i had recommended Steinbeck to minstrel a little while back, as I am a real admirer of his work. this is an excerpt from a plot analysis i did of a short story of his, "The Chrysanthemums" a while back, I hope it whets someone's appetite to check out his work if they already haven't. remember, he was writing about life in the early 20th century.....
As the tinker rides away the climax of the story approaches. Elisa’s self-image is raised by the encounter with the tinker and his apparent interest in her chrysanthemums, her strength. She feels renewed and proceeds to prepare for the evening out with her husband with great vigor. There is a feeling of strength within her that was absent earlier. Elisa scrubs and primps to appear her most feminine for her husband. When Henry enters the bedroom he is struck by Elisa’s appearance, but it is her appearance of strength, not beauty, on which he comments.
“You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee.”, he says.
At the one time in the story Elisa is looking for an affirmation of her femininity Henry fails to give it and ironically sees her strength instead. For all the times Henry has seen Elisa working outside in her garden, wearing her clodhoppers and man’s hat, the time he chooses to tell her how strong she looks is when she is wearing a dress. Elisa is here foiled again in her struggle to be seen as she wishes to be seen, but doesn’t seem too disappointed as she says, “I’m strong. I never knew before how strong.” It seems that Elisa is satisfied that her strength is seen if not her beauty.
The climax of the story occurs as Elisa is riding in the roadster to town with Henry. “Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.” What Elisa sees are the chrysanthemums she gave the tinker. As they drive by the chrysanthemums laying on the side of the road Elisa sees that the tinker has dumped the flowers but not the pot she had put them in for him.
“He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot. He had to keep the pot.”, she says to herself.
The very symbol of her strength, her worth, has been carelessly tossed to the roadside by one who possessed the freedom and strength Elisa so admired and desired. Not only that, but the tinker had obviously valued an insignificant little pot more than her chrysanthemums. The chrysanthemums are ornamental while the pot is functional, something the tinker can use. Elisa herself is like the chrysanthemums, not valued for anything she can do. She understands the tinker’s choice to keep the pot for she herself values functionality and purpose.
As the story unravels Elisa’s earlier mood of enthusiasm and confidence crumbles with the knowledge of her chrysanthemum’s fate. She knows that the tinker has conned her, that he had patronized her in his feigned interest in her chrysanthemums. The very thrill of being alive shrinks within her in resignation. She attempts to stave this off by saying, “It will be good, tonight, a good dinner.”, as if to convince herself that it will be. The bleakness of her life is spread out before her and she does her best to salvage what little thrill she can when she asks, “Henry, could we have wine at dinner?”. She then asks Henry about the prize fights, as if tempted by the thrill of going. It is too great a reach, though, more than she is willing to grasp for in her despair, and she retreats from the idea. Elisa’s earlier feeling of enthusiasm and optimism has turned to near apathetic hopelessness as she tells Henry, “It will be enough if we have wine. It will be plenty.” As she says these words she is overcome with a resigned sadness as she withdraws into herself and turns up her collar so that Henry “could not see that she was crying weakly, like an old woman.” At this point Elisa has come to accept, however painfully, that her lot in life is set, unchangeable. Her hopes and dreams are just that, dreams, and she can hope for no more thrill and excitement in life than a glass of wine on a Saturday night.
perversely contrarian since 2005