John Steinbeck's famed short story, "The Chrysanthemums," was published in Harper's Magazine in 1937. This story is quite vigorously argued to be Steinbeck's best short story, as well as a piece that outshines and does not belong to his remaining body of work. "The Chrysanthemums has been called John Steinbeck's best short fiction, and some rank it with the world's greatest short stories." (Haggstrom, Page 1) He wrote the story just a few years before the United States entered World War II. During this period in America, a great deal of the male population was occupied, mostly abroad, with military activities. Stateside, women picked up a great deal of the industrial and domestic slack while the men fought the second great war. Prior to this period, women lived the traditional experience of confinement, restriction, and social internment.
The Allen ranch in his short story is set Salinas Valley, California, a fictionalized place based on Salinas and the surrounding areas. The season during which the story takes place is winter. When people usually think of California, they do not think of winter. California typically conjures imagery of sunshine, vineyards, mountains, coastlines, beaches, and constant summer time. In fact, the average American is likely unaware of what winters in California are like. Steinbeck's depiction is accurate -- balmy, cool weather, and permeating fog characterize both northern and southern Californian winters. These few details are revealing regarding the narrative and the tone of "The Chrysanthemums."
It is not early on in the story when her husband speaks to the business but when she later sees the discarded chrysanthemums at the side of the road where the tinker threw them that she is catapulted into sadness, which will turn into a quiet vengeance that the reader is to infer occurs after the story is over. In this way, the flowers are symbols for Elisa. It is this inner tension that ever-present for Elisa that Steinbeck illustrates with spatial and metaphorical isolation of Elisa and of the female experience. Fog is often a precursor for a storm. The fog that Elisa lives in is a precursor and even an expression of the storm within her. The end of the story is indefinite and ambiguous. Further action is implied even though the story is over.
Though a masterpiece, this is a sad story. From the very onset of the story, the reader knows this will be a gloomy story: "The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot." (Steinbeck, "The Chrysanthemums," Page 1) A deserted ranch in the vivacious state of California, during the winter -- the reader should be alerted that there will be tensions in the story and something is awry, restless, or unbalanced: "…fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December…It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender." (Steinbeck, "The Chrysanthemums," Page 1) The world is unbalanced and Elisa Allen is infinitely restless as well as stuck. The ranch, just like California, and the Allens, should be ebullient, radiant, and pleasant, but they are exactly not. The story is tense, intense, edgy, and uncomfortable. Steinbeck creatively underscores these feelings with the setting and the situation of the story.
The Allen ranch is deserted. Henry and Elisa Allen live and work their ranch alone. Presumably, Henry does most of the labor that generates the family income. He is not a particularly apt businessman, yet is savvy enough to sustain a moderate lifestyle for his wife. He manages to conduct a successful transaction for cattle over the course of the story: "Henry, who were those men you were talking to?" "Why, sure, that's what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too." (Steinbeck, "The Chrysanthemums," Page 2) This is how he earns the money to take Elisa to dinner, which later marks the climax and denouement of "The Chrysanthemums." Henry is a man that is easily perplexed; he is out of touch with his wife. He does not understand her nature, her thoughts, or her feelings. The main problem in their marriage is "a more deeply rooted dysfunction between Henry and Elisa -- a lack of communication." (Palmerino, Page 164) He cares for her and makes efforts to please her, but their marriage lacks a more than superficial emotional connection.
All these details and more contribute to the motif of confinement, restriction, combined the urgent longing for freedom within the character of Elisa, who serves as a figure for working and middle class American women almost mid-20th century. Elisa seems on the edge of taking a leap into a free life, yet the restrictions of society keep her in place, in stasis, which crushes her spirit as illustrated in her attempts to disguise her tears from Henry as they drive to dinner as well as the discarded chrysanthemums on the side of the road. The flowers are strong, vibrant, and ready to take root anywhere, yet their passion, adaptability, and enthusiasm are wasted on a man too concerned with selfish interests to appreciate or perceive the beauty and power of the flowers. "Elisa has probably had to bear many hardships; but when she later sees her "babies' at the side of the road where the tinker has thrown them, she is catapulted into sadness." (Thomas, Page 2) In this way, the flowers are symbols for Elisa. It is this inner tension that ever-present for Elisa that Steinbeck illustrates with spatial and metaphorical isolation of Elisa and of the female experience.
The chrysanthemums, as a symbol for Elisa, works best for this reader. The flowers are bright and joyful. They found a way to sprout into the bland world of the ranch. They are wild and colorful. The flowers stand as a symbol for numerous objects and concepts, or at least have the potential for them, just like Elisa. Crucially, the flowers are discarded and dismissed as unimportant or expendable. The flowers go unappreciated but men, yet, though they are discarded by men, they will live on. The flowers will live on because they were strong enough to come into existence and last as long as they did in the first place. The same can be said for Elisa.
Elisa is probably, at her core, wild and joyful, yet the life she is stuck in constricts her massively and she has an experience that is in great contradiction to who she really is, or potentially could be. Though her husband does not understand her and seems incapable of real intimacy, Elisa will live on -- some part of her, symbolized by the chrysanthemums, perhaps, will be wild, bright, joyful, and strong.
Elisa wishes for a life more like the Tinker's, who says that his lifestyle is unfit for women: "It must be nice," she said. "It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things." "It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman. Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. "How do you know? How can you tell?" she said. (Steinbeck, "The Chrysanthemums," Page 7) This desire to explore is yet another example of how Elisa yearns for freedom. The ranch is spacious, yet for her it is a confining trap. She wants to meet people, travel, and live on the open road. As a married woman, that dream is impossible without completely disrupting her life and going against many social conventions.