The garden symbolism in Steinbeck’s ‘the Chrysanthemums’ Short Story

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            Fiction, like poetry is often posed with the challenge of conveying, not only the story to the readers, but most especially the emotions of the writer; such is achieved by expert used of the various elements of fiction.  One of the elements that is effective in conveying emotions is symbolism.  Symbolism is used in a story or a piece of fiction to express subliminal messages or emotions.  In other words, it is used to convey emotions that are not directly referred to in the text of the story.  In John Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums’ symbolism is used to convey the theme of dissatisfaction and express the implicit emotions of Elisa, the protagonist in the story.

            Steinbeck’s tale begins with Elisa working on her flower garden which contains a crop of Chrysanthemums.  Later, Eliza is visited by a travelling handyman who insists that he be allowed to fix the damaged pots and pans of Eliza for a fee.  Naturally, because Eliza considers the handyman a stranger she initially refuses the offer but later, as they begin to have more intimate conversations with the chrysanthemums as the backdrop the unlikely pair develops a liking for each other which is discreetly referred to in the symbols.  When the handyman leaves, Eliza is left with more thoughts of insufficiency about her married life which is again, implicitly suggested.

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            “The Chrysanthemums” leads one to “to reexamine not only one’s interpretation of Elisa and women but also the process of interpretation itself.”(George, 2005)  This basically means that the story is told in various layers of meaning which are due wholly to the use of symbolism to convey the theme of dissatisfaction and domestic insufficiency.  For instance, early in the story, one has the lines, “”Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”” (Steinbeck, 1938) which is the comment given by Eliza’s husband to her tending to her flower garden.  In this line one sees that the husband expresses his discontent for what his wife is doing.  The line serves a symbol that reveals a contrast in the flower garden, which is suggested to be useless, and the apple orchard which will produce fruit as opposed to flowers that are not as useful as flowers; in these lines one finds the implied discontent of Eliza’s husband for what she is doing.  Other than this, because Eliza continues to tend her flowers, she also expresses an unspoken reaction to how her husband felt, in the lines, “Her eyes sharpened.”Maybe I could do it, too.” (Steinbeck, 1938)  Here one sees how Eliza does not fully submit to her husband’s and shows how she feels distastefully for the comment.  She uses the word ‘maybe’ to refer to her planned course of action to the request of her husband to show that she is not a hundred percent sold out with the idea.  Other than this, the garden here is also used as a symbol to represent the differences between the couple; while one is happy with flowers, the other is not; as well as the projection of Eliza of her husband’s insufficiency on something that makes her happy.   This symbolism is further deepened when Eliza describes the scent of the flowers in the line, “”It’s a good bitter smell,” she retorted, “not nasty at all.”” (Steinbeck, 1938)  Here, she expresses how she contends with something that is actually unpleasant, but because she has no other choice she is left to just accept what she has; hence the use of the phrase, ‘good bitter’, quite like bitter-sweet.  Here Eliza makes a discreet reference to her married life.

            Steinbeck also uses symbolism to reveal the emotions of the protagonist in his story.  “The objective style insures the ambiguity of Elisa’s character and helps to make ‘The Chrysanthemums’ one of Steinbeck’s finest short stories.” (George, 2005)  In effect, the apparent indifference of Elisa when describing the flowers in her garden reveal so much of how she feels, not only towards her husband but also toward the travelling handyman whom he had spoken to while tending her garden.  Elisa’s dissatisfaction over her married life is symbolically suggested in the lines, “”Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It’s when you’re picking off the buds you don’t want. “” (Steinbeck, 1938) Elisa reveals in these lines, through the buds as symbolism, that there are elements in her life that she would much rather pick off and throw away.  The act of picking off the undesirable buds could be likened to being critical about one’s life and selecting only the elements or aspects that are bound to give one happiness.  So like her life, the flowers are not all beautiful and useful because some have to be picked off of the lot otherwise all of it goes bad.  Obviously, while there is no direct reference here to her own life, the contemplative approach of Elisa to this particular line suggests that although she is talking about the flowers she is actually referring to something else.  The symbolism deepens when Elisa begins to talk more about how to cultivate the flowers, in the story she says, ““You can feel it. When you’re like that you can’t do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that?”” (Steinbeck, 1938)  In the way that these lines are delivered in the story Elisa, while referring to planter’s hands, actually offers a glimpse into her own regret for being with her husband.  By saying that nothing can go wrong Elisa implicitly suggest that something in fact went wrong.  So, one sees in these lines that the garden and the flower symbolism is given an additional layer as she speaks about the process of gardening and how the gardener’s hands can in fact determine how the garden will turn out in the end.  In addition, this line also shows Elisa’s admission of the act that had put her in this state by seemingly trying to justify the act by verbalizing her expertise in tending the flower garden.  In these lines Steinbeck effectively goes deeper into the psyche of the protagonist and presents this as an open book to the reader, however, the use of symbols allows other layers of interpretation other than just the interpretation that is obvious in the story.  So, what this does is it creates another facet in the story itself, which, at first reading, is just a plain conversation between a stranger and a garden tender.  The garden is used as an effective backdrop for other symbols to emerge in the story and for the audience to read more meanings mostly into the dialogue as well as the garden imagery.

            “Steinbeck often spoke of his works as having several layers of meaning and he carefully suggested those layers through patterns of implication.” (Steinbeck and Timmerman, 1995)  This meant that while most of Steinbeck’s stories were mum and quite contemplative, reading through these stories would allow one to critically analyze how the author used symbols to present a whole new reading dimension of his pieces.  In “The Chrysanthemums’ Steinbeck achieves his objective of using symbols as a tool to convey the theme of the story to the audience very discreetly as well as make the character of Eliza more accessible to readers by allowing the audience access into her deepest emotions.  Steinbeck achieves this not only by using symbols as representations but as gateways into deeper domains which are not directly stated in the tale.


George, S. (2005). The moral philosophy of John Steinbeck (6th Ed.). New York: Scarecrow Press. Retrieved May 15, 2010, from

Hunt, D. (2002). The Dolphin Reader (6th Ed.). New York: Wadsworth Publishing – Houghton Mifflin Company.

Steinbeck, J. (2002). The Chrysanthemums (6th Ed.). In D. Hunt (Ed.), The Dolphin Reader. New York: Wadsworth Publishing – Houghton Mifflin Company.

Steinbeck, J., & Timmerman, J. (1995). The Long Valley (Reprint Ed. ). New York: Penguin Classics. Retrieved May 15, 2010, from


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