The story's major theme is about gender roles and the oppression of women. Trapped in her role as "wife", "gardener", and "housekeeper", Elisa longs to have more agency, but can only watch from a distance as her husband negotiates business deals, and ask for small favors like wine at dinner. When she expresses interest in the itinerant, free life of the tinker, it is immediately dismissed as not "the right kind of life for a woman" (344). Despite her robust energy and cleverness, Elisa is confined to only those activities that are availble to her as dictated by her gender. Although she is a capable gardener, she is forced to limit her skills to chrysanthemums; her husband will not consider allowing her to participate in the farm's actual harvest. Elisa's frustration at her lot in life is expressed throughout the story - in her "over-powerful" gardening energy, as well as her tears at the story's end.
Sexuality and the importance of sexual fulfillment
The tinker's arrival and apparent interest in her chrysanthemums awakens a true sexual need in Elisa - by the end of her conversation with the tinker, she can barely restrain herself from touching him, even though he is a complete stranger. This says less about the tinker's magnetism than it does about Elisa's apparent sexual frustration. With the slightest of provocations, she proves anxious for sexual and physical fulfillment, indicating that this need is not being met at home. Elisa's sexual frustration only adds to her overall frustration with life, and her eagerness to study her naked body and dress as attractively as possible demonstrates that this need will continue to express itself in her until it's met.
The story is set in the winter, a time of "quiet and of waiting" (337) in the agricultural region of the Salinas Valley. Although Elisa and Henry live on a farm, the farm is in a period of dormancy until the seasons turn and the crops can grow again. In this same way, although Elisa is hard at work on her chrysanthemums during the story, they are not in bloom, nor will they bloom until the following fall.
Many critics have argued that this idea of "renewal" is applicable to Elisa herself - although she is frustrated and "blocked" (338) at the story's beginning, the tinker's visit begins a process of renewal wherein she will bloom again as a stronger version of herself. Although the reader doesn't get to experience the chrysanthemums blooming during the story itself, he can be confident that they will bloom after the story's end - so too can he be confident that Elisa will emerge as a more fulfilled, secure person after her transformative encounter with the tinker.
Technology versus Nature
Just as the story compares and contrasts women and men, so too does it contrast technology and nature, specifically in the way it aligns Elisa with nature and the men who surround her with technology. At the start of the story, Elisa is gardening; her husband, Henry, stands by his tractor and negotiates a business deal. Later, he drives cattle, then drives her into town in their car. Later, Elisa describes her gift with things because of her "planters hands" - this is in direct contrast to the mechanical world of the tinker and the machine-driven world of her husband Henry. Although the the cars, tractors, and technology of Henry's world appear to dominate the world of the story (especially because it is winter, and nothing is growing), Elisa's "natural" world still has the potential to reemerge as the seasons change. In this same way, Elisa too may find more of her own voice and continue her struggle for agency.
Physically and emotionally, Elisa is isolated. She lives on a farm far from town, and is unable to socialize with others except when they visit her, or when her husband drives her around. In the same way, she is a victim of emotional isolation - it is clear throughout the story that her private, inner life is not one her husband could understand, even if she were to give him access to it. As it is, she keeps her feelings of loneliness and frustration to herself, and interacts with her husband (her closest, if only, relationship) politely and civilly, on a surface level but no deeper. The reader has access to a glimpse of Elisa's emotional isolation by the description of her private act of bathing and studying her body, or whispering to herself as she watches the tinker go, but even the reader is kept apart from Elisa's actual inner thoughts: Steinbeck narrates discretely, forcing the reader to intuit Elisa's loneliness and frustration from her tears and actions, rather than a straightforward description of her feelings.
Politeness versus Honesty
Although the characters of the story engage with each other in conversation continuously, there is a politeness to their interactions that prohibits any kind of true honesty. Elisa is polite and supportive of Henry without telling him her true feelings of resentment and frustration. The tinker is polite, even flattering, to Elisa, without being honest about his true intentions: he just wants her money, and is deceiving her with the polite request to bring chrysanthemums to the "woman down the road."
Elisa, on the other hand, attempts a few moments of true honesty with both the tinker and her husband, none of which is received well. First, she attempts to honestly communicate with the tinker about her passionate connection to gardening or transcendent experiences with nature ("Every pointed star gets driven into your body" (344)), but he essentially ignores her, forcing her politeness back into the conversation with his comment about being hungry. Later, Elisa provokes her husband when he politely compliments her appearance ("What do you mean by 'nice'?" (346)), but he blunders in response, completely caught off guard by this moment of honesty. Steinbeck seems to be suggesting that honesty and politeness are at least mostly mutually exclusive, and that for one to exist, the other must be tampered down.
Constraints and inhibitions versus unrestraint
At the story's beginning, Elisa wears heavy, burdensome gardening clothes. She works confined within the fence of her flower garden with so much energy that she is described as "over-eager, over-powerful" (338). She is fully constrained: by her clothes, by the fence of her flower garden, and by the dictums of her gender.
As the story goes on, she experiments with unleashing her inhibitions: the passion of describing her transcendent connection with nature almost causes her to let down her boundaries and reach out to touch the tinker, but at the last moment her inhibitions win out and she restrains herself. Later, though, there are some signs that she has loosened up these restraints: she studies her naked body with a boldess that seems to defy her inhibitions, and then, although she doesn't let her husband see, she cries in the car, letting out emotions that she hasn't yet expelled.
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.