Title: The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck
Date Read: 27 February 2008
Available Online?: YES
Briefly: Elisa Allen is working on the flower garden of her ranch in the Salinas Valley when her husband – happy at making a good deal with selling some of his steers – suggests that they head into town for the evening, to celebrate. As Elisa’s husband rides off to collect the sold steers before the couple’s evening ‘date’, a wandering pots ‘n’ pans man happens by and gets into a conversation with Elisa. It’s a conversation that reveals Elisa’s true yearning, and it’s also one that reveals that she may not be as contented with her marriage as her demeanour would suggest.
Afterthoughts: I may be somewhat bias here but I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story so far, that’s as perfectly constructed and feels so complete as this one does. I’m in awe that Steinbeck can, in the space of less than 5000 words, build such a remarkable story, that’s as equally as powerful and sublime as anything he’s created with his full-length novels. The character of Elisa is profoundly realised; a strong, ambitious, silent-suffering woman trapped in what is for a woman of her obvious spirit, a dull and humdrum life. Steinbeck symbolically uses her prowess at growing chrysanthemums to show both Elisa’s strength and passion, and the visit by the old Pots ‘n’ Pans ‘fixer’ to eloquently portray what she really yearns for. It’s soul-nurturing stuff! The short story also contains one of the best ‘Steinbeckian similes’ I’ve had the pleasure of discovering i.e. describing chrysanthemums as “quick puffs of colored smoke”. Majestic!
Notable Quote: “A squeak of wheels and plod of hoofs came from the road. Elisa looked up. The country road ran along the dense bank of willows and cotton-woods that bordered the river, and up this road came a curious vehicle, curiously drawn. It was an old spring-wagon, with a round canvas top on it like the cover of a prairie schooner. It was drawn by an old bay horse and a little grey-and-white burro. A big stubble-bearded man sat between the cover flaps and drove the crawling team. Underneath the wagon, between the hind wheels, a lean and rangy mongrel dog walked sedately. Words were painted on the canvas in clumsy, crooked letters. “Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.” Two rows of articles, and the triumphantly definitive “Fixed” below. The black paint had run down in little sharp points beneath each letter.”
*Story read as part of my 100 Shots of Short reading challenge.