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In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” nature represents Elisa Allen’s confinement, the chrysanthemums symbolizes Elisa herself, and the tinker embodies Elisa’s wants. The narrator compares the Salinas Valley to “a closed pot” because “[a] high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the [valley] from the sky and from all the rest of the world… [and] it sat like a lid on the mountains” (350). This imagery mirrors Elisa because she feels trapped and deprived as seen with her husband and the tinker. The narrator also mentions that “the foothill ranches across the Salinas River… bathed in… sunshine,” however “there was no sunshine in the valley” (350). The symbolism here suggests that happiness is within Elisa’s reach, but not in her presence. This essay discusses the many events in the story that are symbolic, including the weather and setting, the chrysanthemums and the tinker.
The narrator states that the “farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain… but rain and fog do not go together” (350). Rain is a universal symbol that represents rebirth or sadness. This is seen when Elisa “[cried] weakly – like an old woman” (356). Elisa and Henry Allen also represent the rain and fog in that they do not belong together. He minimizes her although he recognizes that her talent is raising flowers. The fog (Henry) covers the mountain and is the lid to the pot (350), the same way Henry contains his wife. When Henry tells Elisa that he has sold thirty steers for “nearly [his] own price,” Elisa responds with, “Good. Good for you” (351). This suggests that they both have nothing in common; he is more interested in business and money and she is interested in the life and growth of her flowers.
The chrysanthemums symbolically represent Elisa, or part of her. They are seen as Elisa’s non-existent children because of the way she nurtures them. When she inspects the flowers for “aphids… sowbugs… snails [and] cutworms [,] her terrier fingers [would destroy] such pests before they could [start]” (351). This is a motherly attribute that symbolizes the protection a mother provides to her young. On the other hand, the flowers take nine months to grow, similar to the development of a human child in the womb of his, or her, mother. The chrysanthemums are also described as “strong” and beautiful (351-353). The beauty and strength of the flowers are parallel to Elisa’s “lean and strong [face]” (350) as well as “the dress [she wore to dinner] which was the symbol of her prettiness” (355).
As the tinker pulls up in his “old springwagon” with painted words that are misspelled as “pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores,” it leads us to believe that the tinker is not wise (351) although his greying hair and beard suggests otherwise and that he has experience (352), and he symbolically represents Elisa’s wishes. In the dialogue between them, the tinker brags about his freedom: “I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year,” (352) and then he tells Elisa, who dreams of women doing such things, that his way of living “ain’t the right kind of life for a woman” (354). Steinbeck also reveals Elisa’s longing for sexual fulfillment when “her breast swelled passionately” (353) in front of the Tinker.
Additional events in the story are symbolic as well. For example, Elisa took off her gardening gloves when she was talking to the Tinker (352) and subjected herself to disappointment. The gloves symbolize protection, especially in boxing, and without them she became vulnerable. When she spots “a dark speck” in the middle of the road (355), she knew what it was and feels part of her die inside as the flower is a part of her. The gloves and other symbolic elements described here enrich and strengthen the story.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Robert Zweig. 5th Compact ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2012. 350-356. Print.
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