Setting in the Chrysanthemums
In John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums, the reader is introduced to the seemingly timid and shy Elisa Allen. Elisa is routinely planting her yearly sets of Chrysanthemums, which appear to be the sole receptor of her caring and gentle touch, but all the while it is evident that “the chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy.” Her hidden eagerness seems not only out of place, but out of touch with her dry and wilted surroundings, of which her husband, Henry, abruptly interrupts her steady pace. Inquiring of dinner plans, he is quickly shutteredout, so that Elisa can continue her work in the fenced in flower bed. This seems to be the only place on the ranch that belongs to her, and thus devoting the entirety of her time, and consideration, towards this lonely sandy square.
It isn’t long before another interruption comes cluttering up to country road toward the Allen Ranch. This time it comes in the form of a worn wagon, drawn by two mismatched horses, and a large rugged man sitting behind the reins. Elisa appears to be somewhat static as she introduces herself to the peddler, making it known that he is drawing her away from her duties. But the peddler, who is just trying to find something to fix-up for money, sparks a vigor in Elisa, and she suddenly gains interest in everything he says, as benign as it may be. This peddler, who merely altered Elisa’s routine, has immediately altered her life. The change in routine is the first in many years for her, and Elisa lusts at the opportunity to delve further into conversation with the peddler.
The peddler inquires about her flowers, which Henry does not seem to be very concerned with, saying “I wish you’d work in the orchard and raise some apples that big.” After dealing with a man who has no concern in life but the bettering of his own dwellings, it is quite obvious why Elisa thrusts herself into conversation with a man, whom she would never bring herself to talk to under normal circumstances. Elisa is so engaged in the man, that she offers him Chrysanthemum sprouts to pass on to another customer. She excitedly explains how to care for them on his journey, but catches herself becoming too involved in the conversation when “her breasts swelled passionately” toward the peddler in the midst of the conversation. When this occurs, the reader catches a glimpse of the passion Elisa has for her hobby, which has remained buried in routine until now. She seems sad as the peddler departs whispering “good-bye- good-bye,” however, she quickly regains her sense of married farm life, looking around to make sure that noone noticed this moment of impurity.
Elisa quickly retreats inside to clean up for dinner, taking longer that usual to clean up. Henry shortly returns to the house to clean up as well, but notices the extra time Elisa must have taken, remarking, “why- why, Elisa. You look so nice!” After dressing, Henry leaves to start the car, and the two leave for town, and Elisa leaves her moment of passionate freedom behind. On the way, however, Elisa spots the cluttered wagon traveling down the same road, but she looks away as they pass the peddler. Henry suddenly notices that Elisa has changed again, losing her poise. Elisa tries to hide her despair of this life, pulling up her collar and quietly shedding tears.