The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe Elisa's behavior before and after her encounter with the tinker. What does this say about the effect this encounter has on her emotionally? 

    Before meeting with the tinker, Elisa behaves much like a traditional 1930s wife: she gardens, provides gentle support to her husband, and otherwise fulfills her gender role. After the tinker leaves, however, she engages in behavior that deviates from this prescribed role. After bathing, she studies her body in the mirror for a long stretch of time, then dresses in her prettiest clothes, indicating that the tinker's visit has somehow sparked a renewed interest in her own sexuality. Later, she questions her husband's banal compliments, indicating that she's somehow no longer content with the traditional, superficial relationship they've previously had. Her comments that she's "strong" also support this idea - and suggest that she's begun to develop a sense of independence and agency despite her submissive position in life. 

  2. 2

    Why does Elisa cry at the end of the story? Discuss what you believe her tears indicate, and what they suggest about what rest of her life will look like. 

    While a few critics have argued that Elisa's tears are more an indication of emotional catharsis, the vast majority believe that Elisa cries out of a renewed despair about her lot in life. Although she was invigorated and compelled initially by her encounter with the tinker, her realization that he dumped her chrysanthemum buds at the side of the road led her to an even more profound sorrow by reminding her of her inability to find creative fulfillment, her lack of independence, and her utter dependence on the men around her for stability. These tears seem to indicate an agony rooted in a sad acceptance of her misery, which would suggest that Elisa's future is just as bleak. Although she hopes for a way to find more independence and an outlet for her excess energy, she has no hope for escape from her provincial, isolated life. 

  3. 3

    Discuss the setting in "The Chrysanthemums." How does Steinbeck use the location, and specifically the weather, to heighten the mood of the story?

    "The Chrysanthemums" is a story about a woman who feels isolated and bleakly despairing at her position in life. By setting his story on a ranch that, too, is isolated in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck emphasizes Elisa's emotional isolation through a literal physical isolation. Elisa needs a car or a wagon to leave her ranch - things the men in her life have, but she doesn't. 

    Additionally, by setting the story in winter, when plants and vegetation are dormant or dead, Steinbeck enhances the overall feeling of bleakness. He frequently describes the weather as grey, emphasizing the lack of sunlight, which perpetuates this tone. Thus, when watching the tinker's wagon drive away, Elisa remarks "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there" (345), it indicates the momentarily renewed hope that Elisa's encounter with the tinker has created. By referring to the tinker's wagon as "bright," it stands in direct contrast to the grey, cold environment that Elisa is used to living in. 

  4. 4

    Is Henry Allen a good husband? Why or why not? 

    On the surface, Henry is a good husband - he compliments his wife, offers to take her on dates, and treats her with respect. Indeed, he most likely considers himself a good husband and has no reason not to. One implied challenge of their relationship however, whether it be Henry's fault or Elisa's, is a lack of sexual intimacy, demonstrated by Elisa's sudden, intense thirst for the tinker when they meet. 

    Ultimately, though, whether or not Henry is a "good husband" by 1920s or 30s standards, this is not what Elisa needs to feel satisfied. When she tries to engage with Henry as his equal, he becomes confused and cannot match her. He can only treat her like a "good husband" would, which serves to make her more unhappy. 

  5. 5

    How does "The Chrysanthemums" comment on gender relations? What does it say about the place for women like Elisa Allen in the world? 

    Elisa is a character who is profoundly unhappy. She is described as being smart, energetic, and otherwise in the prime of her life, but she is forced to limit her work to the narrow sphere of "wifely duties" - gardening and keeping house. Although she clearly has a robust creative energy, she has no outlet for it. Unlike her husband, Henry, who has responsibilities and independence (he provides for them by working on the ranch, he drives the car, he comes and goes as he pleases), Elisa is kept isolated and submissive, literally confined to the ranch on which she lives. When she is visited by a strange man, she expresses her interest in his itinerant, independent life, but he dismisses this interest, telling her it "ain't the right kind of life for a woman" (344). Ultimately, the story seems to suggest that there is no place for a smart, energetic woman like Elisa Allen in the patriarchal world - she must remain repressed by her place in society.