"The Chrysanthemums" introduces us to Elisa Allen, a woman who knows she has a gift for things, but can't make more use of it than to grow her chrysanthemums. She is trapped in the Salinas Valley, where winter's fog sits "like a lid...and [makes] the great valley a closed pot." Her human nature has made her complacent in ordinary life, but the short glimmers of hope offered by her flowers and a passing stranger reveal that there is more to Elisa than her garden. Her environment may be keeping her inside her small garden, but inside her heart there is a longing for more.
When we are first introduced to Elisa, she seems to look more like a man from afar than a woman who is gardening. She wears a man's hat, and her flower print dress is almost completely hidden by a large apron. She doesn't have a woman's dainty touch, but rather wears heavy leather gloves to protect her hands, much like a man. Her work with the chrysanthemums seems to be over powerful and overeager; the flowers seem too small for the force she has within her. As she is working, Elisa's husband approaches her small garden and comments on her gifts with flowers. Her reaction is a little smug, even defensive as she sharpens her eyes and insists she has planter's hands, and could even work in the apple orchard. She wants it to be clear that she can do more than grow some pretty flowers; she can work like any other man and make things grow. Here, we can see that Elisa keeps her distance from her own husband, as she keeps him out of her garden and behind the wire fence.
While she is working in her garden, a man approaches Elisa asking for directions and some work fixing pots or sharpening scissors. She is more than willing to help him, but becomes very defensive and irritated when he asks her if she has any need for his services. Suddenly, her face lights up as the stranger begins to ask her about the chrysanthemums. She is no longer hiding behind her man's hat, but rather tears it off to reveal her pretty hair and asks him to step inside the garden. When she gives the man a pot with a chrysanthemum inside to carry with him, she begins to tell him of her "planter's hands." Elisa becomes very excited, as she begins to think this man has something to offer her; he is a traveling man and can help her understand what freedom feels like. While she is speaking to him, she begins to get overly excited and almost grabs a hold of him. Unfortunately, he is not the man who can help her out, and draws the conversation away by mentioning dinner. As soon as he does so, Elisa becomes ashamed at her own excitement, the same excitement she showed when she was working with her flowers.
Elisa's glimmer of hope is gone now, and her character begins to reveal how she is trapped inside that valley, much like the valley is trapped from the rest of the world by the overwhelming fog. She becomes defensive against the stranger once more, and wants to prove to him that...