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The Chrysanthemums

John Steinbeck

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Elisa Allen

Elisa Allen is an interesting, intelligent, and passionate woman who lives an unsatisfying, understimulated life. She’s thwarted or ignored at every turn: having a professional career is not an option for her, she has no children, her interest in the business side of the ranch goes unnoticed, her offers of helping her husband to ranch are treated with well-meant condescension, and her wish to see the world is shrugged off as an unfit desire for a woman to have. As a result, Elisa devotes all of her energy to maintaining her house and garden. The pride she takes in her housekeeping is both exaggerated and melancholy. Although she rightly brags about her green thumb, Elisa’s connection to nature seems forced and not something that comes as naturally as she claims. She knows a great deal about plants, most likely because as a woman, gardening is the only thing she has to think about.

Elisa is so frustrated with life that she readily looks to the tinker for stimulating conversation and even sex, two elements that seem to be lacking in her life. Her physical attraction to the tinker and her flirtatious, witty conversation with him bring out the best in Elisa, turning her into something of a poet. Her brief flashes of brilliance in the tinker’s presence show us how much she is always thinking and feeling and how rarely she gets to express herself. When the prospect of physical and mental fulfillment disappears with the tinker, Elisa’s devastation suggests how dissatisfied she is with her marriage. She’s so desperate to transcend the trap of being a woman that she seeks any escape, trying to banter with her husband, asking for wine with her dinner, and even expressing interest in the bloody fights that only men usually attend. None of these will truly satisfy Elisa, though, and it is doubtful that she’ll ever find fulfillment.

The Tinker

Elisa idealizes the visiting Tinker as exciting and smart, although it’s difficult to tell whether he is actually either of these things. Although his misspelled advertisement for kitchen implement repair indicates that he hasn’t had much schooling, the tinker comes across as a witty man who flirts and banters with Elisa. He is also clever and canny enough to convince the skeptical Elisa to give him work, begging at first and finally resorting to flattery. His ability to manipulate her may appeal to Elisa, who is used to manipulating her own husband. In fact, she seems to relish the chance to spar with a worthy partner, and the tinker produces an intense reaction in her. If we can trust her interpretation of him, he shares her appreciation for travel and her interest in a physical connection. However, Steinbeck suggests that although the tinker may actually possess these qualities, it is also possible that Elisa merely imagines that he possesses them because she’s so desperate to talk to someone who understands her. In fact, the tinker may be bewildered and embarrassed by her intensity and want only to sell his services to her. The fact that he tosses away her chrysanthemum shoots—a symbol of Elisa herself—supports the idea that the tinker does not share Elisa’s passions at all.

Henry Allen

Elisa’s husband, Henry, is a good, solid man who’s unable to please his wife. By the standards of his society, Henry is everything a woman should want in a husband: he provides for her, treats her with respect, and even takes her out every now and then. At the same time, however, Henry is also stolid and unimaginative. He praises his wife as he would a small child, without understanding the genuine interest she takes in business or realizing that she has the potential to do so much more with her life. A traditional man, Henry functions in the story as a stand-in for patriarchal society as a whole. He believes that a strict line separates the sexes, that women like dinner and movies, for example, and that men like fights and ranching. His benevolent, sometimes dismissive attitude toward his wife—who is undoubtedly smarter— highlights society’s inability to treat women as equals.