The Chrysanthemums Theme Essay Sample

John Steinbeck awakens us to an interesting account of The Chrysanthemums, a story set in Salinas, California.
Steinbeck’s creativity and imagination take us through the tales and the atmosphere of his work. The Chrysanthemums, by the use of three primary characters, Henry Allen, his wife Elisa Allen and the Tinker allow the readers to follow-up on a fascinating family life set inside a cool and productive neighborhood.


This essay undertakes to examine John Steinbeck’s work The Chrysanthemums with close references to published literature and sources. The paper will examine the theme, and related elements like the plot, setting, point-of-view and symbols related to the main characters Henry Allen, Elisa and the Tinker.

The Chrysanthemums Analysis

The author sets his book in winter, Salinas, California. Here, the weather is chilly and the fog extends to cover the hillside. Looking at Henry’s house, we can appreciate its setting and its clean compound. What is more, on Henry’s foothill ranch, there is a pile of hay and the orchards are anxiously waiting for the rain (Steinbeck 19). The brief description of Henry’s neighborhood extends to find his wife in the flower garden. Elisa Allen is busy working on her flower garden adorned in a gardening outfit, a man’s hat and shoes. The masculine outfit is completed by gloves at hand and an apron covering her dress. As she works away on the Chrysanthemums, she keeps on stealing occasional glances at her husband who is talking with two stranger men at a distance.

The proceedings in John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums continue to capture the lengthened conversation between Henry and the two strangers. Shortly afterwards, the conversation is over and Henry approaches her wife Elisa who is busy working on the chrysanthemums. Eager to learn what the conversation was all about, Henry breaks the good news to her wife. The businessmen had come to discuss a deal with Henry. Henry states ‘’the men were from the Western Meat Company and had just bought thirty steers for a modest sum’’ (Steinbeck, 27). Henry is surprised and proposes to Elisa a celebration night out. However, before they leave, the tinker (a man who repairs pans and pots) enters. His entry is met with the sniffing of the dog.

The Chrysanthemums Theme

The Chrysanthemums succeeds to project the feelings of women to strong men. The conversation between Elisa and Tinker allows the readers to see the nature of attraction inherent to Elisa. Indeed, he states, ‘’Elisa is charmed when the tinker says he likes following good weather.’’ More specifically, this is so and especially when Tinker expresses his interest to the chrysanthemums which look explicit and blossom. From the novel, The Chrysanthemumstheme of women and femininity is well displayed and especially when you look at the behavior associated with Henry’s wife. Her hardworking nature and charisma to work in the garden reflect the nature of chores associated with females. What is more, the attraction displayed by Elisa to Tinker in their conversation projects how easy women are lured into romance and affection.

Relationships and family life is another primary theme of The Chrysanthemums that John Updike projects in his work. From the start to the finish, we appreciate Elisa is lonely and isolated, although beautiful. The author allows us to embark into family life and how women are rendered into solitude, both emotionally and sexually. What is more, he artistically and creatively criticizes this solitude because of Elisa’s attraction to another man other than Henry. This is a clear indication that marriages easily collapse due to lack of company by married couples. Elisa is disinterested as seen in her response to proposals made by her husband. The author states, ‘’Henry emerges and recommends Elisa’s nice, lovely and strong looks. However, Elisa inquires what he meant by strong’’ (Steinbeck 15). The conversation displays the bridge that exists between the two.

The Chrysanthemums Summary: Plot and Setting

The plot of The Chrysanthemums reflects a productive and striving location. The fact that Elisa and her husband practice farming and manage to sell thirty steers to the meat company is a clear indication of a prosperous geographic setting. The plot of the story successfully depicts the conventional family life. Although Elisa is a beautiful and young woman, ‘’Elisa Allen is a 35-year old woman who lives with her husband,’’ (Steinbeck 28) she doesn’t have a child. The above quotation means that the author awakens the readers to the realities surrounding family life. The plot of the story continues to capture Elisa’s attraction and affection to men. Indeed, Steinbeck notes, ‘’Elisa says that the stars are hot and lovely – and at night they are driven into your body’’ (Steinbeck 31). The message driven by Elisa, although symbolic, reflects love and affection to Tinker. What is more, the fact that Elisa compares herself to the pot and pan repairer means that she appreciates his work and respects him. ‘’I wish women would live the life you do. Elisa watches the Tinker’s wagon drive away and she whispers to herself’’ (Steinbeck 39).

The Chrysanthemums Symbolism

The primary symbols used in the story The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck are the Salinas valley and the chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums represent Elisa and the unsatisfied life she is living. The characters of the chrysanthemums are healthy, thriving and lovely which is an accurate representation of Elisa. We see how she keeps the flowerbeds clean and the house very tidy and orderly. The Tinker’s notice of the chrysanthemums brightens her as if she were the one noticed. This makes her offer both herself and the chrysanthemums to him, but he tosses them both aside and completely ignores them. Tinker’s rejection of the chrysanthemums is an accurate reflection of how society has rejected the women society as mere housekeepers and gardeners. Just like Elisa, the flowers are of little importance and unobjectionable as they are only meant for decorations and add no value to the busy world of men (Tamy 18).

The Salinas valley is a symbol of the emotional state of Elisa. The story starts describing the valley with the writer likening it to the pot with a fog lid. The description of the valley as a pot closed shows that Elisa is trapped in a world where she feels tired and exhausted to be in. The valley does not receive sunshine at all, despite it being nearby.

Sunshine is a symbol of happiness and this shows that Elisa lives and associates with happy people like Henry and Tinker but she is not. The description of the December weather being chilly, and no hope of brightening describe how Elisa feels. She is compared to a fallow field that is reticent yet it can grow if given space (Tamy 21).

Tinker’s dog, he is with, when he meets Elisha, is an accurate reflection of his character. The dog describes him as mysterious, unknown and even a dangerous individual. His rough appearance and flirtatious character make Elisa get attracted to him. He laughs in a cunning way, which may be because he wants Elisa to give him a job; he senses the emotional attraction between them or he is merely amused. It is very difficult to understand this man, which may be one of the rationales why Elisa got attracted to him in the first place. In addition, he takes advantage of the attraction, which in the end he is proved to be a senseless, uncaring, and unemotional man when he throws away the chrysanthemums Elisa gives him.

When Tinker was leaving, drawn in her emotions, Elisa mentions, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there”. This clearly shows us that Elisa is attracted to the man, both physical and his lifestyle. He goes wherever he wants, sleeps under the moon and the star and is answerable to nobody; the lifestyle Elisa admires the most. She is tempted to beg a man to go with him, promising him her best. Apart from making love together, she needs to share in his adventures that she likes the most. However, he turns her down with a vague answer of his life being boring and lonely for a woman like Elisa. The closing of her eyes halfway shows us that she is envisaging what it would be like to live in the sphere of the Tinker (Tamy 12).


John Steinbeck makes a fascinating account by revealing the tales behind family and conventional life. By setting his work in a wet neighborhood, he manages to project the core principles and daily activities surrounding the society in highland settings. What is more, the inclusion of three characters each with a strong set of skills and different characteristics allow the story to bring the readers to reality. John Steinbeck tailors his work articulately creating imagery where necessary and making a classic transition in the use of voices and narration. The above observations and points of views surmise the analysis adding knowledge and insight into John Steinbeck’s work The Chrysanthemums.

Works Cited

Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums and Other Stories. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums: A Story. Concord, N.H: Harper & Bros, 1937. Print.

Tami, Budney. “The Chrysanthemums“. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. Print.

NOTE! The following paper is just an example written by one of our staff writers. If you need an original summary of The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck feel free to order below.

The story's major theme is about gender roles and the oppression of women. Trapped in her role as "wife", "gardener", and "housekeeper", Elisa longs to have more agency, but can only watch from a distance as her husband negotiates business deals, and ask for small favors like wine at dinner. When she expresses interest in the itinerant, free life of the tinker, it is immediately dismissed as not "the right kind of life for a woman" (344). Despite her robust energy and cleverness, Elisa is confined to only those activities that are availble to her as dictated by her gender. Although she is a capable gardener, she is forced to limit her skills to chrysanthemums; her husband will not consider allowing her to participate in the farm's actual harvest. Elisa's frustration at her lot in life is expressed throughout the story - in her "over-powerful" gardening energy, as well as her tears at the story's end. 

The tinker's arrival and apparent interest in her chrysanthemums awakens a true sexual need in Elisa - by the end of her conversation with the tinker, she can barely restrain herself from touching him, even though he is a complete stranger. This says less about the tinker's magnetism than it does about Elisa's apparent sexual frustration. With the slightest of provocations, she proves anxious for sexual and physical fulfillment, indicating that this need is not being met at home. Elisa's sexual frustration only adds to her overall frustration with life, and her eagerness to study her naked body and dress as attractively as possible demonstrates that this need will continue to express itself in her until it's met. 

The story is set in the winter, a time of "quiet and of waiting" (337) in the agricultural region of the Salinas Valley. Although Elisa and Henry live on a farm, the farm is in a period of dormancy until the seasons turn and the crops can grow again. In this same way, although Elisa is hard at work on her chrysanthemums during the story, they are not in bloom, nor will they bloom until the following fall. 

Many critics have argued that this idea of "renewal" is applicable to Elisa herself - although she is frustrated and "blocked" (338) at the story's beginning, the tinker's visit begins a process of renewal wherein she will bloom again as a stronger version of herself. Although the reader doesn't get to experience the chrysanthemums blooming during the story itself, he can be confident that they will bloom after the story's end - so too can he be confident that Elisa will emerge as a more fulfilled, secure person after her transformative encounter with the tinker.  

Just as the story compares and contrasts women and men, so too does it contrast technology and nature, specifically in the way it aligns Elisa with nature and the men who surround her with technology. At the start of the story, Elisa is gardening; her husband, Henry, stands by his tractor and negotiates a business deal. Later, he drives cattle, then drives her into town in their car. Later, Elisa describes her gift with things because of her "planters hands" - this is in direct contrast to the mechanical world of the tinker and the machine-driven world of her husband Henry. Although the the cars, tractors, and technology of Henry's world appear to dominate the world of the story (especially because it is winter, and nothing is growing), Elisa's "natural" world still has the potential to reemerge as the seasons change. In this same way, Elisa too may find more of her own voice and continue her struggle for agency. 

Physically and emotionally, Elisa is isolated. She lives on a farm far from town, and is unable to socialize with others except when they visit her, or when her husband drives her around. In the same way, she is a victim of emotional isolation - it is clear throughout the story that her private, inner life is not one her husband could understand, even if she were to give him access to it. As it is, she keeps her feelings of loneliness and frustration to herself, and interacts with her husband (her closest, if only, relationship) politely and civilly, on a surface level but no deeper. The reader has access to a glimpse of Elisa's emotional isolation by the description of her private act of bathing and studying her body, or whispering to herself as she watches the tinker go, but even the reader is kept apart from Elisa's actual inner thoughts: Steinbeck narrates discretely, forcing the reader to intuit Elisa's loneliness and frustration from her tears and actions, rather than a straightforward description of her feelings. 

Although the characters of the story engage with each other in conversation continuously, there is a politeness to their interactions that prohibits any kind of true honesty. Elisa is polite and supportive of Henry without telling him her true feelings of resentment and frustration. The tinker is polite, even flattering, to Elisa, without being honest about his true intentions: he just wants her money, and is deceiving her with the polite request to bring chrysanthemums to the "woman down the road."

Elisa, on the other hand, attempts a few moments of true honesty with both the tinker and her husband, none of which is received well. First, she attempts to honestly communicate with the tinker about her passionate connection to gardening or transcendent experiences with nature ("Every pointed star gets driven into your body" (344)), but he essentially ignores her, forcing her politeness back into the conversation with his comment about being hungry. Later, Elisa provokes her husband when he politely compliments her appearance ("What do you mean by 'nice'?" (346)), but he blunders in response, completely caught off guard by this moment of honesty. Steinbeck seems to be suggesting that honesty and politeness are at least mostly mutually exclusive, and that for one to exist, the other must be tampered down. 

At the story's beginning, Elisa wears heavy, burdensome gardening clothes. She works confined within the fence of her flower garden with so much energy that she is described as "over-eager, over-powerful" (338). She is fully constrained: by her clothes, by the fence of her flower garden, and by the dictums of her gender. 

As the story goes on, she experiments with unleashing her inhibitions: the passion of describing her transcendent connection with nature almost causes her to let down her boundaries and reach out to touch the tinker, but at the last moment her inhibitions win out and she restrains herself. Later, though, there are some signs that she has loosened up these restraints: she studies her naked body with a boldess that seems to defy her inhibitions, and then, although she doesn't let her husband see, she cries in the car, letting out emotions that she hasn't yet expelled. 

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