The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums Study Guide

First appearing in print in Harper's Magazine in October 1937, "The Chrysanthemums" is considered by many to be the best story John Steinbeck ever wrote, and among the top short stories of the twentieth century. In 1938, "The Chrysanthemums" was published in Steinbeck's short story collection The Long Valley, and has remained a favorite of critics and readers alike in the years since. 

Unusually for Steinbeck, "The Chrysanthemums" is often hearded as presenting a feminist portrayal of its main character, housewife Elisa Allen. Regarding this theme, critic C Kenneth Pellow writes "Not only is such feminism an unusual theme for John Steinbeck, but it is not often found in any of America's best-known male novelists" (Pellow 1989). The story is equally lauded for its subtlety and nuance in its depiction of Elisa's seemingly innocuous encounter with a traveling tinker, which nonetheless appears to have a profound impact on her emotionally. About the work, Steinbeck himself wrote: "It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what nor how." 

Over seventy years after its original publication, critics and readers alike continue to dissect the layers of meaning in "The Chrysanthemums," and whether Steinbeck ultimately offers a bleak or optimistic future for his oppressed female protagonist.