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The Chrysanthemums: Summary & Setting

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might've read some of John Steinbeck's novels, but did you know you could visit many of the same places in his short stories? Read on to take a trip to the Salinas Valley while learning about the plot and setting of Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums.'

'The Chrysanthemums': Synopsis

When many of us think about California, we probably imagine lots of warm, sunny days, but it gets cold in the Golden State, too. In Steinbeck's short story, 'The Chrysanthemums,' winter has come to the Salinas Valley, bringing with it the sun-blocking 'grey-flannel fog' characteristic of the season in that area. Nevertheless, some of the area's ranchers, including Henry Allen, are still able to do some business, even in December when most farm activities have completely stopped.

Henry, who's negotiating the sale of thirty head of cattle, isn't the only one occupied on the ranch. Elisa Allen, his wife and the primary focus of the story, observes the haggling before returning to her own project: tending the chrysanthemums in her garden. While she's dividing the new mum stems, Henry arrives with good news: he's sold the cattle. To celebrate, he proposes that the couple go into town for dinner and a movie.

While Henry's off with his ranch hand gathering the steers, Elisa's gardening work is interrupted by the sound of a covered wagon coming down the road. A sign crudely painted onto the wagon's canvas advertises maintenance and repair services for pots, knives, scissors, and other household utensils. When the unnamed tinker approaches, he first asks Elisa for directions to the main highway, having been turned around on his seasonal journey between Seattle and Los Angeles.

The tinker asks Elisa if she would like her gardening scissors sharpened or if she has any other articles that might need mending. After repeated offers, she becomes agitated and tells the tinker she has nothing for him to fix. However, their conversation quickly turns to Elisa's garden when he mentions a customer who's been looking for chrysanthemum starters.

Caught up in the tinker's interest in her flowers and the way he makes her feel, Elisa almost reaches out to touch his legs as she busily prepares a pot of chrysanthemum stems for his customer. She eagerly goes through all the steps of proper planting and care of the new plants, while the tinker, hungry and eager for work, asks once more if Elisa has anything for him to fix. Ashamed of her unintended advance, she hurries into the house to find something for him to do.

Elisa returns with two battered old pans, which the tinker quickly fixes for fifty cents. After he leaves, Elisa bathes and dresses for her evening on the town; Henry returns shortly thereafter and does the same. On their way to town, Elisa spots the tinker's wagon and notices that he's thrown out the chrysanthemum stems but kept the pot. As the story ends and the couple continue driving, Elisa pulls up her collar to hide the fact that she's crying.

The Setting: 'Steinbeck Country'

Steinbeck published 'The Chrysanthemums' in 1938 as part of his collection, The Long Valley, a term often used in reference to the area drained by the Salinas River. The Salinas Valley is a farmer's paradise. Its rich, dark soil and location in central California, south of San Francisco, but north of L.A., make it a perfect environment for agricultural activity, even in the dead of winter.

The fertile rolling hills of the Salinas Valley in central California
Photo of the Salinas Valley

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