The chrysanthemums are clearly a symbol. What do they represent?
John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" is about a proud, strong woman named Elisa Allen who feels frustrated with her present life. Her frustration stems from not having a child and from her husband's failure to admire her romantically as a woman. The only outlet for her frustration is her flower garden where she cultivates beautiful chrysanthemums. Steinbeck uses chrysanthemums as symbols of the inner-self of Elisa and of every woman.
First, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa's children. She tends her garden and handles the chrysanthemums with love and care, just as she would handle her own children. Elisa is very protective of her flowers and places a wire fence around them; she makes sure "[n]o aphids, no sow bugs or snails or cutworms" are there. "Her terrier fingers [destroy] such pests before they [can] get started”. These pests represent natural harm to the flowers, and, just as any good mother, she removes them before they can harm her children. The chrysanthemums are symbolic of her children, and she is very proud of them. When Elisa's husband compliments her on her flowers, she is proud, and "on her face there [is] a little smugness". She is happy and pleased by her ability to nurture these beautiful flowers. Elisa's pride in her ability to grow such beautiful flowers reinforces the fact that the flowers are a replacement for her children.
In the second part of the story, the chrysanthemums come to symbolize Elisa's femininity and sexuality. The portrait of Elisa caring for the flowers as though they are her children is clearly a feminine image, but her masculine image is also observed in her "hard-swept and hard-polished" home. This image is carried over into her relationship with her husband. Elisa feels that Henry doesn't recognize or appreciate her femininity, and this feeling causes her to be antagonistic towards him. There is an undercurrent of resentment towards her husband. Henry fails to see his short-comings, but Elisa fails to point them out to him. There is a distinct lack of harmony between them, which causes Elisa to become discontented with Henry. On observing her prize flowers, all Henry can say is, "I wish you'd work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big”. Henry’s inability to understand Elisa's needs leaves her vulnerable in her encounter with the tinker. The meeting with the tinker renews Elisa's feelings of femininity and sexuality as a woman. Her resistance to his mundane matters disappears after the tinker romantically describes the chrysanthemums as a "quick puff of colored smoke". By admiring the chrysanthemums, he figuratively admires her. The chrysanthemums symbolize ...