"Her eyes sharpened. 'Maybe I could do it, too. I've a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters' hands that knew how to do it.'"
Here, Elisa is responding to her husband's off-hand comment that she could work in the apple orchards on his crops. Although he meant it dismissively, not seriously, she immediately narrows in on the suggestion, providing a clear explanation of her gift with plants to support this idea that she could work in the orchard. Her almost urgent response to his casual comment demonstrates her dissatisfaction with her life: she is unhappy merely keeping house and gardening decorative flowers, and would jump at the chance to expand her responsibilities. (Unfortunately for Elisa, her husband essentially ignores this response, and continues the conversation as though she hadn't even spoken.)
This quote also demonstrates Elisa's talent: she is a smart, energetic woman with real skills, like her green thumb. Unfortunately for her, these skills go essentially unnoticed and ignored by Henry or anyone else.
"The man in the wagon seat called out. 'That's a bad dog in a fight when he gets started.'
Elisa laughed. 'I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?'"
The tinker and Elisa's response to their dogs' brief interaction demonstrates, primarily, Elisa's wit and intellect. The tinker's dog has just been dominated by Elisa and Henry's two shepherds, and retreated under his wagon. Although the tinker warns that the dog is actually violent, Elisa immediately outwits him with her comment (he hasn't quite "gotten started" yet, considering he is cowering under the tinker's wagon). Her easy banter and quick reply help demonstrate her overall social and intellectual dexterity - one which is quick to be triggered, but is simply not triggered by her husband, with whom she has just had a banal, pedestrian conversation.
"Elisa took off her gloves and stuffed them in the apron pocket with the scissors. She touched the under edge of her man's hat, searching for fugitive hairs. 'That sounds like a nice kind of way to live,' she said."
The tinker's arrival sparks a great deal in Elisa. He makes casual reference to his itinerant life, which she is immediately captivated by, telling him outright that his life traveling and sleeping in a wagon sounds like "a nice kind of way to live." Her attraction to this lifestyle is also manifested as an attraction to the tinker himself - although she begins the story dressed in boxy mens' clothes, within a few moments of meeting the tinker she is already putting some of these clothes away and straightening up her appearance, which demonstrates her growing physical, if not sexual, interest in the stranger.
"'They smell kind of nasty till you get used to them,' he said.
'It's a good kind of smell,' she retorted, 'not nasty at all.'
He changed his tone quickly. 'I like the smell myself.'"
The tinker is, first and foremost, a salesman. This quote clearly demonstrates his salesman skills at work - after trying to brag about his skills, then trying to elicit pity from Elisa, as something of a last resort, he complimented her chrysanthemums, and she immediately warmed up to him. Encouraged by this, he continued to talk about chrysanthemums, although from his comment about their smell, it's clear he doesn't have a great deal of passion. However, as soon as Elisa retorts that she likes the smell, he smoothly reverses his position, clearly demonstrating his number one priority is to flatter her to earn her business, not to connect on any real or deep level.
"Elisa's voice grew husky. She broke in on him. 'I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark - why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and-lovely."
In attempting to describe to the tinker her intuitive way with plants, Elisa gets caught up in the emotion of both the description and the moment, going on this slight tangent about a transcendental connection with nature. This is a moment of great eloquence for Elisa, where she poetically describes the feeling of being connected to something larger than herself, alone under the stars. It speaks to her spiritual side, her unfulfilled yearnings, as well as an intellectual and poetic brilliance.
There is also a distinct sexual tone to this quote. Her husky voice, and the description of stars getting "driven into your body" speaks to a sudden physical awakening in Elisa brought on by the stranger's unexpected appearance and interest in her.
"Elisa brought him a fifty-cent piece from the house and dropped it in his hand. 'You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do.'
He put the hammer back in the oily box and shoved the little anvil out of sight. 'It would be a lonely life for a woman, ma'am, and a scarey life, too, with animals creeping under the wagon all night."
Just a short encounter with the tinker creates a growing sense of agency in Elisa. Although he has already explained to her that his life would be unacceptable for a woman, she fights back, telling him here that she could do his work as easily as he could. She specifically references her gender in arguing for her capabilities.
The tinker, for his part, quickly and thoughtlessly dismisses her assertion, without even considering her words. Despite living on the fringes of society, he is still fully immersed in the patriarchal world that Elisa and Henry are also a part of: to him, the "threat" of a woman taking his job, or equalling his skill, is not a realistic or viable one, but instead one to be ignored.
"He looked bewhildered. 'You're playing some kind of game,' he said helplessly. 'It's a kind of play.'"
Although Henry Allen is a respectful and dutiful husband, he is basically incapable of understanding his wife's true feelings and connecting with her on a deep, emotional level. After he tells her she looks "nice", Elisa responds by questioning what he means by "nice", and Henry can come up with no answer at all; his entire compliment is revealed as nothing more than a platitude. Eventually, he dismisses her questions as a "game" - it is impossible for him to consider her his emotional equal, and he is forced to reframe her questions as nothing more than a silly game.
Henry's bewilderment is a result of his fundamental entrenchment in the established patriarchy, where his wife Elisa doesn't stray beyond her role of supportive, easy-to-understand, docile wife. When she begins to question the banalities of their relationship, he is literally unable to comprehend.
"'I'm strong,' she boasted. 'I never knew before how strong.'"
Elisa's brief interaction with the tinker nonetheless has a profound effect on her. His arrival and apparent interest in her sparks a degree of independence and agency in her that she has heretofore not demonstrated in her relationship. She comes into an awareness of her own strength, and is already challenging her husband with it by questioning his vapid compliments and forcing him to truly consider her. Here, she expresses aloud this awareness of her own strength.
"'Oh, sure, some. What's the matter, Elisa? Do you want to go? I don't think you'd like it, but I'll take you if you really want to go.'"
After she notices the abandoned chrysanthemum shoots, Elisa suddenly finds herself thinking about the boxing matches in town that she has up until this point been repulsed by. She pesters Henry about the fights, about whether the participants hurt each other, and how badly. Henry, once again baffled by anything besides his compliant, passive wife, doesn't understand her questions, and here asks her if she'd actually like to go to the fights. He even offers to take her, but insists that he doesn't think she'd like it. Henry's understanding of his wife is entirely defined by the constraints of her gender: women, the weaker sex, would be horrified and frightened by the fights.
Just like the tinker, who is convinced that Elisa would be scared to travel alone in his wagon, Henry has decided what Elisa is likely to feel simply based on her gender. Elisa, for her part, acquiesces to his insistence, abandoning any idea about going to the fights: perhaps a sign that, despite her momentary show of agency and independence, she is nonetheless cowed by the restrictions of her gender role.
"'It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.' She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly - like an old woman."
The story's final sentence has been a source of debate for critics since its original publication. Although many feel that Elisa's acquiescence here is a sign that she is ultimately beaten by society's expectations of her, and faces a future equally bleak in its limitations, others have argued that Elisa's tears are not necessarily a sign of defeat, and that she will, like her chrysanthemums, bloom into a more complete sense of herself and her own agency as the seasons change.
In the same way, some have argued that her request for wine represents this growing sense of independence, and her interest in expanding her limited horizons in even the smallest way should be celebrated as positive in her personal development. For others, though, her acceptance that the wine will "be enough" is a sad, almost pathetic victory that does so little to quell her overall unhappiness that the story ends on an ultimately tragic note.
The Chrysanthemums Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Chrysanthemums is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.