real change in her life since her fragile self-esteem proves to be too susceptible to outside forces.
From the beginning of the short story, Steinbeck emphasizes that Elisa is a strong, competent woman who finds her considerable energy channeled into things, such as her garden, which never give her the sort of recognition or satisfaction that she craves. For a brief moment, she senses that she is capable of much more and feels her own strength only to, once again, have a man bring down her efforts, and her self-esteem. The story opens with Elisa working in her garden. Steinbeck makes a point of telling the reader that she is thirty-five. Her age at once implies a woman almost at her middle-age who may be reexamining the dreams of her youth as she contemplates the second half of her life. Steinbeck emphasizes Elisa’s strength as he writes, “Her face was eager and mature and handsome” (Steinbeck 279). Her husband, Henry, comes back to the house having just completed the sell of some cattle. He is complimentary towards her gardening and comments on her talent. He suggests that she put her talent to work in the orchard growing apples, and Elisa considers his offhand comment seriously, “Maybe I could do it, too” (280).
Steinbeck has set the stage. Elisa clearly is feeling good about herself and her accomplishments in the garden when an itinerate tinker pulls up in his wagon asking directions. The tinker has gotten off the main road and is looking for work. He repairs pots and pans and sharpens kitchen utensils. At first Elisa is aloof and says she has no work for him, but warms to the man when he admires her garden. He mentions that a customer of his wanted to grow chrysanthemums and asked him to bring her seeds if he ever got the chance. Elisa is thrilled to have someone who has shown an interest in her expertise. She informs the tinker that chrysanthemums are best grown from seedlings, after which she arranges some seedlings in a pot of sand for him to take to his customer. This changes Elisa whole orientation toward the tinker. She finds him some of her pots which need repair and engages him in conversation as she digs up the seedlings.
At this point, Steinbeck’s narrative takes on sexual overtones as Elisa describes her feelings when she prunes the chrysanthemum buds with sure, quick fingers. “They never make a mistake. They’re with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You...