Elisa Takes On Herself

Word Count: 1532

“The Chrysanthemums” is a short story in The Long Valley, a collection
of short stories by
John Steinbeck. This story dramatizes the efforts made by a housewife, Elisa
Allen, to compensate for
the disappointments which she has encountered in her life. Steinbeck makes
it clear that Elisa yearns for
something more in her life then the everyday routines of farm life. While
Elisa is portrayed as strong, in
the end, her strength serves to be insufficient in having the courage to
effect any real change in her life
since her fragile self-esteem proves to be too susceptible to outside forces.
From the beginning of the short story, Steinbeck emphasizes that Elisa is
a strong, competent
woman who finds her considerable energy channeled into things, such as her
garden, which never give
her the sort of recognition or satisfaction that she craves. For a brief
moment, she senses that she is
capable of much more and feels her own strength only to, once again, have a
man bring down her
efforts, and her self-esteem.
The story opens with Elisa working in her garden. Steinbeck makes a
point of telling the
reader that she is thirty-five. Her age at once implies a woman almost at
her middle-age who may be
reexamining the dreams of her youth as she contemplates the second half of
her life. Steinbeck
emphasizes Elisa’s strength as he writes, “Her face was eager and mature and
handsome” (Steinbeck
279). Her husband, Henry, comes back to the house having just completed the
sell of some cattle. He
is complimentary towards her gardening and comments on her talent. He
suggests that she put her
talent to work in the orchard growing apples, and Elisa considers his offhand
comment seriously,
“Maybe I could do it, too” (280).
Steinbeck has set the stage. Elisa clearly is feeling good about herself
and her
accomplishments in the garden when an itinerate tinker pulls up in his wagon
asking directions. The
tinker has gotten off the main road and is looking for work. He repairs pots
and pans and sharpens
kitchen utensils. At first Elisa is aloof and says she has no work for him,
but warms to the man when he
admires her garden. He mentions that a customer of his wanted to grow
chrysanthemums and asked
him to bring her seeds if he ever got the chance. Elisa is thrilled to have
someone who has shown an
interest in her expertise. She informs the tinker that chrysanthemums are
best grown from seedlings,
after which she arranges some seedlings in a pot of sand for him to take to
his customer.
This changes Elisa whole orientation toward the tinker. She finds him
some of her pots which
need repair and engages him in conversation as she digs up the seedlings. At
this point, Steinbeck’s
narrative takes on sexual overtones as Elisa describes her feelings when she
prunes the chrysanthemum
buds with sure, quick fingers. “They never make a mistake. They’re with
the plant. Do you see? Your
fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm” (283-284).
It is clear in this passage that Elisa is identifying heavily with the
tinker and that she images
that they share the same feelings toward their individual realms of
expertise. The tinker starts to
comment on what she has just described, but Elisa cuts him off. She is so
certain of what he was going
to say, she feels that she can finish the sentence for him. She describes
his solitary life living in a wagon
in a very fantasized, romantic way that, here again, has sexual overtones.
“Every pointed star gets
driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and-lovely” (284).
Kneeling there beside the tinker
in the dirt, Elisa almost reaches out to touch him, but then decides against
it. Steinbeck writes that she
was crouched like a “fawning dog” (284).
This is a very telling line in regards to the characterization of Elisa,
especially since the reader
has not seen a great deal of her relationship with her husband, and what we
have seen has been
remarkably civil, if passionless. Elisa obviously yearns to connect with
someone who can appreciate
where she comes from in an aesthetic sense. She romanticizes the life of the
tinker who earns his trade
based solely on his own talents and images that she would love being able to
earn a living based on