by John Steinbeck
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The story's called "The Chrysanthemums" (for more on this, check out "What's Up With The Title"), and the word itself is mentioned eleven times in the story. Yep, we counted. We're that nerdy. These big, colorful flowers have got to be pretty important, right?
The chrysanthemums themselves first pop up in paragraph 6, where Elisa is trimming the old year's stems. Immediately, because of the way she handles the flowers, we see her prowess and strength in the garden. In fact, she's so powerful that the stems "seemed too small and easy for her energy" (6).
Later, the chrysanthemums help bring about Elisa's revealing moment with the tinker, as she tries, with all her might, to explain how her fingers know which buds to pluck and which to leave on the stem. So maybe the chrysanthemums signify a source of inner strength and comfort that Elisa turns to because of her circumstances. She doesn't have the life she wants, but the one thing she can do is rock at gardening.
In the end, when Elisa spies the chrysanthemums in the road, the sight devastates her. Strangely, this is the one place in the story where the chrysanthemums aren't mentioned by name. They are referred to as a "dark speck" (108), but Elisa (and we) knows that speck is her flowers – her pride and joy that have been cast rudely aside, like Elisa herself. She's stuck in a life where her husband can't understand her, and the man she connects with rejects what she most values. And the fact that these flowers, which are typically bright, and colorful, are described as dark tells us that these chrysanthemums have changed somehow. They ain't what they used to be, that's for sure.
Are the chrysanthemums, like Elisa herself, at the mercy of men (if you believe Elisa is indeed at the mercy of men)? Did Elisa send some with the tinker as a means of escape, as if she's sending a part of herself along for the ride? If so, in casting them aside, has the tinker effectively cast her aside?
Oh, and before we forget: anyone who's heard of Georgia O'Keeffe knows that flowers are associated with female sexuality. And Elisa's reach toward the tinker, though hardly an R-rated moment, has sexual undertones that are hard to ignore. (For more on this, check out our section called "Steaminess Rating.") So what do we make of the fact that the man she nearly makes a move on simply chucks her flowers off his wagon, other than the fact that he's a bit of a jerk?