The most major symbol of the story are the chrysanthemums, which represent Elisa. Like Elisa, the chrysanthemums are currently dormant and bare, not in bloom. Like Elisa, they are confined to a narrow environment (the garden), with no way to escape. They are beautiful, decorative flowers, but serve no useful function beyond this ornamental one - in the same way, as a woman, Elisa is unable to do more than a limited range of tasks, and certainly none that would allow her to be independent or provide for herself.
The tinker's casual abandonment of the chrysanthemums at the side of the road is symbolic of the way he, as a man, so easily dismisses Elisa as anything more than a source of income. Although she attempts to engage with him on an intellectual, spiritual, and even physical level, he barely considers these offerings, instead pressing her for money. Once he's gotten that, he departs, forgetting about her just as he jettisons the chrysanthemum buds at the side of the road.
Many critics have also compared the chrysanthemums to Elisa in terms of her apparent childlessness: like the unblooming flowers, Elisa has no children.
Others have argued that the chrysanthemums' eventual blooming suggest that Elisa will ultimately "bloom" herself, by developing more of a sense of independence and agency.
When the tinker arrives at her farm, his mongrel dog comes first, running ahead of the wagon. After observing this, Elisa's two dogs immediately run forward, threatening the dog, who eventually cowers back under the wagon, unharmed but nervous.
The interaction between Elisa's dogs and the tinker's dog is symbolic of the interaction between Elisa and the tinker themselves. Just as her dogs are stronger than the tinker's mongrel, so is Elisa wittier, smarter, and more of a robust person than the tinker. She demonstrates superior wit during their banter, and, as she later reveals, she is just as capable as him of doing any of his repair work. However, despite her superior wit and skill, Elisa still succumbs to the tinker's charm, paying him for a job she could have done herself, and he leaves, just like his dog, unharmed and intact -- and fifty cents richer.
As the tinker's wagon rolls away, Elisa's dogs have abandoned the threat of the mongrel, and are sleeping. In the same way, Elisa has passively allowed the tinker to extort her out of fifty cents, and leave with her money in his pocket and her flowers in his wagon.
One motif that repeats throughout the story is that of technology, especially as compared to the natural world of the Salinas Valley. Early on in the story, the male characters are aligned with technology, whereas Elisa is aligned with nature, creating a parallel between the tension between men and women and the tension between nature and technology. In the story, technology is aligned with independence, agency and control, all of which Elisa is denied access to because of her gender.
From the moment he appears in the story, Henry is leaning against his tractor. Later, he drives his car to town. The tinker is associated with a cruder form of technology - he rides a wagon and makes his living sharpening tools - but it is a technology nonetheless. Elisa, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have access to this technology: she doesn't drive the car, and when she expresses an interest in riding in a wagon like the tinker's, he laughs it off, insisting that it would be inappropriate for her.
In the story's first paragraph, the Salinas Valley is described as a "closed pot" because of the fog that sits on the mountains "like a lid" (337). Literal pots appear in the story, as well - like the flowerpot Elisa gives to the tinker to hold her chrysanthemums in, and the two pots she finds for him to repair when he makes her feel guilty for not giving him work.
Elisa is trapped in the "closed pot" of her life - unlike Henry and the tinker, both of whom have a means of transportation that allows them to leave the farm, or even the Salinas Valley if they wanted, she lacks this independence, and is physically confined to the farm just as she is confined to the narrow options available to her as a woman.
If the pot represents one's life, the tinker's arrival and pronouncement that he can "fix pots" seems to suggest that he is figuratively offering himself as a means to repair Elisa's damaged life. However, as she herself realizes by the end of their encounter, he is not a true solution for her: she herself can do the same job (suggesting that she is perhaps her own salvation and means of finding satisfaction from her life.) Later, when the tinker dumps Elisa's chrysanthemums by the side of the road and keeps her flowerpot, it demonstrates how easily he used her, and indeed, how easily men can use women within this patriarchal society as a means to whatever end they are pusuing.
Different types of clothing are used symbolically throughout the story. At the story's start, Elisa is dressed in a heavy gardening outfit that makes her look "blocked and heavy" (p. 338), symbolic of the oppression she faces due to her gender and position in life. Just as the masculine outfit is weighing her down, so too is the masculine patriarchy suppressing her freedom.
After her encounter with the tinker, though, Elisa goes into her house and removes her clothes entirely, a shedding that symbolically represents her growing sense of self and independence, as well as a desire to literally free herself from the masculine forces that suppress her. She then dresses carefully in her most feminine outfit, doing her makeup and hair carefully. The encounter with the tinker has awakened her sense of her own sexuality and power, and the feminine clothing she dons is symbolic of this awakening.
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.
Elisa's easy banter with the tinker, her eloquence in describing the intuitive connection she has with her chrysanthemums, and her robust energy indicates that she is in the prime of her life physically and intellectually.