Short Story Analysis
"The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck
“The Chrysanthemums” tells the story of a woman named Elisa, Henry, and a man in a caravan. Elisa is a strong, independent woman with a lot of ambition. However, this story takes place in 1938--a time when women were not thought of as equals. Elisa spends most of her days tending to her chrysanthemum garden. Her husband, Henry, does hard labor on the farm. One day, while in the garden, a man in a caravan drives up to her little farmhouse. The side of the caravan reads “Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.” Elisa meets this mysterious man who claims to travel the highway for business. She is excited by him and longs to live a life like his. Her husband would never approve though, which is why at the end of the story she rides to dinner with Henry, quietly wiping away at her tears.
Analysis of Theme
Elisa and Henry are two very different people leading very different lives. The two live together as husband and wife, but their marriage is lacking emotion. Elisa, being strong and ambitious, is a bit of a dreamer. This kind of woman was not socially accepted in 1938. Women were often underestimated, leaving them to feel worthless and undignified. This story carries a major theme of limitations and opportunity. For example, when Elisa meets the man in a caravan she is excited by the change in routine. She rarely was presented with the opportunity to meet someone new while living on the farm. The man was adventurous and quite a change from Henry. The two had a stimulating conversation that left Elisa feeling aroused.
After this interaction, Elisa's confidence was boosted tremendously. She felt overwhelmingly fierce and intelligent. As she was talking to Henry that evening, he was taken aback by her sudden boost of confidence. It was out of character for a woman to feel that way-- especially around a man. He exclaimed, "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon" (Steinbeck). As they rode to dinner they passed the chrysanthemums that she had given to the man. He had thrown them out on the side of the road. This symbolized Elisa's dreams and wishes being thrown out all because she was a woman ("The Chrysanthemums").
Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums." Harvard. 1938. PDF file.
"The Chrysanthemums." Short Stories for Students. Ed. Kathleen Wilson. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 59-82. Print.