“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck is a short story about a thirty-five-year-old woman named Elisa Allen. She is a proud, strong woman who feels frustrated with her latent, limited life, composed of tending her own errands of keeping her home clean and her flower garden neat on her husband’s ranch in Salinas Valley. Throughout the story, Elisa’s chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa herself, and particularly connote her latent, limited potential. Her direct association with the lovely, strong flowers implies her beauty along with her innate ability to create and sustain life. In his short story, Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums as a symbol of Elisa Allen herself: this encompasses her identity, femininity, and sexuality to convey the theme of traditional gender roles and a woman’s desire to be more than what is imposed on them by society.
Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums to symbolize Elisa Allen and her identity and how she is restricted by society. The readers are first introduced to Elisa as she is tending her flower garden. In her appearance, Elisa does not fit the traditional female role; she is initially portrayed as having more masculine features than feminine ones. Steinbeck describes her face as being “lean and strong… eager and mature and handsome…” (204-205) and her figure being “blocked and heavy in her gardening costume” with a man’s hat, heavy leather gloves, and a dress hidden by a big corduroy apron (204). She is tending the “old year’s chrysanthemum stalks” (205). Just as her flowers are not in bloom, neither is Elisa. She is concealed by her heavy attire as the readers are given foreshadowing that Elisa will expose her femininity and sexuality as they get a glimpse of her dress. There are “new green chrysanthemum sprouts… growing around the old roots” (205). These sprouts symbolize Elisa’s desire to branch out and grow in new directions. But just like Elisa, her flower garden is isolated from the outside world by a wire fence. While it may be interpreted that the flower garden is being protected from cattle, dogs, and chickens, Elisa is, too, penned in; however capable or extraordinary she may be, her life is distinctly limited in scope and she has few means of expressing her talents beyond tending to a small flower garden. This is because as a woman—and particularly as a farmer’s wife—Elisa is restricted by society to the roles of caregiver and housewife.
Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums to symbolize Elisa Allen’s femininity, particularly her maternal nature, to emphasize society’s standard that women are meant to be submissive. In this time period, women were supposed to stay home and care for their children while the men worked to support the family. Because she and her husband were childless, Elisa treated her chrysanthemums like her children. She protects these flowers just as a mother would protect her children; she makes sure 'no aphids… no sowbugs or snails or cutworms' (205) are there. 'Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started' (205). These pests represent natural harm to the flowers, and, just as any good mother, she removes them before they can harm her children. These flowers are her pride and joy, which we see in her expression when her husband comments that she has a strong crop this year- “In her tone and on her face there was a little smugness” (205). Through gardening, Elisa is able to express her mothering nature. On the other hand, her husband, Henry Allen, is engaged in business matters: he tends cattle and is seen negotiating with men in business suits in the beginning of the story. In this society, men’s work is considered to be more important than women’s work because it brings in money to support the family. In reality, the chrysanthemums Elisa tends to have no practical purpose or significant value, besides being beautiful, while Henry’s cattle are able to be sold to a meat company and the money helps to sustain the family. Society’s oppressive nature uses Elisa’s feminine qualities against her by hindering her from being able to find a proper outlet for her skill and ambition. For example, Elisa becomes excited when her husband offers a prospect of helping on the farm’s orchard; Henry says, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” and she responds “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve got a gift with things, all right” (205). However, Henry quickly reveals that his comment was disingenuous and that he has no intention of letting her work in the orchard by redirecting their conversation. While she is absolutely capable and, in fact, eager of helping her husband around the ranch, Henry is satisfied with the dynamics of their life and Elisa’s submissive role in their relationship.
Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums to symbolize Elisa Allen’s sexuality, as Elisa offers her chrysanthemums, and herself, to the tinker in hopes of a new direction in her life. Henry leaves for a couple hours to move some of his steers when the tinker arrives, an entrepreneurial man who stumbles across the Allen’s ranch while searching for the Los Angeles highway. The tinker inquires about her chrysanthemums and Elisa lights up. In acknowledging her flowers in a way her husband does not, the tinker notices Elisa’s femininity. It is in this interaction that she receives a feminine description, as “Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair” (208). Elisa passionately equates herself with the flowers while talking about her “planter’s hands” at the same time that she offers herself to the tinker in a sexual manner. Very quickly the readers see Elisa repress her sexuality in her interaction with the tinker, as “…her hand went out towards his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog' (208). During this time, there was a patriarchal control over women’s sexuality. Society left women to do everything for a man and did not allow her to act on her own wants and desires. Elisa eagerly gives the tinker a pot with some chrysanthemum sprouts after he mentioned he had met a woman who wanted some seeds for her own garden. By offering some sprouts to the tinker, she is symbolically giving part of herself to him, with the hopes of escaping her monotonous life. Later that evening, Henry and Elisa were in their car driving into town when she sees a dark speck ahead: the tinker had thrown the chrysanthemum sprouts onto the road. That the tinker callously tosses the flowers aside represents his ultimate rejection of Elisa, as well as the broader, societal thwarting of her attempts to seek more out of life.
Steinbeck concludes the story pessimistic about the ability of even the most ambitious woman to rise above society’s expectations of her. When Elisa shares her knowledge of chrysanthemums with the tinker, she feels empowered. She is treated with respect rather than belittled and it changes her disposition. On this day, Elisa has glimpsed a life in which her ambitions are possible, and she believes for a moment that things might change. But the tinker’s manipulation of her desires leaves her devastated, making her an old and weak woman—the very destiny she hoped to avoid. Steinbeck’s depiction of Elisa’s struggles against society’s expectations of her underscores the damaging effects of gender inequality in American society and challenges the concept that women are the weaker sex.