The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums Literary Elements


Realism, Literary Fiction, Drama

Setting and Context

Salinas Valley, California, probably in the 1920s or 1930s

Narrator and Point of View

The story is told from a third-person, objective point of view; it focuses on Elisa. At one point ("She knew" (347)), it allows the reader omniscient access into Elisa's thoughts, but for the most part it does not describe her thoughts.

Tone and Mood

The tone of the story is neutral, if not detached. Because the reader does not have access to Elisa's private thoughts, the story lacks the intense emotion of her inner frustrations. Instead, it has a distant, plaintive, somewhat melancholy tone.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Elisa is the story's protagonist. The tinker is her primary antagonist, although Henry is also an antagonist for Elisa.

Major Conflict

"The Chrysanthemums" is a very subtle story; the conflict is not apparent as in some other stories. The most major conflict is between the tinker and Elisa: he wants her business, she wants to connect with him on an emotional and physical level. This is an immediate manifestation of Elisa's more internal conflict between her desire for expression, independence and freedom and the oppressive society that forbids this.


The story's climax occurs when Elisa sees the dark speck on the road and realizes that the tinker has discarded her chrysanthemums; and thus realizes that their interaction was not the empowering outlet that she thought it was.


The tinker's confusion when Elisa reminds him to keep the chrysanthemums in sand as he's driving away, his quick change of tone when he notes that the flowers have a nasty smell and she disagrees, and the laughter that leaves his eyes as soon as he stops speaking, all foreshadow his deception. When he ultimately dumps the chrysanthemums by the side of the road, the reader should not be very surprised by this, given the hints that Steinbeck has left throughout the story as to his true manipulative character.


Because of the story's neutral tone and lack of direct emotional insight, the entire narrative can be considered in itself understatement. The ultimate message, delivered in this wholly understated way, is that society oppresses and essentially has no place for a competent woman like Elisa who yearns for independence. Because this message is delivered via the simple act of a traveling tinker accepting and then discarding a flowerpot of chrysanthemum shoots by the side of the road, it is generally understated piece.




See section on imagery.


A major paradox of the story surrounds Henry. Although her husband is, by all accounts, a "good husband", complimenting her, taking her out, and providing for her financially, Elisa is deeply unhappy, and it is his very "goodness" that contributes to this unhappiness. Instead of bringing her satisfaction, it reminds her of the limitations of her life -- viz., the things she cannot do for herself because she is a woman.


The story draws a parallel between the tinker and Henry - specifically, at the story's end, each man is driving his own vehicle down the highway, albeit for very different reasons. This parallel, however, is essential to help the reader understand that both Henry and the tinker, despite being from vastly different places in society, are both fully immersed in the patriarchy that oppresses women like Elisa.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Henry explains that he sold "thirty head" (339) of steer, an example of metonymy, where "head" is substituted for "individual steer." Throughout the story, characters refer to "fights", another use of metonymy, where "fights" is substituted for "boxing matches."


When describing her intuitive connection with plants, Elisa says: "You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves... They know. They never make a mistake" (343-4). Here, she is personifying her hands, as though they were individuals that can connect intellectually with the plants. This personification is her attempt to explain an intuitive connection that she otherwise struggles to put into words.