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“The Chrysanthemums” is narrated in a restrained, almost removed way that can make interpreting the story difficult. While the narrator gives us clues as to how to understand the various events that occur, he rarely identifies a single correct interpretation. For example, when Henry compliments Elisa’s strength, her moody reaction may be understood in several ways: perhaps she is wishing Henry had the tinker’s cleverness; perhaps she longs for him to call her beautiful; or perhaps it is some combination of feelings. All these readings are equally plausible, and the narrator never points to any single reading as the correct one. Elisa’s reaction to Henry’s compliment is one example of many, and throughout the story the narrator holds himself removed from small moments and important incidents alike, inviting us to do the interpretive work.
Although the narrator’s refusal to provide one interpretation may make reading more difficult for us, it is also a useful way of capturing the multifaceted, rich emotions Elisa feels. Steinbeck doesn’t mean to puzzle or frustrate his readers by obscuring Elisa’s inner sentiments. Rather, he wants to suggest that no single interpretation can exist because people feel a mix of emotions at any single moment. If it is unclear whether, for example, the discarded chrysanthemum shoots make Elisa feel sad, furious, or unloved, that’s likely because she feels all of those things simultaneously. Moreover, the difficulty of interpretation is part of Steinbeck’s point. By forcing us to observe Elisa closely and draw our own conclusions about her behavior, Steinbeck puts us in the position of Henry or any other person in Elisa’s life who tries and fails to understand her fully. Indeed, even Elisa herself seems to have difficulty interpreting her own behavior and has a hard time separating the strands of her own emotions or understanding why she feels the way she does.