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The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums


by John Steinbeck

The Tinker

Character Analysis

FYI: we'll call him the tinker because that's how readers and critics commonly refer to him. But don't forget – we never actually learn this man's name. At some point, it would probably prove worthwhile to wonder why that is.

A Stranger in Fiction

Imagine you're Elisa and this stranger approaches. He's worldly, adventurous, and free. He's charming and mysterious. He sounds downright dreamy, right? No wonder she's so intrigued.

But he's also uneducated, poor, world-weary, and disheveled. His eyes are "full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and old sailors" (33). Because he's always on the move, it seems, he's a little unhappy, a little troubled. Teamsters and sailors are hard workers, but they're often far from home, weary, and very very lonely.

No matter. Despite his rather unimpressive appearance, he's scrappy, and canny, and knows how to manipulate Elisa to suit his ends. Like Elisa, though, he is a bit of a mystery. Okay, he's a big mystery. Bottom line: he's a tinker. He fixes pots and pans up and down the California countryside, and that's about all we know for sure.

So then who is this guy? Is he a poor, helpless worker? A world-wise traveler? Let's dig a little deeper to see if we can find out.

Conman Casanova?

First of all, this is one flirty tinker. When Elisa laughs, he "caught up her laughter and echoed it heartily" (32). But is this laughter genuine? Moments later, "the laughter had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment his laughing voice ceased" (33). Shmoop thinks that laugh is a little suspicious. When we are truly laughing, it's hard for us to immediately stop. Usually, there's a little trickle of laughter in our face and especially in our eyes. Know what we mean? Most likely, this dude is faking it. And most likely, it's to get something out of Elisa, like a job.

When his flirtation fails to earn him some work from our gardening guru, he resorts to begging: "His face fell to an exaggerated sadness. His voice took on a whining undertone" (48). When that doesn't work, he tries flattering Elisa by complimenting her chrysanthemums. Bingo. He's found her soft spot. Let's take a look at that moment:

His eyes left her face and fell to searching the ground. They roamed about until they came to the chrysanthemum bed where she had been working. "What's them plants, ma'am?"

The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa's face. "Oh, those are chrysanthemums, giant whites and yellows. I raise them every year, bigger than anybody around here." (49-50)

He literally searches the ground to find another subject of conversation. It's clear he wants to stay at this ranch a while longer, so he can nab himself a new customer. And as soon as he asks about those flowers, "the irritation and resistance melted from Elisa's face." He's in. As long as he keeps talking flowers, he is sure to find some work.

Sure enough, Elisa eventually gives him some pots to fix. After their revealing conversation about how they feel at night, he tells her, "It's nice, just like you say. Only when you don't have no dinner, it ain't." (75) Mission accomplished, it seems. As soon as he says this, Elisa runs to find him some work. He has successfully guilt tripped her into giving him what he was after this whole time: a job. It's sneaky, to be sure, but it's also pretty stinkin' impressive.

In Elisa's Eyes

Of course that's just how Shmoop sees it. Elisa might be having an entirely different conversation, so we might find it worthwhile to put ourselves back into her frame of mind. The tinker arrives in the story after her perfunctory conversation with her husband. It makes sense that she would eagerly respond to a new and exciting stranger who pays her complimentary attention. Whether or not he really means it is perhaps beside the point.

Because we never get inside the tinker's head, we'll never really know what he thinks of Elisa. Maybe he's totally creeped out when she reaches for his pant leg. Maybe he wants to sweep her off her feet and have her ride shotgun. Or maybe he simply needed directions to the Los Angeles Highway.

And because we never really know what he thinks of Elisa, we have to assume that his significance in the story lies in how Elisa sees him and how she feels about him. It's clear she's intrigued, inspired, even excited by him. No matter what his intentions are, he's a window into a world she's never seen.