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The Chrysanthemums

John Steinbeck

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

It is winter in Salinas Valley, California. The sun is not shining, and fog covers the valley. On Henry Allen’s foothill ranch, the hay cutting and storing has been finished, and the orchards are waiting for rain. Elisa Allen, Henry’s wife, is working in her flower garden and sees her husband speaking with two cigarette-smoking strangers. Elisa is thirty-five years old, attractive and clear-eyed, although at the moment she is clad in a masculine gardening outfit with men’s shoes and a man’s hat. Her apron covers her dress, and gloves cover her hands. As she works away at her chrysanthemums, she steals occasional glances at the strange men. Her house, which stands nearby, is very clean.

The strangers get into their Ford coupe and leave. Elisa looks down at the stems of her flowers, which she has kept entirely free of pests. Henry appears and praises her work. Elisa seems pleased and proud. Henry says he wishes she would turn her talents to the orchard. She responds eagerly to this suggestion, but it seems he was only joking. When she asks, he tells her that the men were from the Western Meat Company and bought thirty of his steers for a good price. He suggests they go to the town of Salinas for dinner and a movie to celebrate. He teases her, asking whether she’d like to see the fights, and she says she wouldn’t.

Henry leaves, and Elisa turns her attention back to her chrysanthemums. A wagon with a canvas top driven by a large bearded man appears on the road in the distance. A misspelled sign advertises the man’s services as a tinker who repairs pots and pans. The wagon turns into Elisa’s yard. Her dogs and the man’s dog sniff each other, and the tinker makes a joke about the ferocity of his animal. When he gets out of the wagon, Elisa sees that he is big and not very old. He wears a ragged, dirty suit, and his hands are rough. They continue to make small talk, and Elisa is charmed when the tinker says he simply follows good weather. He asks whether she has any work for him, and when she repeatedly says no, he whines, saying he hasn’t had any business and is hungry. Then he asks about Elisa’s chrysanthemums, and her annoyance vanishes. They discuss the flowers, and the tinker says that he has a customer who wants to raise chrysanthemums. Excited, Elisa says he can take her some shoots in a pot filled with damp sand. She takes off her hat and gloves and fills a red pot with soil and the shoots.

Elisa gives the tinker instructions to pass along to the woman. She explains that the most care is needed when the budding begins. She claims to have planting hands and can feel the flowers as if she’s one with them. She speaks from a kneeling position, growing impassioned. The tinker says he might know what she means, and Elisa interrupts him to talk about the stars, which at night are “driven into your body” and are “hot and sharp and—lovely.” She reaches out to touch his pant leg, but stops before she does. He says such things are not as nice if you haven’t eaten. Sobered, Elisa finds two pans for him to fix.

As the tinker works, she asks him if he sleeps in the wagon. She says she wishes women could live the kind of life he does. He says it wouldn’t be suitable, and she asks how he knows. After paying him fifty cents, she says that she can do the same work he does. He says his life would be lonesome and frightening for a woman. Before he leaves, she reminds him to keep the sand around the chrysanthemums damp. For a moment, he seems to forget that she gave him the flowers. Elisa watches the wagon trundle away, whispering to herself.

She goes into the house and bathes, scrubbing her skin with pumice until it hurts. Then she examines her naked body in the mirror, pulling in her stomach and pushing out her chest, then observing her back. She dresses in new underwear and a dress and does her hair and makeup. Henry comes home and takes a bath. Elisa sets out his clothes and then goes to sit on the porch. When Henry emerges, he says that she looks nice, sounding surprised. She asks him what he means, and he says she looks “different, strong and happy.” She asks what he means by strong. Confused, he says that she’s playing a game and then explains that she looks like she could break a calf and eat it. Elisa loses her composure for a moment and then agrees with him.

As they drive along the road toward Salinas, Elisa sees a dark spot up ahead and can’t stop herself from looking at it, sure that it’s a pile of discarded chrysanthemum shoots that the tinker has thrown away. Elisa thinks that he could have at least disposed of them off the road, and then realizes he had to keep the pot. They pass the tinker’s wagon, and Elisa doesn’t look. She says she is looking forward to dinner. Henry says she is different again, but then says kindly that he should take her out more often. She asks whether they can have wine at dinner, and he says yes. Elisa says she has read that at the fights the men beat each other until their boxing gloves are soaked with blood. She asks whether women go to the fights, and Henry says that some do and that he’ll take her to one if she’d like to go. She declines and pulls her coat collar over her face so that Henry can’t see her crying.

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