The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums Summary

It is winter in the Salinas Valley, California, foggy and quiet. As she works on her chrysanthemum sprouts in her flower garden, Elisa Allen watches from a distance as her husband negotiates a cattle deal with two strangers.

Eventually, her husband Henry approaches. He praises her gardening skills, nonchalantly musing that Elisa could do wonders in their apple orchard, but dismisses the idea as soon as she shows enthusiasm. He tells her about the cattle deal, and suggests they go into town that night for dinner and a movie to celebrate. She agrees. He jokes that they could go to the boxing matches, but she insists she wouldn't like that. He explains it was just a joke - they'll see a movie. They make plans to leave at five. Elisa continues to garden as Henry rides away to finish his work. 

A vehicle approaches from the road - it is a wagon driven by a stubble-bearded man, advertising the man's services as a tinker, able to fix various household objects. The man stops his wagon in front of the Allens' house. Elisa and the tinker begin bantering, as he angles for work. Although Elisa refuses, insisting she has no scissors that need sharpening and no pots to mend, the tinker lingers, continuing their conversation. 

Eventually, the tinker asks about Elisa's chrysanthemums , which instantly melts her defenses. She engages with him animatedly about the flowers, and when he mentions a woman down the road who doesn't have any chrysanthemums in her garden, Elisa offers to prepare some sprouts in a flower pot for the tinker to take to her. 

Elisa prepares the sprouts, and gives the tinker instructions to pass along to the woman on how to plant them. She begins speaking passionately about her intuitive way with the buds, becoming quite moved as she compares the connection she has with the flowers to a spiritual or emotional experience one might have observing the stars at night. Charged, she almost touches the man's leg, but restrains herself. 

In response, the tinker again references his lack of work, and his hunger, and Elisa, ashamed, finds a few pots for him to mend. He does so. They discuss his life, and she wishes aloud that a woman could travel independently like the tinker, but he responds that it wouldn't be the right kind of life for a woman. She pays him for the pots, and he prepares to go. 

She remarks that she could do his work, but he repeats that his life would be inappropriate for her. He leaves, and she offers a final piece of advice on the chrysanthemum sprouts, which he appears not to understand, as though he'd forgotten she'd even given them to him. She watches him drive away, whispering to herself. 

Elisa returns to her house, removes all of her clothes and bathes. When she's finished, she stands in front of her bedroom mirror and studies her body. She slowly gets dressed, taking her time to put on her nicest, prettiest clothes and carefully style her hair and do her make up. 

Henry returns, and Elisa waits while he bathes and gets dressed. He tells her she looks nice, but when she presses him about what he means, he seems confused and repeats that she looks nice, and different. She remarks that she feels strong. 

They drive to town together, and Elisa notices a dark speck on the road in the distance. She realizes it's the chrysanthemum sprouts that the tinker has dumped by the side of the road, keeping the pot. Eventually, they overtake the tinker's wagon, but Elisa refuses to look at it as they pass. Elisa asks Henry about the boxing fights in town, then asks if they can get wine with dinner. He agrees. She again asks him about the fights, and if fighters hurt each other a lot - she explains that she's read they can be quite violent. Henry, surprised, asks her what's wrong, and tells her that if she wants to go to the fights, he'll take her, but he doesn't think she'll like it. She answers that she doesn't want to go to the fights - wine will be enough. As they continue to drive, she turns up her coat collar so he can't see that she's crying.