"The Chrysanthemums" is one of 12 short stories by John Steinbeck published in 1937 in "Harper's Magazine" and in 1938 in his collection "The Long Valley." Themes center on 35-year-old Elisa's quest for identity and intimacy. Elisa is passionate about chrysanthemums and spends much of her time caring for them. Her husband appreciates her green thumb and praises her inner strength, but Elisa feels emotionally disconnected from him. Their gender roles are strictly defined, and she resents her subordinate role. A stranger ignites romantic feelings in Elisa, but she soon realizes that the drifter isn't all he appears to be.
Gender inequality leads to frustration and disappointment. Before Elisa meets the drifter, she struggles with her own female identity. She dresses in masculine attire and is unhappy with her stereotypical female role. Elisa longs for independence and equality, but she's stuck in a male-dominated world. The drifter, a tinker, helps Elisa feel bold and liberated -- traits that men primarily enjoyed in the 1930s. However, Elisa quickly abandons her newly found freedoms when she realizes that the drifter used her feminine emotional weaknesses to get his way.
Flattery is deceiving. The tinker notices Elisa's deep interest in her flowers. He makes her feel important by commenting on their beauty and asks if he can have some chrysanthemum stalks to extract their seeds. Elisa is captivated by the tinker's charm and flattery and idolizes his free-spirited lifestyle. She feels an emotional, sexually charged connection, but the drifter only wants to manipulate Elisa's emotions. He needs money and a job and dumps her chrysanthemums on the side of the road once he gets 50 cents from her.
The grass isn't always greener. Even though Elisa's husband provides for her financially and compliments her physical beauty and inner strength, she is unfulfilled in her marriage. The two don't have a romantic connection, and Steinbeck alludes to their lack of sexual intimacy. The drifter is passionate, sensual, understanding and eccentric, so Elisa is drawn to him. He makes Elisa feel feminine and desirable, which increases her self-worth. However, she cries when she sees the dumped chrysanthemums on the side of the road, and tries to hide her sadness and shame from her husband.
Emotional isolation often leads to irrational behavior. Elisa has repressed her romantic feelings and sexual desires for so long that she nearly throws herself at the tinker when he woos her. She's blind to his manipulations and doesn't realize that he's only using her for money. Elisa doesn't feel comfortable discussing her lack of fulfillment with her husband -- she'd rather live in emotional solitude. However, her dissatisfaction eventually leads to trusting someone who doesn't deserve her devotion.