John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" the main character Elisa Allen is a repressed women aching for a chance to uncover the intelligent and creative women she actually is. As the story progresses, Elisa has trouble extending this power outside of the fence that surrounds her garden. During her contact with the tinker, Elisa is eager to fulfill her need of self-expression that is desperately missing in her life. Their conversation allows her to feel like a real woman; however, this feeling does not last. Elisa is once again repressed back to her inadequate life when she realizes the tinker had only used her; and she will never have a life where she can truly express her thoughts, feelings and creativity.
As Elisa Allen is working in her garden, she is surrounded by a fence that is there to physically her flowers from anything or anyone that may hurt them. This protective fence symbolizes her life. She is kept away from the real world, from a man's world. As Elisa works on her garden, she looks through the fence out to where her husband, Henry Allen, is talking with two businessmen in suits. She wants to be involved in the important decisions that are generally a man's job.. As she looks at the three men through her fence, Steinbeck begins to describe her. Although she is gardening, typically considered women's work, she is dressed in an androgynous manner . She wears a "man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes"(301) to cover her hair, thick gloves cover her womanly hands, and "clodhopper shoes"(301) covering her small womanly feet. A "big corduroy apron"(301) covers her dress making "her figure look blocked and heavy"(301). She looks through her fence at the men talking business and she longs to be in their shoes where she would actually have importance.
Elisa gardening tools are her weapons, and she's armed and ready to protect herself and fight off any unwanted visitors of her garden. She is "over-eager"(301) and "over-powerful"(301) when she picks up her scissors, both characteristics usually describe men. In this case they describe Elisa who can only imagine herself in a man's role. The power that she does posses, which she feels she must hide, her true power comes from a female source, Mother Nature. Mother Nature, a woman, controls the elements, which in a sense is more powerful than any power a man possesses. Elisa inherited her special green thumb from her mother, who also "could stick anything in the ground and make it grow"(302). She enjoys digging into the dirt and getting her hands dirty. She feels a power when she is able to kill the pests that invade her garden and gets to out her fingers "into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots"(302). This power she possesses is clear to the reader, but Elisa seems undecided about which side of herself to show off to the world.
She wants to be strong, but that's not the way a good wife should act. She thinks a good wife should be meek and respectful and modest. When Henry comes up behind her, and startles her, suggests she could use her talents in the apple orchard "her eyes sharpened the first thing she does is put her gardening gloves back on. This is to both cover up her dirty hands and to disguise her femininity. She is confused which to express so she expresses neither. But one thing she is sure of is her gardening, "in her tone and on her face there was a little smugness"(302) when her husband compliments her chrysanthemums. Elisa shows off her power by saying "I've a gift with things, all right" (302) when Henry suggests she use her talents on the apple orchard,upon hearing this Elisa's "eyes sharpened"(302). The apple orchard, though it involves planting and gardening, is really part of the man's world since it produces money and produce. The prospect of being involved with the orchard is outside of Elisa's fenced off garden.
Next, a tinker enters Elisa's isolated world and offers her an opportunity for change and a chance to experience a different side of herself. The stranger pulls up in his "curious vehicle" (303) to sell his services, which are fixing "pots, pans, knives, sisors, and lawn mores" (303). Elisa sees the "calloused hands he rested on the wire fence were cracked, and every crack was a black line" (303). She realizes he also uses his hands in the earth, much like her. The man talks to Elisa about his gypsy travels from Seattle to San Diego and eventually asks her for directions since he's "off the general road" (304). "She stood up and shoved the thick scissors in her apron pocket"(304), this motion signifies Elisa putting her guard down, since her tools are her weapons, she feels she doesn't have to be armed around this man. Elisa takes off her gloves revealing her womanly hands and fixes her man's hat to show her hair, she is attempting to show off her femininity, something she doesn't feel comfortable doing around her husband. The tinker gets right down to business asking if Elisa needs anything fixed. She understands and turns on the business women in her and tells him she had no need for his services, "I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do" (304). In her role as a business woman Elisa succeeds, but not for long.
Elisa's power with planting is also her weakness. After failing several times and only gaining her irritation, the tinker inquires about chrysanthemums. This awakens an interest in Elisa, and her facial expression suddenly changes, "The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa's face" (304). She is able to talk to a man about something; inform him of something; she knows more about something than he does. Elisa's naiveté in the business world clouds her judgment and she is unable to see what the reader sees; the tinker is simply playing her to get what he wants. It is apparent to us that he is only inquiring about her flowers to get Elisa to like him so she will purchase his services. The tinker is playing with her emotions to achieve his ultimate goal of making money. This is clear when he takes back his comment about the "nasty" (305) smelling chrysanthemums, and agrees with Elisa who defends them and says they have a "good bitter smell" (305).
When the tinker fabricates a story about another customer wanting some chrysanthemum seeds for her garden, Elisa begins to take a liking to him. She welcomes him into her isolated world, her garden, "Come into the yard" (305) she says. They are both inside the fence and Elisa forgets about how her actions look to the outside world.
The gloves were forgotten now. She kneeled on the ground by the starting bed and dug up the sandy soil with her fingers and scooped it into the bright new flower pot. Then she picked up the little pile of shoots she had prepared. With her strong fingers she pressed them into the sand and tamped around them with her knuckles. (305)
She is now showing both sides of herself, to a complete stranger, the strong side and the feminine side.
As her connection to him is growing, she begins to describe to him how alive she feels when working with her flowers. She refers to her hands as "plating hands"(306) and illustrates to the tinker in a very passionate and intimate manner how she feels one with the earth. When Elisa asks him if he understands her the tinker concurs by saying "maybe I know" (306) "sometimes in the night in the wagon there-"(306). This leads to a scene that has a seemingly sexual undertone and leaves Elisa embarrassed, "Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. The her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched like a fawning dog"(306). She is even more ashamed when the only comment the tinker makes is when he insinuates that he has no money for dinner. She snaps back to reality and finally gives in to his requests for work, finding a pot that needs mending. The tinkers manner has now become much more professional as she hands him the pot, "Good as new I can fix them"(306). Right before the tinker departs, Elisa inform him that she too is pretty handy with a pot, "You might be surpised to have a rival sometime. I can sharpen scissors too And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do"(307). This statement reinforces Elisa's womanly strength and shows how avant garde she is for her time.
With the tinkers exit, Elisa feels newly revived thanks to her encounter with the stranger, and hurries to get ready for diner with Henry.
She tore off her clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, until her skin was scratched and red. When she had dried herself she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at herself. She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest(307).
She feels empowered and strong , like she has finally broken out of her isolated, fenced off garden and she wants to show her refreshed self to Henry. However she is disappointed by the comment he makes, he simply said she looks nice and strong. But we can still see the change in Elisa when she boasts of her newly found strength. "I never knew before how strong "(308).
In the car, on the way to diner with her husband Elisa notices "a dark speck"(308) in the distance and in that moment she knew the tinker had discarded her chrysanthemums on the side of the road. He never cared about her flowers he had just used Elisa to benefit himself. Her new found empowerment dissipates and the old Elisa is now sitting in the roadster next to Henry. She once again feels isolated and helpless. "She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly- like an old woman"(309). Elisa has returned to her old self, she is now even worse off than before.