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The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums


by John Steinbeck

The Chrysanthemums "The Chrysanthemums" Summary

  • Setting: the Salinas Valley (in California) in winter. The valley is foggy and closed off from the rest of the world, and through it runs the Salinas River.
  • At Henry Allen's ranch, things are moving pretty slowly, and his wife Elisa is working in the flower garden.
  • She looks up from her gardening to see Henry, down by the tractor shed, chatting with some dudes who are dressed for business and smoking cigarettes.
  • Elisa is described as a lean and strong thirty-five year-old woman. She has clear eyes, almost hidden by a man's hat, and is wearing mannish clothes and heavy leather gloves. She watches as the strange men get back into their car and drive away.
  • Taking off a glove, she starts to garden barehanded, looking for pests among the stems. There are none, because she's got some serious skills.
  • Henry startles Elisa, coming up behind her to tell her that her crop looks strong. She agrees with a smug look on her face.
  • Telling her that she's talented in making things grow, Henry suggests she come work in the orchard, to which Elisa heartily agrees. She tells hubby Henry she inherited the gift, which she calls "planters' hands" (13), from her mother. Henry just says that it works well with flowers.
  • Then he tells her that he sold thirty head of steer for a good price. Nice work, Henry. He suggests that they celebrate by going into Salinas for dinner and a movie: date night for the Allens.
  • Elisa's all for it, and Henry jokingly suggests that they go see a fight. When she refuses, flustered, he assures her that he was only joking. Wait, what's so funny?
  • Henry departs to finish the day's work, and Elisa gets back to gardening.
  • A rather funky covered wagon approaches down the road, drawn by a horse and a burro. An unshaven man is driving the wagon, and beneath it walks a sickly dog. This isn't the greatest first impression in the world.
  • The wagon stops at Elisa's fence, and the man strikes up a lighthearted conversation with her about his dog. Hmm. What's he really doing here? Is he lost or something?
  • Elisa notices that the man is large, and though he does not seem all that old, his hair is graying. His clothes are worn and dirty, and she notes his dark, brooding eyes and calloused hands.
  • After telling her he has gotten off his usual route, he asks for directions to the Los Angeles Highway, which Elisa gives him. This guy is way off track.
  • According to the man, he travels the highway all year, going from Seattle to San Diego, and Elisa tells him, "That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live" (41).
  • Then the guy asks if she has any work for him, mending pots or sharpening knives and scissors. She repeatedly tells him no, seeming downright annoyed. Lay off, dude.
  • So then the man asks Elisa about her flowers, and the mood changes. Pumped, she tells him that they are chrysanthemums, and that she raises the biggest ones around every year.
  • Apparently, one of his customers wants to grow chrysanthemums, and Elisa offers to give him some sprouts in a pot that he can take to the customer. Well that was nice of her.
  • After fetching a pot from the house, she eagerly begins preparing everything for the man with bare hands. She gives him step-by-step instructions on how to care for them, and he promises to try to remember. But as she instructs him, she slows down and grows confused. She struggles to explain how to tell which buds to trim, and which ones to leave. The conversation gets a little strange.
  • Spacey, Elisa asks the man if he's heard of "planting hands" (69), and he tells her he hasn't.
  • No problem. Allow Elisa to explain: her fingers simply pick the buds on their own, and they never make a mistake. She gets passionate and fervent as she tells him this. These planting hands seem pretty important to her.
  • The man grows kind of self-conscious, but tells Elisa he thinks he knows what she's talking about – it's how he feels sometimes at night in the wagon. Uh…okay. Whatever you say, stranger.
  • She enthusiastically agrees, describing how she feels sometimes at night. She feels as if she is rising, and the stars are driven into her body. Hmm. Things are getting even stranger.
  • Gasp! Losing herself in the moment, Elisa reaches out to touch the leg of the man's trousers, but then retracts her hand at the last second. What's all this about?
  • He tells her it is nice at night, but not when you've gone without dinner, which makes Elisa feel ashamed.
  • So she throws him a bone and finds work for him – two dented pans – and the man gets to work while Elisa watches.
  • Poor Elisa wishes women could live life like he does, but he tells her it's not a good life for a woman. Hey, why not?
  • As Elisa pays the man fifty cents for his work, she tells him he might be surprised at what a woman could do. But still, he insists it wouldn't be a good life for a woman – too lonely and scary.
  • He thanks her for the work, and starts to be on his way, forgetting Elisa's instructions about the chrysanthemums.
  • As she watches the wagon leave, with her eyes half-closed, she whispers to herself. Then she shakes herself out of her trance and runs to the house. Well, that was… strange to say the least.
  • After bathing, Elisa carefully examines her whole body in the mirror. She gets all dolled up, dressing to the nines, and doing her hair and makeup. You know, the works. Gotta look good for the hubby.
  • Meanwhile, Henry returns to the house and gets ready for their night out while Elisa lays out his things. Then she waits for him on the porch, sitting silently and stiffly for a long time.
  • When Henry comes barreling out the door, barely ready, he seems startled by how nice Elisa looks. He tells her she looks strong. She totally agrees. Yep, strong.
  • While Henry goes to get the car, Elisa puts on her coat and fusses over her hat.
  • Husband and wife drive toward Salinas, and along the way, she sees a dark spot in the road. Uh oh. She quickly realizes that the man has thrown the chrysanthemums out of the pot she gave him, the jerk.
  • When she sees the wagon up ahead, she turns away from the window to face her husband, striking up a conversation about dinner. Can they have wine, she wants to know.
  • Then she asks about the fights, and Henry seems surprised. When she asks if women go to the fights, he tells her that they do, sometimes. Does she want to go?
  • Nope, not so much. She tells him she doesn't want to go – it will be enough if they just drink wine at dinner.
  • Right after she says this, she turns up her collar to hide her face and cries.

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