“The Chrysanthemums” is an understated but pointed critique of a society that has no place for intelligent women. Elisa is smart, energetic, attractive, and ambitious, but all these attributes go to waste. Although the two key men in the story are less interesting and talented than she, their lives are far more fulfilling and busy. Henry is not as intelligent as Elisa, but it is he who runs the ranch, supports himself and his wife, and makes business deals. All Elisa can do is watch him from afar as he performs his job. Whatever information she gets about the management of the ranch comes indirectly from Henry, who speaks only in vague, condescending terms instead of treating his wife as an equal partner. The tinker seems cleverer than Henry but doesn’t have Elisa’s spirit, passion, or thirst for adventure. According to Elisa, he may not even match her skill as a tinker. Nevertheless, it is he who gets to ride about the country, living an adventurous life that he believes is unfit for women. Steinbeck uses Henry and the tinker as stand-ins for the paternalism of patriarchal societies in general: just as they ignore women’s potential, so too does society.
Steinbeck argues that the need for sexual fulfillment is incredibly powerful and that the pursuit of it can cause people to act in irrational ways. Elisa and Henry have a functional but passionless marriage and seem to treat each other more as siblings or friends than spouses. Elisa is a robust woman associated with fertility and sexuality but has no children, hinting at the nonsexual nature of her relationship with Henry. Despite the fact that her marriage doesn’t meet her needs, Elisa remains a sexual person, a quality that Steinbeck portrays as normal and desirable. As a result of her frustrated desires, Elisa’s attraction to the tinker is frighteningly powerful and uncontrollable. When she speaks to him about looking at the stars at night, for example, her language is forward, nearly pornographic. She kneels before him in a posture of sexual submission, reaching out toward him and looking, as the narrator puts it, “like a fawning dog.” In essence, she puts herself at the mercy of a complete stranger. The aftermath of Elisa’s powerful attraction is perhaps even more damaging than the attraction itself. Her sexuality, forced to lie dormant for so long, overwhelms her and crushes her spirit after springing to life so suddenly.
Elisa’s clothing changes as her muted, masculine persona becomes more feminine after the visit from the tinker. When the story begins, Elisa is wearing an androgynous gardening outfit, complete with heavy shoes, thick gloves, a man’s hat, and an apron filled with sharp, phallic implements. The narrator even describes her body as “blocked and heavy.” The masculinity of Elisa’s clothing and shape reflects her asexual existence. After speaking with the tinker, however, Elisa begins to feel intellectually and physically stimulated, a change that is reflected in the removal of her gloves. She also removes her hat, showing her lovely hair. When the tinker leaves, Elisa undergoes an almost ritualistic transformation. She strips, bathes herself, examines her naked body in the mirror, and then dresses. She chooses to don fancy undergarments, a pretty dress, and makeup. These feminine items contrast sharply with her bulky gardening clothes and reflect the newly energized and sexualized Elisa. At the end of the story, after Elisa has seen the castoff shoots, she pulls up her coat collar to hide her tears, a gesture that suggests a move backward into the repressed state in which she has lived most, if not all, of her adult life.
The chrysanthemums symbolize both Elisa and the limited scope of her life. Like Elisa, the chrysanthemums are lovely, strong, and thriving. Their flowerbed, like Elisa’s house, is tidy and scrupulously ordered. Elisa explicitly identifies herself with the flowers, even saying that she becomes one with the plants when she tends to them. When the tinker notices the chrysanthemums, Elisa visibly brightens, just as if he had noticed her instead. She offers the chrysanthemums to him at the same time she offers herself, both of which he ignores and tosses aside. His rejection of the flowers also mimics the way society has rejected women as nothing more than mothers and housekeepers. Just like her, the flowers are unobjectionable and also unimportant: both are merely decorative and add little value to the world.
The Salinas Valley symbolizes Elisa’s emotional life. The story opens with a lengthy description of the valley, which Steinbeck likens to a pot topped with a lid made of fog. The metaphor of the valley as a “closed pot” suggests that Elisa is trapped inside an airless world and that her existence has reached a boiling point. We also learn that although there is sunshine nearby, no light penetrates the valley. Sunshine is often associated with happiness, and the implication is that while people near her are happy, Elisa is not. It is December, and the prevailing atmosphere in the valley is chilly and watchful but not yet devoid of hope. This description of the weather and the general spirits of the inhabitants of the valley applies equally well to Elisa, who is like a fallow field: quiet but not beaten down or unable to grow. What first seems to be a lyrical description of a valley in California is revealed to be a rich symbol of Elisa’s claustrophobic, unhappy, yet hopeful inner life.