I was fortunate enough to go on a twelve-day vacation throughout California in late August and early September (which is the main reason that I’m late in posting this month’s Story of the Month). As I was driving north toward San Francisco, I saw an exit sign for Salinas, and I was instantly reminded of one of the most talented and famous American authors, John Steinbeck. And instead of choosing one of his many well-known novels set in Salinas Valley, I’ve decided to highlight one of his possibly lesser-known short stories (which, coincidentally, is also set in Salinas Valley) this month. So, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to announce that That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for September 2009 is John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
I feel like “The Chrysanthemums” is more challenging to read than some of Steinbeck’s other stories, like Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath. What I mean is that, after reading the story, I’m not entirely certain what happened below the surface, what nuances I feel like I should have picked up on. But let’s try to dissect it together, and maybe its meaning will become increasingly clearer.
“The Chrysanthemums” takes place on a ranch in Salinas Valley, California. And, based upon the ranch culture depicted throughout the story, I’m assuming that the time period is set around when the story was written, 1938. We only really have three characters to work with: the protagonist, Elisa Allen, her husband Henry, and a vagabond salesman/tradesman.
Elisa is tending to the chrysanthemums in her fenced-off garden while her husband’s off rounding up steer to sell. As she’s gardening, the salesman pulls up in his horse-and-burro-drawn wagon begging for some work. (He mends pots and pans, sharpens scissors, and fixes other household necessities.) Elisa, annoyed, rejects his requests for work. So he inquires about her flowers and garden, clearly (at least clearly to the reader) trying to get in her good graces so that he can ask her again later for some work. He tells her some elaborate story about knowing a woman who lives on his normal peddling route who has always wanted to grow chrysanthemums, so Elisa offers to give him some of her sprouts in a pot to take to the woman, which he graciously accepts. As she’s packing the sprouts into the flower pot, she’s overcome by the desire to reach out and touch his leg, but resists. After a bit more conversation, he convinces Elisa to let him fix some saucepans. When he’s done, he hops back into his wagon and assures her that he can keep the chrysanthemum sprouts alive until he gives them to the woman. As he leaves, she whispers “Good-bye” under her breath. Does anyone else think that she developed feelings for this traveling salesman?
The first time I read the story, and got to this particular point in the story, I wasn’t sure. But then Elisa rushes into the house to get ready for a “date” in town with her husband, and “she tore off her soiled clothes and…scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice…until her skin was scratched and red.” (Perhaps the result of a guilty conscience? The evidence, at this point, is starting to add up.) But it isn’t until she’s in the car with her husband, heading into Salinas, until her romantic feelings toward the salesman become more evident. Without spoiling the ending for you, I’ll just tell you that she sees something along the road that makes it completely apparent that the salesman felt nothing for her or her feelings, and manipulated her to get work (and also essentially stole from her). And, as Steinbeck writes, “In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back.” Regardless if she looked back or not, the salesman actions toward her certainly left her in worse shape than she’d been before he came around. And, on top of everything, she wasted perfectly good chrysanthemum sprouts on him.
I first read this story in English 102 in college, and we read it as a story dealing with symbolism. If you read the story, too, then I’m sure that you’d find multiple examples of symbolism. Clearly, the chrysanthemums are one example. The fence around Elisa’s garden is another. The intense way she showers after the traveler leaves is another. And, most importantly, the hasty and unprotected (she forgets to use her gardening gloves, which she never gardens without) way in which Elisa digs up and packs the sprouts for him is another. It all seems to boil down to lust and adulterous thoughts, naïveté, and the pain of rejection. But I’ll let you read the story so that you can figure out for yourself which aspects of the story have the strongest symbolism, and what that symbolism actually is. (And if you have any ideas that you’d like to share, then please feel free to comment!)
This isn’t a story that should be overlooked. It’s written with classic Steinbeck style and voice, in a classic Steinbeck setting. But its complexity, layers, and symbolism make it a challenging read that’s certainly worth rereading. (And, since it’s a short read, rereading is absolutely a possibility!) It’s one of the most memorable stories that I’ve ever read because, unlike a lot of stories, I couldn’t completely figure it out at first glance. It challenged me to dig deeper and to try to understand it better. And, even after a couple more reads and the discussion we’ve had about it here, I’m still not completely confident that I’ve realized all it has to offer. But I challenge you to give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and as a word of advice, don’t trust traveling salespeople who come to your door asking for work and, when you refuse them, start to compliment your gardening. Chances are, they’re full of it.
To read a full-text version of “The Chrysanthemums,” please click here. (Thanks to New Bulgarian University for posting this story.)