In 1933, John Steinbeck started a short story called "The Chrysanthemums," and promptly hit a big fat brick wall: "Two days of work passed before I realized that I was doing it all wrong. And now it must be done again" (source, Introduction).
Yikes. We think you may be being a bit hard on yourself, John. Especially when you consider that "The Chrysanthemums" became one of your best known and most read short stories. Plus, don't forget that you won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not too shabby.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, and much of his work is set in and inspired by his childhood hometown and its surroundings. These days, his name is practically synonymous with the area, and his family's old house is still standing in town. When he began writing "The Chrysanthemums," he was living in this home, trying to squeeze out short stories between trips to the next room to tend to his elderly, ailing mother (source).
At the time, Steinbeck was working on a collection called The Long Valley, and "The Chrysanthemums" is the first story of the bunch. In fact, an early version of "The Chrysanthemums" was published in Harper's Magazine in 1937, the year before The Long Valley itself went to print.
When The Long Valley was published, reviews for "The Chrysanthemums" were less than glowing. Critic William Soskin called the story "weak," and another, named Harry Hansen, said it was "a bit too abrupt at the beginning, but with a good ending." (Uh, thanks?) (Source.) We can't really blame Steinbeck, then, for saying that he "can't take seriously" the "curious hocus-pocus of criticism" (source).
If critics rained on the Steinbeck parade, why is "The Chrysanthemums" so popular? After all, it is a pretty simple story. A woman, spending the afternoon in her garden, is visited by a stranger and finds herself both awakened and disheartened by what happens. There are no guns, no bombs, no fisticuffs. No fireworks whatsoever.
Maybe that's what makes "The Chrysanthemums" so spectacular. Steinbeck is a pretty stingy writer: he does a lot with just a little. His simple sentences and understated vocabulary are packed with meaning, but they refuse to whack you over the head with it. (For more on this, see the "Writing Style" section.)
Basically, "The Chrysanthemums" is a reader's dream. Steinbeck's ability to say so much with so little means we're challenged to jump in and get our hands dirty. We get to decide what the story and all of its many details mean. We get to come up with our own explanations. This story helps us hone our reading skills and become better detectives of literature. It's almost like a choose-your-own-adventure book: we readers get to imagine a future for our protagonist.
When you consider "The Chrysanthemums" among John Steinbeck's other famous works, like The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, it's clear that this guy writes with a social conscience. He said himself of his writing philosophy, "I don't like people to be hurt or hungry or unnecessarily sad. It's just about as simple as that" (source).
Our Elisa is hurt, she's hungry, and she is definitely unnecessarily sad. Who can't relate to Elisa and how trapped and misunderstood she feels? We've all been there. We all know what it's like to want something different for ourselves, even if we're not exactly sure what that is.
Okay, then what makes Elisa's story so unique? For one thing, she is a woman. And back when Steinbeck wrote (and even today) women were still less free than men. Elisa is a dreamer, all right, but her dreams are stunted, snuffed, caged, and that fact provides the central conflict in the story.
Because she's a woman, she has no way out of an unsatisfying marriage. And because she's a woman, she's subject to the whims of men, in this case, her husband and the tinker. Is this fair? Probably not. But does this happen a lot? We're betting Steinbeck would say it does, and we're betting he doesn't like it one bit.
So maybe, by telling Elisa's story, Steinbeck is presenting us with a challenge: just what, precisely, are you going to do about it? It's just about as simple as that.