The Chrysanthemums

by: John Steinbeck

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols

Chrysanthemums

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

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.