‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, John 1938

The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, 1938

The magic trick:

Saying enough and not too much

At story’s outset we have a woman, her face described as “lean and strong,” happily tending her chrysanthemums. By story’s end, the same woman is in tears, described as “like an old woman.” What happened? Read the story, you still might not know. Steinbeck isn’t spelling anything out for anyone. The changes wrought are dramatic, but the action along the way is subtle. The story demands analysis and interpretation. And that’s the magic trick. That’s the amazing thing about this story. Steinbeck provides the sketch of a woman, of a life, of a conflict; but allows the reader the space to fill in the colors.

Personally, I read the story as a portrait of a woman not necessarily unhappy in love but rather in desperate need to expand beyond the boundaries of the quiet life necessitated by her gender. She tries to share her passion (in the form of the chrysanthemums), and the wider world (in the form of the traveling repairman) quickly dismisses the attempt (in the form of the side of the road). These themes, in some ways, recall Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “How Beautiful With Shoes.”

But who cares what I think? That’s the beauty of the story. It strikes the perfect balance between the said and the unsaid, valuing each individual interpretation. And that’s quite a trick on Steinbeck’s part.

The selection:

“You sleep right in the wagon?” Elisa asked.

“Right in the wagon, ma’am. Rain or shine I’m dry as a cow in there.”

“It must be nice,” she said. “It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.”

“It ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman.”


Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. “How do you know? How can you tell?” she said.

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