'The Chrysanthemums': The Tinker's Visit: Summary
Elisa is still gardening when she hears a vehicle approaching from the road. She looks up to see a wagon pulled by a burro and driven by a stubble-bearded man. The side of the wagon advertises the man’s services as a tinker, able to fix various household objects. Although Elisa expects the wagon to pass, it pulls instead in front of her house. A dog travelling with the wagon approaches the house but is stopped by two of the Allens' dogs. The three animals square off, the wagon dog finally retreating.
The man in the wagon gets out, and begins politely bantering with Elisa about the dog. He then asks for directions to the Los Angeles Highway. Elisa suggests he head back to the road to pick up the highway to save time, but he replies that he's in no hurry. She finds herself charmed by his meandering way of life.
The tinker asks if she has any knives or scissors that need sharpening, but she replies that she doesn't. He pushes her, asking if she has a pot with a hole he can mend; again, she replies she does not. He admits that he hasn't had much work that day, but still Elisa refuses.
Finally, the tinker expresses an interest in Elisa's chrysanthemums, which melts all of her resistance. She talks animatedly about the flowers and her gardening, and when he explains he knows a woman down the road with all kinds of flowers but not chrysanthemums, Elisa excitedly offers to give him a few of her sprouts to pass along to the woman. She prepares a flowerpot with sprouts for the tinker to take, and offers to explain the directions of how to plant them to him so he can pass the information along to the woman.
As she attempts to describe her own intuitive way with the chrysanthemums, she becomes more passionate, kneeling on the ground as she prepares the buds. She describes feeling at one with the flowers, connected to them, and the tinker responds that he might know what she means. He begins to talk about being alone in his wagon at night, and Elisa interrupts him, agreeing, recounting being alone at night in front of the stars. "Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and - lovely" (344). Despite herself, Elisa almost touches the man's leg, but restrains herself at the last moment.
At this moment, the tinker once again makes reference to being hungry and not having work, and Elisa, ashamed, hands off the chrysanthemum buds and goes into her house to find some old pots for him to mend. Professionally, he completes the task. They talk about his life, traveling in the wagon by day, sleeping in it by night. She wishes aloud that women "could do such things" (344), but he replies that that's not the right kind of life for a woman. He finishes the pots, and she pays him fifty cents.
As he leaves, she remarks that she could do his work, and he repeats that his lifestyle would be lonely and scary for a woman. She offers one last piece of advice about the chrysanthemums, which he initially doesn't understand, before realizing that she's talking about the flowers. She watches him leave, her eyes half closed, whispering to herself. Her dogs watch her.
'The Chrysanthemums': The Tinker's Visit: Analysis
The seemingly innocuous visit of a traveling tinker has a profound impact on Elisa Allen. Although when he initially arrives she makes casual small talk with him, joking and bantering, she is still reluctant to engage with him professionally, insisting that she doesn't need anything fixed. This attitude seems rigidly unbreakable until the tinker compliments her chrysanthemums, which instantly melts Elisa's resistance. Her enthusiasm for the flowers causes her to engage warmly with the man, and, despite herself, he seems to awaken a sort of physical and sexual need in her.
Throughout their conversation, Elisa begins stripping away her bulky, masculine gardening outfit - removing the gloves and fixing her hair. She is both charmed and disarmed by the tinker's interest in her flowers -- as though this small bit of warmth and attention from an unknown man is enough to unleash a carnal side. This suggests that her relationship with Henry, her husband, which the reader has already seen is respectful and polite, if not warm, is not satisfying Elisa on a physical level. By the time she begins to describe her intuitive way with the chrysanthemums, she is kneeling on the ground, "her breast swelled passionately" (344). She can barely restrain herself from touching the tinker's leg; her carnal need is almost physicalized.
The tinker, for his part, seems eager to charm her but less interested in any physical advances than he is in the possibility of a quick sale. His feigned interest in the chrysanthemums is merely an attempt to melt Elisa's defenses so that she will offer him a job. Indeed, his utter confusion when she provides the last piece of advice about the flowers as he's driving away indicates that the story about the woman down the road without any chrysanthemums in her garden was no more than a ruse to gain Elisa's trust.
Through her banter, Elisa proves herself to be the equal to the tinker, if not his better, both intellectually and socially. The misspelled words on his wagon as well as the laughter that disappears from his face and eyes "the moment his laughing voice ceased" (341) suggests that the tinker is neither especially charming, warm, nor intelligent. Thus, Elisa's extreme enthusiasm as well as her almost instant attraction to him after he asks about her chrysanthemums says more about her than it does about him - suggesting that her own life is so unsatisfying and deficient that merely the smallest whiff of something new and different is enough to totally arouse her sensibilities.
Likewise, Elisa's excitement towards the tinker's itinerant life demonstrates a similar dissatisfaction with her own circumstances. The tinker insists that his life is not "the right kind of life for a woman" (344), but, when pressed, he doesn't immediately offer any reasons why. Only later, after Elisa boasts that she could do his job just as competently as him, does he finally argue that it would be lonely and scary for her to live and travel on the wagon, as he does. Although the tinker is a totally different man than Henry Allen, Elisa's husband, from a totally different part of society and with a totally different lifestyle, he is just as ensconced in the same patriarchal establishment as Henry and Elisa, insisting that anything involving a degree of agency or independence would be inappropriate, scary, and lonely for a woman.
Elisa spends most of the story behind her garden fence; it is only when she gets the pots from inside her house for the tinker to repair that she leaves the enclosure. As she watches him ride away, it is from in front of the fence, not behind it, a subtle difference in location that nonetheless represents a massive shift in Elisa's psychology and character. If she was able to lose herself within her fixed "role" as wife and woman in society before, hiding behind her garden fence, something about the tinker's visit has caused a shift within her, and she is now outside of the fence. Indeed, she does not go back into the garden for the rest of the story, nor does she appear to be the same submissive, quiet woman that she was at the story's beginning.