The Chrysanthemums: Themes, Symbolism & Analysis

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  • 0:02 'The Chrysanthemums'
  • 1:08 Sexual Repression &…
  • 2:17 Symbols & Elisa's Mannishness
  • 4:00 Winter as a Symbol
  • 4:44 Chrysanthemums as a Symbol
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

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

Many men of the modern era prefer strong women who know and seek what they want, but that hasn't always been the case. Learn about one strong woman's struggle for fulfillment in this lesson analyzing the themes and symbols in 'The Chrysanthemums.'

'The Chrysanthemums'

As we reflect on our lives, some of us might experience disappointment at not achieving the goals we've set for ourselves, which can leave us feeling incomplete and unfulfilled. These are feelings to which Elisa Allen, the protagonist of John Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums', can certainly relate.

Her husband, Henry, has the ranch to give him a sense of accomplishment; however, Elisa has only her flower garden. At the beginning of the short story, we find her tending to new chrysanthemum stems while Henry goes off to round up cattle for a sale the two are about to celebrate in town later. It's during his absence that Elisa gets an unexpected visitor.

While Elisa is gardening, an old wagon comes noisily down the road bearing an unnamed tinker. He's looking for work mending pots, knives, or other household utensils. Elisa gets frustrated when the tinker won't stop asking for things to mend, but his subsequent interest in her flowers reveals just how frustrated she really is.

Sexual Repression & Wasted Womanhood

Perhaps the most prevalent theme in 'The Chrysanthemums' is one of feminine sexual repression. When the tinker takes interest in the mum starters and tells Elisa that he has another customer who's been looking for some for her own garden, she can't help but get a little carried away. Of course, Elisa loves her garden, but it's not only the flowers that have her excited, but also the interest shown toward her by a man.

While transplanting the stems in a pot for the tinker, Elisa almost touches his legs, but quickly recoils in shame. She also spends a good amount of time talking to him about the proper care of the plants, as though the flowers themselves were women in need of attention.

After the tinker repairs a couple battered pans for Elisa, he leaves with the mums. Finished with their chores, Elisa and Henry return home to wash up and get ready for their night on the town. On their way there, Elisa spots the tinker. As the story ends, she notices that he's thrown out the chrysanthemums but kept the pot - just one of the symbols of wasted womanhood in the story.

Symbols & Elisa's Mannishness

Throughout history, it's been difficult for some people to understand that women can be both feminine and strong. As recently as the 1930s, this difficulty was still very much at work in American culture, as well as in 'The Chrysanthemums.' The word 'strong' itself is used several times in the story to define both Elisa's physical appearance and personality traits, as well as her flowers. During the ride into town, Elisa describes herself as strong, while her husband remarks on how different she seems.

Let's take a look at how Elisa's main personality and physical characteristics, along with the mums, work as symbols in 'The Chrysanthemums.'

During the course of 'The Chrysanthemums,' we learn that Elisa has adopted various male characteristics. For example, the outfit she wears to garden is bulky and unrevealing and includes 'a man's black hat.' However, after the tinker expresses an interest in Elisa's flowers, 'she tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.'

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