John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”, is a story about a woman struggling with strong inner feelings of loneliness and isolation. Elisa Allen is initially portrayed as a woman who overcompensates and whose tasks are far exceeded by her abilities. She appears content with her life and adores tending to her garden. However, a tinker briefly enters her life and through his power of persuasion and manipulation provides Elisa with hopes of change and excitement. He gives her the much needed attention she is so desperately looking for.
As the story continues we learn that these hopes are crushed as we unravel the betrayal the tinker has bestowed upon Elisa. He exploits her and takes advantage of her hunger for company, aspirations, and vulnerabilities. We are left with sympathy for a woman who longs for another life, but will never possess it. Elisa’s inner feelings of loneliness are most apparent with the vivid descriptions of Elisa’s appearance, the portrayal of her working in her garden, the conversation she has with the tinker, and her dinner date with her husband.
When we first meet Elisa cultivating her beloved garden, she is introduced as possessing masculine like features, “her face was eager and mature and handsome” (Steinbeck 348). Steinbeck’s strong and somewhat masculine description of Elisa’s appearance is vastly different than that of a typical woman. While woman stand out and gain attention for their femininity, Elisa is hidden behind masculine like features, a huge apron, and a man’s hat. Thus, she isolates herself from the rest of society and fades into the background.
Still, Elisa appears content in the life she is living and cheerful with the hand she has been dealt. She happily and diligently tends to her beloved flowers, concentrating on the logistics of creating a beautiful garden. Although her movements were over exaggerated, “her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful” (Steinbeck 348). Her garden is her heart and soul. She exerts her feelings of loneliness and isolation onto her garden. Her blooms are the only thing in her life that is hers and depend solely on her to thrive.
We get our next glimpse into the struggles she is internally suffering when her house is introduced to us as “hard swept” (Steinbeck 348). Elisa extends her insecurities and sorrow onto over-compensating in tending to the house she shares with her husband. The exchange between Elisa and her husband is cold and uncompassionate as they discuss their plans for dinner and a movie. He stands outside the wire fence which serves as a wall between Elisa and the rest of society. As her husband leaves to herd their cattle she watches and swiftly returns to tending her garden.
As Elisa diligently cares for her garden she spots an unfamiliar wagon in the distance. She is approached by a tinker who repairs broken pots, pans, and various household supplies. He eagerly asks Elisa if there is anything he can repair. As she adamantly refuses she implies that she can repair her own pots and pans. She is stern in her refusals and allows us to learn that she desperately wants to be an equal and accepted. Elisa implies that she can repair her own pots and pans and eludes us to However, the tinker observes how loving she is with her flowers and uses that to his advantage.
He starts a conversation about her beloved chrysanthemums and implies that an acquaintance has been looking for these specific flowers. The tinker quickly gains Elisa’s trust, gives her hope, and plays on her vulnerabilities. She begins to get a restored sense of self and confidence, with her new found hope she quickly is depicted possessing more woman like features, “she tore off her battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair” (Steinbeck 350). Elisa finally felt as though she belonged, as if she had shed her lonely days and looked forward to enjoying a more meaningful life.
Her restored faith is exemplified when she allows the tinker to enter the gate that once isolated her from society. As the tinker leaves Elisa has a restored sense of hope, and no longer feels isolated and alone. For the first time Elisa applies all her energy into herself, “she put on her newest underclothing, nicest stockings, and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness” (Steinbeck 352). Instead of looking masculine and remaining isolated, Elisa looks ravishing and feminine. However, as Elisa and her husband travel to dinner she sees a “dark spot” and immediately feels ashamed.
The speck was her treasured chrysanthemums the tinker just threw out, like garbage. Elisa was mortified; by both the betrayal from the tinker and the overwhelming feeling that her life would remain stagnant, “she turned up her coat collar so he would not see she was crying weakly-like an old woman” (Steinbeck 353). Elisa once again hid behind her clothing and wept in complete isolation. Instead of sharing her feelings with her husband she kept them to herself and returned to struggling in silence. Steinbeck’s portrayal of Elisa Allen signifies the internal struggles of a housewife in the 1930’s.
Through the main character, Elisa, we get the feelings of empathy for a woman who desperately wants a more fulfilling and social life. A brief encounter with a tinker restores her hopes, but inevitably crushes them. She is left ashamed at the gullibility she possessed and how she allowed the tinker to take advantage of her weaknesses. Elisa is left, once again, to her isolated and lonely life; we can only assume she returned to asserting all her energy and inabilities onto her chrysanthemum garden. After all, the garden is all hers and will never leave nor hurt her.