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The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

Analysis: Plot Analysis

Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

Initial Situation

The Beauty Among the Blooms

We meet our lonely protagonist, Elisa, when she's among her chrysanthemums, waiting for her husband. When he comes back from making a business deal, they make plans to go celebrate in town, after Henry finishes his work on the ranch. The stage is set for some domestic drama.

Conflict

"A curious vehicle, curiously drawn" (28)

We admit it: it's tricky to spot a real conflict in this story. But still, the tension ratchets up when the stranger comes up the road on his wagon, asking for directions and work. He's definitely not from Elisa's neat and clean world, and their conversation is full of odd pauses and startling shifts in tone that indicate something strange and new is happening in Elisa's world.

Complication

A Girl and a Guy and a Garden

Once Elisa gets started talking about her chrysanthemums with the stranger, she becomes a whole new person. She's eager and knowledgeable – in her element, so to speak. The conversation about the chrysanthemums creates a strange connection with the stranger, which throws a wrench into her peaceful, if boring, life on the ranch.

Climax

A Guy's Gams

It's not the most thrilling climax ever, but it's a climax nonetheless. Elisa boldly reaches out to touch the stranger's trouser leg, but then chickens out. Big whoop. But hey, let's give the girl some credit. It's Elisa's most audacious moment in the story. She seeks physical contact with a man who isn't her husband. The nerve.

Suspense

Primping and Preening

Elisa readies herself for date night with Henry. Will she tell him about the stranger when he comes back? Will she recount their conversation? The suspense comes from knowing the story hasn't ended with the departure of the stranger. We know there's some action left, but we don't yet know what it is.

Denouement

On the Road

Elisa sees the chrysanthemums dumped carelessly in the road by the stranger, and that seals the deal. The conversation she was so thrilled by, all the things she shared with the man about her flowers and how she felt about them meant so little to him that he unceremoniously chucks them out of his dumpy little wagon. When Elisa passes his caravan, she can't even bear to look in his direction.

Or – oh! Shmoop just had a brainwave, and it's a doozy – couldn't we also make the argument that the moment Elisa sees her chrysanthemums in the road is yet another climax in the story? A story can have two climaxes after all.

Elisa has sent her cherished chrysanthemums off with the man down the road. It's possible that up until this point, for Elisa, the experience with the strange visitor was totally positive one. But now, what she thought she experienced while talking to the man in the wagon proves not to be true at all. He doesn't care about her flowers, and he certainly doesn't care about her. From this moment on, the story heads downhill fast.

Conclusion

Big Girls Do Cry

There's no argument here: the conclusion to "The Chrysanthemums" is a downer. Elisa, hurt by the stranger's disregard and looking ahead to a rather stock and standard evening on the town with her husband, can do nothing but cry. Her life closes up like a pot. She's only thirty-five, but she's already crying like an old woman.

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