by John Steinbeck
Where It All Goes Down
A ranch in the Salinas Valley, probably in the late 1920s or early 1930s
The Big Picture
It's hard to talk about setting in a Steinbeck story without zooming out to talk about the man himself. But we've already told you a bit about him in "In a Nutshell," so for now we'll just stick to what's relevant to the story.
For one thing, Steinbeck was a local boy. Many of his novels and stories, "The Chrysanthemums" included, take place in and around the Salinas Valley, so he's on familiar ground in this one. He knows what it means to be a resident of this region, where agriculture is at the heart of daily life.
Also, let's not forget that when "The Chrysanthemums" was written, the Great Depression was winding down, and women's rights were becoming a major issue in society. When Steinbeck began writing the story, women had held the right to vote for only fourteen years. It is perhaps with that in mind that Steinbeck sat down to write a story about a woman whose voice is limited in other, less obvious ways.
Now, let's get local ourselves. The story takes place in the Salinas Valley in December at Henry Allen's ranch in the foothills. Immediately, we're placed in a rural setting, where women are isolated and men are manly.
While her husband rides the range, Elisa is confined to her house and her flower garden. Because it's December, "It was a time of quiet and waiting" (2), which means there is probably even less for Elisa to do than usual. This is a small world, after all, and it's closed up like a pot. (1)
One thing we might note here is the contrast between Elisa's closed-off Salinas Valley and the world of the tinker. While Elisa is confined to her garden and house, the tinker's home is the highway. Although the story never travels with him, we might imagine the highway as a place of freedom. Elisa makes it clear she envies the tinker's lifestyle, saying she wishes "women could do such things" (82).
So there are three settings at work here. We have the larger context of a changing world, where women's rights are central, but still few and far between. Also at play is the smaller world of the Salinas Valley, where growing things is of the utmost importance, and the cosmopolitan world of city-life is far out of reach. And finally, all this is contrasted with the tinker's world of the road, where freedom and movement rule.