John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is a story that is full of symbolism. After the first read, it might seem like an innocent tale about a woman and her garden. However, upon further examination, the reader learns it is actually a story about a woman’s desires and frustrations in her life. Steinbeck uses many examples, such as the flowers to symbolize the thoughts and ideas of the main character, Elisa, in this story. Elisa Allen is a lonesome woman who gets pleasure from growing her chrysanthemums. Since her husband, Henry, is constantly working with the cattle in their farm, Elisa never receives enough attention or any kind of affection.
This neglect from her husband causes her to turn to her chrysanthemums, which she is very proud of. Early in the story, Steinbeck uses little symbolic phrases to let the reader know that the chrysanthemums are an extension of Elisa. As the chrysanthemums express Elisa’s feminine side when her husband inhibits her, she needs to care for them as if they were her. The existence of the flowers mirrors her own existence. When Steinbeck writes about how Elisa cares for the chrysanthemums, he says “she turned the soil over and over, and smoothed it and patted it firm”.
It is assumed by the reader that Elisa is childless, however it is not by her choice. The way she cares for her flowers, is the way she would take care of her children, since they replace her non-existent kids. She sees the chrysanthemums as a replacement for not only children, but also for her womanhood. Elisa’s desire to grow and nurture the flowers is both inspiring and disturbing, as her unstable nature has much to do with her husband’s lack of understanding his wife. Her husband’s remark, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big”, shows how little of an interest he has for her chrysanthemums or herself.
This demonstrates how Elisa does not feel appreciated by her husband and therefore she takes care of her chrysanthemums, which are a symbol of how beautiful she really is. The reader can’t completely blame her husband for his more practical attitude, since he is just a farmer. While his views may be more productive, Elisa’s needs as a woman are squandered and her spirit would be crushed without her flowers. Her husband’s lack of seeing his wife as a sexual being also damages Elisa’s spirit and he sees her dressing up at the end of the day as disrespectful to his masculinity.
Her gardening area could be described as a cage against anything harmful. Knowing that her husband does not show interest in her chrysanthemums, gives Elisa the perception that he does not have interest in her. The flowers and Elisa have interchangeable meanings that are developed later on in the story. When her husband goes off with one of the cattle buyers, a mysterious man on a junky wagon approaches her. Although the man’s appearance is not superb, Elisa is interested in him. The reason being is that he shows interest in her chrysanthemums in order to persuade her to find something for him to fix.
When Elisa first talks with the salesman, it is clear that she is not really interested in him. She is willing to help him find his way, but is defensive when he offers to sharpen her scissors or fix her pots. This is important because there is a huge change in her attitude later on in the story. As Leroy Thomas points out, “it’s significant to observe that Elisa’s encounter with the tinker in the story reveals her to be a sexually frustrated woman who must gain stimulation from caring for chrysanthemums”. After speaking with her for awhile, the salesman starts to ask about her flowers.
When this happens “Elisa’s eyes grow alert and eager”. This is similar to the reaction of a sexually aroused woman. When Elisa removes her hat, it is meaningful in two ways. First, for such a proper woman as Elisa to take off her hat and shake out her hair, this is equivalent to some other women taking off their clothes. The act is a sign of comfort and seduction on Elisa’s part. Also, it is of her representative opening up her soul to the man while she discusses the flowers. Once again, the connection there is that he was interested in her flowers, meaning herself.
The man says, “Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke? ”…”That’s it. What a nice way to describe them. ” Elisa feels appreciated and attractive to this stranger after this comment. His compliment to her about her flowers leads her to feel obligated to allow him to fix her pots. After Elisa lets the tinker into the yard, she goes and gets a bright red flower pot. The fact that the pot is red is important here because red is a symbol of power and passion. At this point in the story, Elisa is starting to feel her own power.
She is understanding she can bring forth life in her flowers, even if she is not powerful in other aspects of her life. Also, since the encounter with the man is likened to a sexual experience, the red flower pot is significant of their passion for one another, while the pot is symbolic of herself and her feelings. When Elisa is digging up the flowers to put in the pot, Steinbeck comments that “The gloves were forgotten now”. This part of the story is when she is coming to the height of her experience with the salesman.
Digging in the dirt is raw and it makes her feel free. While she was being sexually frustrated Elisa in the beginning of the story, and covering her hands with gloves, now she has been liberated. After she explains about the how to care for the fragile blooms, she “stood up then, very straight, and her face was ashamed” because the tinker had mentioned for the second time not having money for food. The first time he mentioned it was before he came into the yard, and while she was still not interested in him.
At this point, however, she feels ashamed because she has gotten pleasure from him, and yet has not given anything in return. She does go into the shed, and produces two pots for him to fix, and pays him for the service. It is pointed out to the reader, however, that Elisa is perfectly capable of fixing the pots herself, and she is just trying to help him out. In their exchange, she gave him herself for a little bit of attention. Right after the stranger leaves, she is full of confidence in her womanhood and goes to do a complete makeover. After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. ” In this scene in which she transforms from gardener to a model, she goes through a revelation of thoughts. Her excitement from the stranger’s interest in her chrysanthemums, gives her the confidence to grow and blossom like her flower. “ When Henry returns from rounding up the steers, he is startled by her transformation, telling her that she looks “nice…different, strong and happy. Her appearance so discomposes him that he breaks into metaphor, telling her ‘you look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon. ’ “ (Hidgon) This must be utterly devastating to her, as she has just been denied her sensuality not only by the tinker, but also by the very person who should see and appreciate the sexuality within her. Elisa obviously goes on the offense and wonders why she just looks “nice. ” For the last critical scene of symbolism, Elisa sees her precious chrysanthemum on the ground, but without the pot it was given in.
With everything that happened between the man and Elisa, this could be explained by simply saying, she was used. “Like many women, she realizes her partner in coition wanted only her body symbolized by the pot; thus, the product of their ‘love’ is merely cast aside” (Thomas). This is very discouraging to Elisa, and she has to turn her head away when she passes the pot and carriage. After this, she mentions the fights again, and suggests that she and her husband do go. She is looking to drown her sorrows in the blood and sweat of the fighters.
However, when Henry sees this as strange, she is content to suggest wine with dinner, hoping the alcohol will help to heal her wounds. She was tricked into giving herself away to someone who showed an interest in her. Her flower symbolizes all this and it is used throughout this story. The last sentence of this story is “She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly – like an old woman. ” This means that she has lost her confidence and her self-esteem to keep her head high in the air. Elisa is living the life that no one should ever lead.
It is a life of emptiness, solitude and deep turmoil that will eventually plunge her into a never-ending nightmare. She is in a place where only she can make her life as she wants it to be. The flowers that provide her such stability is harming her too. When someone places such an attachment on something, they risk total destruction in doing so. Elisa can’t blame anyone for her misery; her husband is not the bad guy, and neither is the salesman. This is a source of love and worth that Elisa shouldn’t put into anything other than herself.
As long as Elisa continues to link her womanhood (and thus her sense of herself) with her flowers, then she will cause her own demise. In conclusion, the story “The Chrysanthemums” is filled with symbolism. It is a very deep story, and it makes one feel for Elisa and wish that she can have a better life in the future. Symbols such as the flower are used sporadically throughout this story and gives the reader many meanings on what to think the last sentence means. This is why symbols are an essential part of a great story, because it gives the reader more to think about.