Although critical interpretation of “The Chrysanthemums” varies widely, there seems to be general agreement that the character of Elisa Allen was based, at least loosely, on the Steinbeck’s wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck. In fact, when one compares the roots of the story with Steinbeck’s own life, this link is not only reinforced, but leads the attentive reader to the discovery of even more autobiographical connections.
The physical similarities and intellectual wittiness between Elisa Allen and Carol Steinbeck have often been noted by critics. Both women were capable and intelligent, quietly supportive of their husbands, and handsome in appearance. But the connections between “The Chrysanthemums” and Steinbeck’s life don’t stop there. Les Stanwood, in his essay “Flowers for Carol: John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell and ‘The Chrysanthemums'” explains that although it wasn’t published until 1937, the story was most likely written in 1933, when he and Carol were living at his parents house in the Salinas Valley, isolated from their friends and social network.
More significantly, at the time, the young couple (who would later divorce) were experiencing marital difficulties. As Stanwood explains: “Many sources, including Steinbeck’s letters written after a post-divorce meeting with Carol, suggest that the young couple, married only three years at the time, were having problems of sexual incompatibility” (Stanwood 88). This echoes the implied sexual frustrations that Elisa feels towards her husband in “The Chrysanthemums” – although it is never mentioned openly, her obvious attraction for the stranger who arrives at their ranch suggests she is desperate for physical attention.
So if Elisa is Carol Steinbeck -- and Henry, by extension -- John Steinbeck, who is the tinker, the mysterious stranger who arrives at the ranch and so rivets Elisa’s attention? Stanwood, in his article, argues that the tinker may have been inspired by a young Joseph Campbell, Steinbeck’s friend, who visited the Steinbecks in 1932. According to a 1991 biography of Campbell, during this time he and Carol Steinbeck engaged in a brief affair – although it was never consummated, they flirted and kissed, sometimes in the presence of John Steinbeck. As Stanwood explains: “Steinbeck seems to have witnessed some of it, including Carol’s reaching out and touching Campbell’s leg while the two of them sat in a tree” (Stanwood 89), an incident that mirrors closely Elisa’s desire to touch the tinker’s leg in “The Chrysanthemums."
Joseph Campbell was a young, charming, educated scholar who was able to connect with Carol Steinbeck in a way that John, so consumed with his writing at the time, seemed unable to. It is telling that if Campbell is the inspiration for the tinker, Steinbeck chose to turn the charming man who competed for his wife’s attention into a big, dirty, uneducated itinerant. More telling, though, is the story’s conclusion. If one interprets Elisa’s tears at the end of the story as a sign of her despair at the tinker’s rejection and her frustration with her position in life, then we see, according to Stanwood, “his desire that Carol be devastated by the entire affair. To put it another way… Why in the end does Elisa 'cry like an old lady?' Well, because Steinbeck very much wished her to” (Stanwood 94).
John Steinbeck’s love for writing was often in tension with his love for his wife, and clearly, given the Steinbecks’ divorce in 1942 and John’s continued success as an author afterwards, the writing won out in the case of his relationship with Carol. “The Chrysanthemums," then, may be John’s attempts to use that writing to help quell the pain of that defeat.