Let’s Read: Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”

by themusingidealist


Read Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” Come on. It’s only seven pages. I’ll even post a pdf of it here for you (thanks to Harvard): the-chysanthemums

(The Idealist taps his fingers on the desk for two minutes then makes a latte and waits for another ten)

What did you think? I love Steinbeck’s voice, don’t you? Here’s the question I had after reading this story: Why does Elisa cry in the end? I’ll give you my thoughts but I’m no expert. You should take a few minutes to try your own hand at it.

(The Idealist busies himself by doodling what he intended to be chrysanthemums; his five-year-old could do better)

Let’s give it a go. So, to begin, Elisa has a less-than-ideal relationship with her husband. He seems nice enough and wants to show her he cares. He doesn’t know how to show her, though, and she doesn’t feel the love. He doesn’t understand why she grows chrysanthemums. He doesn’t understand “planting hands.” She also seems unfulfilled by the chrysanthemums but they’re all she has to express this part of herself: “The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (1). She is discontent with her current life.

Cue the pot-mender. She is opposed to him and tries to get rid of him. She doesn’t even care that he may have nothing to eat that night until a very crucial moment in the text. Do you know which one? “His eyes left her face and fell to searching the ground. They roamed about until they came to the chrysanthemum bed where she had been working. ‘What’s them plants, ma’am?'” (4). That is one good salesman. He knows exactly how to break through her barrier. She immediately opens up about the plants and slowly opens more and more. This is clear even in the story’s symbols: her gloves and the fence are always protecting her and her chrysanthemums. Even her husband is held back by them. But now, “the man came through the picket fence,” and, “The gloves were forgotten” (4). He has her and doesn’t have to do anything else. She convinces herself, even to the point of seeing “planting hands” in him and finally reaching her hand toward his leg (5), showing a desire for him. In her mind she has already found a connection with this mender of pots far deeper than that which exists between her and her husband. But she stops. She drops her hand to the ground and feels ashamed (5).

I believe this describes self-restraint, that she made a conscious choice to stay with her husband and not to set off with this pot-mender (though he did not truly reciprocate her connection and likely wouldn’t have had her). This is the source of the strength she mentions. Even so, she had a vision of what she could have had, could have, and chooses otherwise. She has lingering regret mixed with resolve and a desire for contentedness in her situation. She was not surprised that the pot-mender tossed the flowers and kept the pot. She knew. In the end, she assertively asks if she and her husband can “have wine at dinner… It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty” (7).

Is she trying to convince herself in these last lines? Is it true? What is the significance of her crying “like an old woman” (7)?