30 Stories, Day 4: The Chrysanthemums

Today is the fourth day of my 30 day, 30 short story journey to better writing. In each post I link to the story, give an excerpt, synopsis, craft observations/what I learned, and new vocab. Enjoy!

“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck

Elisa, squatting on the ground, watched to see the crazy, loose-jointed wagon pass by. But it didn’t pass. It turned into the farm road in front of her house, crooked old wheels skirling and squeaking. … The caravan pulled up to Elisa’s wire fence and stopped.

Synopsis: Elisa Allen is planting chrysanthemums in her farmyard garden when a bearded man drives onto the property. His wagon is painted with a (misspelled) advert for fixing pots and pans and sharpening scissors. The driver stops and strikes up conversation, first asking for directions; whether she has anything that needs fixing; finally complimenting her work with the chrysanthemums and asking whether he might take some to a customer up the road. With his interest in the flowers Elisa warms to him, and, (after having repeatedly denied his request for an odd job), redoubles her efforts to find some work for him.

They talk (flirt?); it is clear, from the questions she asks, that Elisa envies the lifestyle of the man, who spends the entire year traveling, living out of his caravan, and following the good weather. She expresses desire to do the same, and even wagers she could do the same work as well as him, if not better; but the stranger insists that his is not a lifestyle fit for women. She pays him, and when he leaves she watches him go, with envy.

Elisa goes inside and bathes; she exchanges her manly farm clothes for a feminine dress and dolls herself up for a date with her husband (Sparknotes claims this is highly symbolic).

When she and husband Henry are driving into town, Elisa notices a brown clump in the road. She knows what it is in an instant: the chrysanthemums. The stranger has dumped them and kept the pot. She turns away as they pass the wagon; asks her husband about watching the fights (another feminist device); pulls her coat collar up so Henry can’t see her crying.

Observations: This would be a terrific piece to revisit when trying to write subtly and between the lines. There is some symbolism here (Elisa’s transformation from manly work clothes to date clothes, etc.), but I think the greater strengths of the piece lie in the things left unsaid.

For example, one gets the sense almost directly that Elisa and the stranger are flirting. It comes from the dialogue—a warm joking, punctuated with laughter in the right places. There are no giveaway adverbs—“flirtatiously,” “coyly,” etc. Then there is the content of the dialogue itself: how Elisa paints up the image of the life the stranger must live, and then goes on to say that she could do the same work he did, just as well, maybe even better—hint hint.

Elisa’s story is rife with quiet desperation—to leave, to get out, to be more. You see it first in the way Elisa reaches for the man, an almost pleading gesture, but then stops herself short; in the way her husband is clueless, and she can’t tell him what she really wants or feels; and most obviously, in her tears, which she hides from her husband.

Vocab:

skirling: to produce a shrill wailing sound (often said of bagpipes)

asperity: harshness of tone, manner, or condition

bobbit: [unable to find a matching definition] but it was used in the story as a “whatsit” or some manner of trinket

Another tale tomorrow…

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