John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” hosts a warm yet somber account of a woman’s hunger to find fulfillment and vitality in her mundane life and stagnant marriage. Steinbeck presents the turmoil stirring inside the main character, Elisa Allen, by mirroring the lackluster qualities in the surrounding landscape. Taking place in the early-twentieth century, it is clear to the reader that the marital discontentment of a woman in this era was an issue of shame and secrecy; therefore, the author chose to allude to Elisa’s restlessness with inferences and vague dialogue to portray her from an unbiased and truthful viewpoint to invoke compassion and solicitousness from the reader. Joseph Warren Beach states Steinbeck’s portrayal of Elisa Allen is “one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book” (321). Symbolism and characterization are intertwined between the characters and the setting which allows the reader to fathom both her inner desires as well as her personal toils.
In the author’s characterization of Elisa, she is personified in a parallel fashion in how the day lacks majesty with its valley of fog leaving only golden flowers to resemble gleams of sunshine which fails to shine. Elisa is unsatisfied and restless, yearning to come alive, to feel the rays of sunshine in warmth of love and appreciation from her husband, Henry. Additionally, the setting sets the stage for the mood of not only the story but for the main character as well. “It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together” (Steinbeck 460). As the story continues, one could reflect back to this passage to correlate the sameness in Elisa: quiet and waiting; cold and tender; the arrival of the traveling man bringing hope to Elisa; and finally, her desperation and yearning a weak combination leaving her vulnerable. Gregory Palmerino has a different summation of this passage:
The natural elements of the foothills ranch seem as unwilling to confront each other as the characters that inhabit its environs. Hence, fog and rain can be seen as the female and male equivalents to Elisa and Henry, respectively: the former all too indistinct, and the latter altogether absent. (164)
After all, it is apparent both Henry and Elisa willingly distance themselves from their marital flaws; should they address it with the other it would somehow cement their despondent existence forever. Henry and Elisa are both seemingly willing to live in the façade of marital bliss rather than risk any form of confrontation or resolution. As Anja Barnard and Anna Sheets-Nesbitt point out the relevant criticism of Joseph Warren Beach in his 1941 review of Steinbeck’s characterization of Henry and Elisa:
(S)he welcomes his suggestion that, since it is Saturday afternoon, they go into town for dinner and...