English Composition II 1302. 3 PM T/Th
April 9, 2019
“The Chrysanthemums”: Language & Tone Paper
In John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," Elisa Allen embodies the idea that it is only
by revealing ourselves to another person that we are able to experience, and ultimately, develop
through our lives. Steinbeck explores this idea of human nature through the multiple aspects by
which he uses symbolism; such as, Elisa's clothing, her garden, and ultimately the environment
she has surrounded herself with. By portraying a young woman whose self-imposed walls hold
her back from experiencing the true meaning of what it means to be human. Through this
symbolism, Steinbeck reveals that it is only when these walls come down, one can live and grow
as a human, regardless of any situation.
At the beginning of "The Chrysanthemums," Elisa is a very self conscience woman who
does not like experiencing what she does not know. She has hidden herself from the outside
world so that she does not have to be open to its experiences. Elisa's walls are symbolized by her
clothing and fence. Steinbeck illustrates her as being "blocked and heavy,"(pg 750) wearing thick
gloves to protect her hands and a man's hat that shields her "clear eyes"(pg 750). These pieces of
clothing help her from being present in a physical aspect so that she is able to shield herself from
the outside, even in her own garden. Elisa's flowers, or her “happiness”, are also kept behind
walls. Her garden is enclosed by a wire fence behind which only Elisa enters. Even her husband,
Henry. This is shown when he, "leans over the wire fence."(pg 750) showing how Elisa does not
let anyone or anything into her life. Like her environment, Elisa is guarded by a "thick flannel
fog." But as Steinbeck suggests, what Elisa needs is growth, feeling, and change. This concept is
symbolized by rain. Just like rain does for plants by helping it grow, Elisa will grow too. But
Steinbeck tells us that "fog and rain do not go together."(pg 749) While Elisa is still guarded by
her heavy walls (the fog) she will never truly be able to experience life through feeling and
growth unless she has the “rain”.
Moreover as the tinker comes into Elisa's life, she was skeptical at first but then begins to
reveal herself to another person for the first time. It begins when the tinker and Elisa starts to
joke around and share secrets. As they continue to speak, Elisa "removes her gloves."(pg 752).
This was the first step to her growth. By doing this she begins to unravel herself and break down
the mental wall; she is allowing herself to be exposed, not only visually, but to the elements, to
all the feelings, and sensations of life. As Elisa and the tinker talk further, he begins to take note
of her chrysanthemums and as a result Elisa brightens up. Elisa has never let anyone into this
world of hers before from what the reader knows; however, Elisa is thrilled that someone should
take interest in her joy like that. With that being said she lets the tinker into her garden. This act
symbolizes the idea of Elisa finally trusting somebody.. Like the removal of her gloves, by
letting the tinker into her garden, Elisa is exposing herself in a way that she has never done
before, “She touched under the edge of her man, searching for fugitive hairs”(pg 752).Once she
does this, Elisa begins expressing her passion for her garden. As Steinbeck tells us, "The gloves
were forgotten,"(pg 753) meaning that Elisa no longer wants a type of barrier to keep her from
feeling her life. Instead, now she touches the earth, she feels more than she has before.As the
tinker and Elisa keep talking she realizes that she wants more to her life. Unfortunately due to the
conditions she is in, she can not. However it is because of the tinker that she is able to do so. Due
to his presence she feels comfortable enough to start breaking her barriers down and explore her
own interests for once in her life.
As the story is told in third person, Steinbeck mainly focuses on Elisa’s thoughts and how
she feels. By doing this he is able to describe her appearance and how the world is in her eyes.
The reason why it is so unique is that one is able to feel her frustration and the joy throughout the
whole story. By the end Steinbeck allows us to see the developmental change that occurs from
Furthermore Steinbeck uses imagery as he describes Elisa’s surroundings, “The high
grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the salinas valley from the sky and from all the rest of the
world ”(pg 749) This also has plays a major effect as the setting lacks color and is full of grey.
Not only does Steinbeck use imagery, but he also includes symbolism when he uses the
chrysanthemums, fence, and garden to symbolize Elisa’s thoughts and feelings throughout his
story. The chrysanthemums represent her happiness, “I had a ten inch bloom this year”(pg 752)
This shows Elisa is eager when it comes to talking about her flowers because that is her pride
and joy. Although the fence is to “protect her flower garden from cattle and dogs and
chickens”(pg 750) The fence is truly used to convey the meaning of the barrier that she has put
up so she will never have to face the outside world as she is very worrisome.
All Elisa wants to do is to be able to feel. So the deeper the tinker and her get into
conversation, the deeper she gets in to actually feeling. She wants to feel, but she is unable to.
Until the tinker comes around and then that is when Elisa finally decides to let someone in on her
personal thoughts and feelings. It can be found when she began to describe her contentment in
looking at the stars with him by saying, “I’ve never lived like as you do, but I know what you
mean. When the night is dark-why, the stars sharp pointed and there’s quiet...every pointed star
gets driven into your body.”(pg 754) It can be seen that she begins to exchange her thoughts with
him which causes her to break down even more social barriers than she already had in just
As a result of all this Elisa may seem depressed in the end, but she has grown as a person
from the experience with the tinker. Upon seeing that the tinker threw her chrysanthemums on
the side of the road ahead, she begins to feel regretful. She had never let someone get as close to
her as he had gotten. Then for him to just take her for granted, she realizes that up until that
moment she had never really felt low-spirited like that because she set those barriers to only ever
keep her happy. Its upon that discovery that she also realizes that one must deal with the good
and bad when it comes in life in order to experience life to its fullest.
Steinbeck , John. “The Norton Anthology Of Short Fiction ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” The
Chrysanthemums , edited by Richard Bausch, pp. 749–756.