'The Chrysanthemums': Beginning: Summary
It is winter in the Salinas Valley, California, foggy and quiet. Working in her flower garden, Elisa Allen watches, from a distance, as her husband Henry talks to two strangers. She continues gardening, preparing her dormant chrysanthemum plants with energy and efficiency. A mature but handsome woman of thirty-five, she keeps a tidy house and gardens with "over powerful" enthusiasm.
Elisa is surprised at the arrival of her husband Henry, who leans over the garden fence to greet her, complimenting her on her "gift" with the chrysanthemums, praising how big they grew the previous year. He idly muses that he wishes she'd help work in his orchard to grow equally impressive apples, but although Elisa eagerly agrees, Henry nonchalantly dismisses the idea.
He explains that the two strangers were there to negotiate a deal for cattle: he has sold thirty steer for a good price. To celebrate, he suggests they go into town that night for dinner and to see a movie, then jokes that they could go to a fight, as well. Elisa demurs, insisting she wouldn't like to see a fight, and Henry relents, explaining he was only joking. He proposes they leave at five, after he's brought the cattle down. Elisa agrees, and goes back to gardening while Henry rides away to finish his work.
'The Chrysanthemums': Beginning: Analysis
The first paragraph of the story introduces the setting: the Salinas Valley in December, during "a time of quiet and waiting" (337). Steinback has often been praised for his deliberate and meticulous settings, most of which mirror the story or protagonist in some way. In this case, Steinbeck provides a glimpse of a quiet, foggy, "cold and tender" valley, where farmers are "mildly hopeful" for rain. This characterization mirrors, in many ways, Elisa Allen, the story's protagonist, who is in an equally ambivalent, cold yet hopeful, seemingly quiet place at the beginning of 'The Chrysanthemums.'
Elisa is introduced wearing bulky clothing and a man's hat, but Steinbeck quickly hints at a handsome woman within, with "eyes as clear as water" (338). She is quickly established as an expert, if over-eager, gardener, who keeps a tidy house. Both of these skills are traditionally feminine ones; within just a page of the story's beginning, Steinbeck places his protagonist at the intersection of both "male" and "female" qualities: dressed like a man and with "over-powerful" energy (which contrasts with a more traditionally feminine characterization of weakness or demureness), Elisa nonetheless is attractive, repulsed by the traditionally masculine activity of boxing, and skilled at two conventionally feminine activities: gardening and housekeeping.
In his description of her gardening as "over-powerful" and "over-eager", Steinbeck suggests that Elisa has already mastered the few activities open to her as a woman, and her excess of energy implies that she perhaps yearns for more fulfilling challenges. Instead, she must watch her husband negotiate a business deal from a distance, with no way to participate or even know what is being discussed until her husband comes to her and chooses to share the news at his own discretion.
Although Henry and Elisa are respectful and even kind to each other in this first exchange, Henry's casual suggestion that Elisa help in the orchard followed by his immediate dismissal of the idea after she shows enthusiasm, as well as the way he teases her with his idea that they go to a fight that night insinuates that their relationship is not that of equals. Their brief conversation evokes many conventional gender roles and structures: Henry, as the man, is the one who proposes the activity; he jokes with her, playing on traditionally feminine fears at her expense; except for a brief moment where she expresses excitement at the prospect of working in the field, she otherwise spends the conversation acquiescing or complimenting her husband in a more submissive position of "supporter."
The chrysanthemums themselves are a powerful symbol at the heart of the story: like Elisa, disguised in her boxy masculine gardening outfit, they are not currently flowering, but are capable of blooming to great, impressive beauty. Like Elisa, though, they are more decorative than truly useful, which is symbolic both of Elisa's subservient position as a woman and the lack of agency that is dictated by her gender.