What Do the Chrysanthemums Symbolize in “The Chrysanthemums”? Unveiling the Hidden Meanings

The Chrysanthemums is a short story written by John Steinbeck that explores the inner life of a woman named Elisa Allen. The story is set in rural California in the early 1900s, where Elisa is portrayed as a woman of great vitality and energy, but also as someone who feels confined by the limitations placed on her by society. The title of the story, The Chrysanthemums, refers to a type of flower that plays a significant role in the story as a symbol of Elisa’s hopes and desires.

At the beginning of the story, Elisa is shown tending to her garden, specifically her chrysanthemum plants, with great care and attention to detail. These flowers, which represent Elisa’s creativity and artistic spirit, are her only real outlet for self-expression. As the story progresses, we see how Elisa’s relationship with the chrysanthemums evolves, eventually becoming a representation of her own sense of worth and value as a woman.

Through Elisa’s interactions with the flowers, Steinbeck masterfully depicts the struggles that many women faced during this time period, particularly when it came to breaking free from their traditional roles and finding a sense of fulfillment. Indeed, the chrysanthemums symbolize much more than simply a pretty flower in a garden; they represent the complex emotional landscape of a woman fighting against societal norms and trying to make her dreams a reality.

The History of Chrysanthemums in Literature and Art

The chrysanthemum has been a symbol of beauty, longevity, and nobility in many cultures for centuries. Throughout history, this flower has been the subject of many literary works and artistic masterpieces.

The chrysanthemum originated in China, where it has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. In Chinese culture, the chrysanthemum symbolizes autumn and the changing of the seasons. It is also associated with Taoism, representing the idea of humility and simplicity. In Japanese culture, the chrysanthemum is the national flower and symbolizes the emperor and the imperial family.

Throughout literature, the chrysanthemum has been used as a symbol of beauty, love, and unrequited affection. In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” the flower represents the female protagonist’s unfulfilled desires and unacknowledged talents. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose,” the chrysanthemum symbolizes the redemptive power of love.

Chrysanthemums have also been celebrated in visual art, particularly in Japanese paintings and woodblock prints. The artist Yasuda Hanpo depicted chrysanthemums in his work “Chrysanthemums and Red Maple Leaves” in a way that captures both the delicacy and the elegance of the flower. Similarly, the Japanese woodblock print artist Hiroshige created a series of prints of the chrysanthemum in various stages of development, from bud to full bloom.

The cultural significance of chrysanthemums in Japan and China

Chrysanthemums, known as Kiku in Japan and Ju Hua in China, hold significant cultural and historical significance in both countries. They are not only popular for their beauty but also represent an array of positive and negative emotions, symbolizing different meanings in various contexts.

  • In Japan, chrysanthemums have been used as a symbol of the emperor and the imperial family for over 1,000 years, as it is believed that the flower represents longevity and rejuvenation. The Imperial Order of the Chrysanthemum is the highest Japanese order of chivalry, and it is given to those who have made significant contributions to the country, especially in the field of culture and art.
  • On the other hand, in China, chrysanthemums symbolize autumn, and are usually used to represent a decline in fortune, as the flowers bloom in the fall and die shortly after. However, they are also associated with happiness and longevity and are used to celebrate birthdays and weddings.
  • Chrysanthemum festivals are celebrated in both countries, with Japan’s Kiku Matsuri dating back to the 9th century and China’s Ju Hua Tuan festival, which literally means “a group of chrysanthemums,” being celebrated since the Tang Dynasty.

Aside from their cultural significance, chrysanthemums are also believed to have medicinal properties and are used in traditional herbal medicine in both Japan and China. Moreover, chrysanthemums are widely grown and used in Asian cuisine, with the petals being often used to make tea or garnish dishes.

Country Cultural Significance
Japan Symbol of the emperor and the imperial family, longevity, rejuvenation, highest Japanese order of chivalry
China Autumn, decline in fortune, happiness, longevity, used to celebrate birthdays and weddings

In conclusion, the cultural significance of chrysanthemums in Japan and China is immense, and their beauty and symbolism have been celebrated for centuries. Whether representing the emperor or used to celebrate weddings, chrysanthemums stand as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of these countries.

The relationship between the chrysanthemums and the protagonist’s identity in the story

One of the main themes in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is the relationship between the titular flowers and the protagonist’s identity. Elisa Allen, the story’s main character, is depicted as a talented gardener, especially when it comes to growing chrysanthemums. Her deep connection to the flowers is symbolic of her identity as a woman and her longing for recognition as a capable and independent individual.

  • Elisa’s desire for self-expression: Throughout the story, Elisa is shown to be passionate about her chrysanthemums, carefully tending to them and taking pride in their beauty. This is a reflection of her inner desire for self-expression and fulfilment, which she feels stifled in her traditional gender role as a housewife.
  • The flowers as a reflection of Elisa’s femininity: The chrysanthemums are also associated with Elisa’s femininity and sensitivity. They are described in vivid detail as delicate, soft, and colourful, just like Elisa’s personality. In a way, the flowers become a symbol of Elisa’s innate qualities, which are often overlooked in a male-dominated society.
  • The flowers as a representation of Elisa’s power: Towards the end of the story, Elisa’s interactions with the tinker reveal her hidden strength and determination. Similarly, her chrysanthemums also embody this power. As Elisa says, “I’ve had to work at things, like my garden, and you’ve had to work at things too. You might be surprised to have a rival someday.” The chrysanthemums become a manifestation of Elisa’s potential and her ability to challenge societal norms.

The relationship between the chrysanthemums and Elisa’s identity is further highlighted by the vivid imagery and symbolism used in the story. Steinbeck’s masterful use of language creates a rich and complex narrative that encapsulates the struggles and desires of women in the early 20th century.

In conclusion, the chrysanthemums serve as a potent symbol in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” representing Elisa’s identity as a woman, her desire for self-expression, and her hidden strength. Through this symbolism, Steinbeck gives voice to the struggles and aspirations of women during a time when their role in society was often restricted and devalued.

The Role of Gender in the Symbolism of the Chrysanthemums in the Story

In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” the chrysanthemums themselves serve as symbols of gender roles and limitations in 1930s America.

  • Elisa’s chrysanthemums represent her inner desires and potential, which are often ignored by the patriarchal society she lives in.
  • Women during this time period were often relegated to traditional gender roles as wives and mothers. Similarly, Elisa is characterized as a traditional wife and gardener.
  • When the tinker arrives and admires Elisa’s chrysanthemums, he fails to recognize the deeper meaning they hold for her. This is emblematic of the general lack of understanding and respect for women’s aspirations and talents during this time.

To further explore the gendered symbolism of the chrysanthemums, we can examine the following:

Firstly, the chrysanthemums themselves are delicate and beautiful flowers, much like the stereotypical image of a woman. Additionally, like women, they require care and attention to thrive.

Secondly, the act of planting and nurturing the chrysanthemums is traditionally feminine labor, a task which Elisa takes great pride in. However, her husband Henry dismisses her efforts and belittles her hobby. This reflects the societal notion that women’s work is not as important or valuable as men’s.

Finally, the tinker’s manipulation of Elisa further reinforces gender roles. He flatters Elisa and recognizes her gardening talents, but ultimately uses her for business purposes. This echoes the common sentiment that women’s worth lies only in their ability to serve men.

Symbolism Gendered Interpretation
Chrysanthemums Represents women’s desires and potential
Nurturing and planting Traditional tasks designated to women
Tinker’s exploitation of Elisa Reflects the idea that women’s worth lies only in their ability to serve men

Overall, the chrysanthemums in “The Chrysanthemums” serve as powerful symbols of the limitations placed on women in 1930s America. Through Elisa’s experiences, readers are able to see how societal gender roles and expectations have profound impacts on women and their aspirations.

The use of setting to emphasize the chrysanthemums’ symbolism

The setting in “The Chrysanthemums” plays an important role in emphasizing the symbolic meaning of chrysanthemums. Here are the five ways the setting helps highlight the symbolism of chrysanthemums:

  • Enclosure: The garden where Elisa grows chrysanthemums is located within a fence, which mirrors her own enclosed life. The chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s desire to break free from her limited life and find something more fulfilling beyond her garden walls.
  • Color: The flowers in the garden are described as bright and lively, emphasizing the beauty of the chrysanthemums. The color yellow is also repeated throughout the story, from the color of Elisa’s house to the wagon they use to transport the chrysanthemums. Yellow is the color of hope and optimism; thus, chrysanthemums also symbolize potentiality and new beginnings.
  • Season: The story takes place in November, which is the season of death. The chrysanthemums bloom profusely in the fall, and their very existence in November symbolizes life and vitality amidst the darkness and decay. Thus, the chrysanthemums also represent the possibility of renewal and growth.
  • The Salinas Valley: The story is set in the Salinas Valley, which is known for its fertility and abundance. The valley, therefore, symbolizes growth, opportunity, and the limitless potential of nature. The chrysanthemums play into this symbolism by representing the hope that nature can provide for those who are open to its gifts.
  • Highway: The highway symbolizes the speed and freedom of the modern world, a place where Elisa has never been. The tinker appears on the highway and offers Elisa a glimpse at a life beyond the confines of her garden. The chrysanthemums are used to emphasize Elisa’s hesitancy towards this new life, as they represent her attachment to her current life and her reluctance to let go of her routine.

By paying attention to the setting, the reader can better grasp the symbolic meaning of the chrysanthemums in the story. Each of the elements above helps create a rich, complex web of symbolism that adds depth and meaning to the story’s themes.

The role of language in constructing the chrysanthemums’ symbolism

The language used in “The Chrysanthemums” helps to construct the symbolism associated with the flowers. By utilizing specific words and phrases, John Steinbeck creates a powerful image of the chrysanthemums and their meaning within the story.

  • The word “bloom” is used to describe the opening of the chrysanthemums, which represents the awakening of Elisa’s sexuality.
  • Elisa is described as wearing “a man’s black hat,” which symbolizes her desire for equality with men and her unhappiness with her status as a woman in society.
  • The tinker’s wagon is described as having “a canopy of canvas that flapped and snapped in the breeze,” which reflects the transient nature of his life and his lack of roots or a stable home.

The symbolism of the chrysanthemums is further constructed through the dialogue that takes place in the story. The conversation between Elisa and the tinker revolves around the flowers and their potential to grow and thrive. This reflects both Elisa’s desire to grow and develop as a person, and the tinker’s inability to do so due to his nomadic existence.

Another example of the role of language in constructing symbolism can be seen in the way Elisa describes the chrysanthemum seeds to the tinker. She tells him that each seed “is a complete thing. It has everything necessary to develop and grow into a whole plant.” This mirrors Elisa’s own desire for completeness and growth as an individual.

Finally, the use of color in the story also contributes to the symbolism associated with the chrysanthemums. The flowers are described as having a “deep, full, hot color,” which represents both Elisa’s passion and the potential for her sexuality to blossom.

Symbolism Description
Blooming Chrysanthemums The awakening of Elisa’s sexuality
Black Hat Elisa’s desire for equality with men and unhappiness with her status as a woman
The Tinker’s Wagon The transient nature of his life and his lack of roots or a stable home
Chrysanthemum Seeds Elisa’s desire for completeness and growth as an individual
Deep Color of Chrysanthemums Elisa’s passion and the potential for her sexuality to blossom

Overall, the language used in “The Chrysanthemums” plays a vital role in constructing the symbolism associated with the flowers. Through specific words, phrases, and dialogue, John Steinbeck creates a powerful image of the chrysanthemums and their meaning within the story.

The use of color in the chrysanthemums’ symbolism

In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” the titular flower represents something different to each character in the story. To Elisa, they are a symbol of her femininity, strength, and creativity. However, to her husband Henry, they are merely a product to sell. The use of color in the story further reinforces the multi-dimensional symbolism of chrysanthemums.

  • Red: In the story, red is often associated with passion and energy. When the tinker arrives and Elisa attempts to flirt with him, she is described as having “a pink color in her cheeks” and as being “quick and eager and her eyes were bright.” Later on, when Elisa and Henry argue about going to the fights, Steinbeck writes that “Henry looked away from her and studied the road ahead. He could see her in the light of the lamps on the truck ahead of them. Her face was eager and mature and handsome.” The use of red in both scenarios highlights the passion and energy that Elisa and Henry are feeling.
  • Yellow: Yellow is often associated with happiness and joy, but in “The Chrysanthemums,” it takes on a more ambiguous tone. When the tinker returns and Elisa finds the chrysanthemum shoots he discarded, Steinbeck writes that “her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.” While Elisa is clearly happy to have the shoots, the yellow color of the flowers also represents something more complex: her desire for freedom and fulfillment beyond her domestic life.
  • White: In the story, white is used to represent purity and innocence. When Elisa first shows the tinker the chrysanthemums, he remarks that they “look like a quick puff of colored smoke.” Elisa reacts by saying that “some of those yellow ones are as high as a man’s head. I planted them. They’ll be strong this coming year.” Her use of the word “strong” suggests that she equates the chrysanthemums with her own strength and creativity. However, the quick puff of colored smoke that the tinker sees represents the fleeting nature of Elisa’s feminine power.

Overall, the use of color in “The Chrysanthemums” adds depth and nuance to the symbolic meanings of the flowers. Each color represents a different aspect of Elisa’s character, as well as her hopes and desires. While the chrysanthemums themselves are limited in their ability to fully express these complex emotions, their use as a symbol allows Steinbeck to explore the many facets of Elisa’s identity.

In addition to color, Steinbeck also uses other literary devices to convey the symbolism of the chrysanthemums in the story. These include imagery, metaphor, and dialogue. Through these techniques, the reader gains a fuller understanding of the complexity and richness of the chrysanthemums’ symbolism in the story.

Color Symbolism
Red Passion and energy
Yellow Happiness, joy, and desire for freedom
White Purity and innocence; Elisa’s strength and creativity

The various colors of the chrysanthemums in “The Chrysanthemums” serve to deepen and enrich the story’s multi-layered symbolism. Through the use of color, Steinbeck conveys complex emotions, desires, and identities, allowing the reader to fully appreciate the intricate nature of the story and its characters.

The chrysanthemums as a representation of confinement and unfulfilled potential

The chrysanthemums in John Steinbeck’s eponymous short story are an apt representation of confinement and unfulfilled potential. Using the symbolism of the flowers, Steinbeck reveals in a subtle yet powerful way the gender restrictions, societal norms and personal limitations that oppressed Elisa Allen, the story’s protagonist.

The chrysanthemums, initially introduced as “a symbol of… Elisa’s inner self,” are confined to a pot, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for Elisa’s limited world as a woman in the patriarchal society of the 1930s. The flowers are prevented from reaching their full potential; they are “strong enough… but not big.” Similarly, Elisa’s potential is stifled by the societal expectations of women during the era.

The story juxtaposed Elisa’s confinement and lack of potential with a vagabond tinker who travels freely and appears to have unlimited potential. The tinker foreshadows the freedom and adventure Elisa will never experience, and the chrysanthemums serve as a metaphor for her unfulfilled potential. While the tinker “throws pots” as part of his trade, Elisa is trapped in her role as a homemaker and gardener.

What do the chrysanthemums symbolize in The Chrysanthemums?

  • The chrysanthemums represent Elisa’s inner self.
  • The flowers symbolize confinement and limitations.
  • Their unfulfilled potential serves as a metaphor for Elisa’s life.

Gender roles and societal expectations

As a woman in the 1930s, Elisa’s role was limited, and her potential was confined by societal expectations and gender roles. She was expected to be a homemaker, a caregiver, and to find fulfillment within those roles. However, Elisa yearned for more. Her desire for self-expression and fulfillment was evident when she engaged the tinker in a conversation and was visibly excited about the prospect of leaving her home to see the world. Her excitement was short-lived as the tinker’s rejection of her advances highlighted the limitations of her gender in society.

Through the chrysanthemums, Steinbeck showcased the confinement women faced in society and the limitations placed on their potential. The flowers, while beautiful and strong, did not fulfill their potential, much like Elisa, who was intelligent, capable, and creative but was held back by societal expectations.

Table of symbolism in The Chrysanthemums

Symbol Representation
Chrysanthemums Elisa’s inner self, confinement, unfulfilled potential
Pot The patriarchal society’s limitations on women
Tinker Freedom and unlimited potential

The use of symbols in The Chrysanthemums serves as a commentary on the societal norms and limitations placed on women in the 1930s. Through Elisa’s character and her interactions with the flowers and the tinker, Steinbeck weaves a powerful commentary on gender roles, societal expectations, and the potential consequences of limiting a person’s freedoms and aspirations.

The Chrysanthemums as a Symbol of Struggle Against Societal Norms and Restrictions

In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” the titular flowers serve as a multifaceted symbol for the protagonist’s struggle against societal norms and restrictions. Elisa Allen, the main character, desires freedom and fulfillment beyond her role as a wife and gardener in a patriarchal society that limits women’s opportunities for self-expression and fulfillment.

  • The chrysanthemums symbolize confinement and restriction
  • In the story, Elisa’s chrysanthemums are confined to a small pot, much like Elisa’s own confinement within her domestic and societal roles
  • When the tinker shows interest in the chrysanthemums, Elisa feels a sense of liberation and possibility, symbolizing her own desire to break free from societal restrictions

Elisa’s struggle is further emphasized through the use of vivid imagery, such as the fence surrounding her garden and the hills that seem to trap her within the valley. As the story progresses, Elisa becomes increasingly desperate for freedom, culminating in her brief flirtation with the tinker and subsequent disappointment when she realizes he sees her only as a customer and not as a person.

The chrysanthemums also represent a sense of femininity and vitality that Elisa is denied in her everyday life. When she tends to her beloved flowers, she is in control, knowledgeable, and skilled, emotions she is not allowed to express in other parts of her life.

Symbolism Interpretation
Chrysanthemums in a small pot Elisa’s confinement and restriction within her societal roles
Tinker’s interest in the chrysanthemums Elisa’s desire for freedom and escape from societal norms
Elisa’s care for the chrysanthemums Elisa’s desire for agency and control within her life

“The Chrysanthemums” highlights the struggles of women in 1930s America, emphasizing the pervasive societal expectations that limit female agency and fulfillment. The chrysanthemums serve as a powerful symbol for Elisa’s desire for freedom and escape from these restrictions, representing the stifling societal norms that prevent her from reaching her full potential as an individual.

The chrysanthemums as a symbol of rebirth and resilience.

The chrysanthemum is a flower that carries a deep significance in many cultures around the world. In the Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, the flower is used as a symbol to represent various themes including rebirth and resilience.

The protagonist in the story, Elisa Allen, is portrayed as a strong and independent woman who is trapped in a constricting societal role. Her encounter with the tinker and the subsequent planting of the chrysanthemums marks a turning point for Elisa, and represents her journey towards self-discovery and rebirth.

  • Rebirth and renewal:
  • The chrysanthemum is a flower that symbolizes new beginnings, rebirth, and renewal. In the story, Elisa’s relationship with the tinker prompts her to take a step outside of her comfort zone and embrace new perspectives. The act of planting the chrysanthemums is a metaphor for Elisa’s own personal growth and transformation.

  • Resilience:
  • The chrysanthemum is a resilient flower, able to withstand difficult conditions and continue to thrive. Elisa herself is also an image of resilience, as she is able to maintain her strength and spirit in the face of societal constraints and the disappointment of her unfulfilled dreams.

  • Color symbolism:
  • The different colors of the chrysanthemums in the story also carry their own symbolic meanings. The red chrysanthemums symbolize love and passion, while the white ones represent purity and innocence. Elisa’s connection to the red flowers in particular represents her suppressed desires and longing for a more fulfilling life.

The use of the chrysanthemums as a symbol in The Chrysanthemums emphasizes the themes of rebirth and resilience that are central to the story. It highlights the idea that, like the flower, people have the capability to overcome adversity and come out stronger on the other side.


Overall, the chrysanthemums are an essential symbol in The Chrysanthemums, representing both rebirth and resilience in the story. The use of this flower highlights the idea that personal growth and transformation are possible even in the face of hardship. Through Elisa’s journey, we see that just like the chrysanthemum, people too have the capacity to overcome challenges and thrive.

Symbolism Meaning
Chrysanthemum Rebirth and resilience
Red color Passion and love
White color Purity and innocence

The Chrysanthemums is a powerful story that highlights the resilience of the human spirit and the potential for personal growth and transformation. The symbolic use of the chrysanthemum adds a deeper layer of meaning to this theme, reminding us that even in the darkest of moments, there is always the possibility for renewal and rebirth.

What Do the Chrysanthemums Symbolize in “The Chrysanthemums”?

1. What are chrysanthemums?
Chrysanthemums are a type of flower that typically bloom in the fall. They come in a wide variety of colors and are often used in gardening or as decorative flowers in floral arrangements.

2. What do the chrysanthemums symbolize in “The Chrysanthemums”?
In the story “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s repressed sexuality and unfulfilled desires.

3. How are the chrysanthemums described in the story?
The chrysanthemums in the story are described as “hardy” and “tight-closed” at the beginning, but become “flaming” and “energetic” later on. This is symbolic of Elisa’s initial restraint and eventual passion.

4. Why are chrysanthemums significant in the story?
The chrysanthemums are significant in the story because they represent Elisa’s hopes and dreams, as well as her frustration with her current life.

5. What is the significance of the appearance of the tinker?
The appearance of the tinker represents a potential escape from Elisa’s mundane life and unfulfilled desires.

6. How does the tinker’s reaction to the chrysanthemums impact the story?
The tinker’s lack of interest in the chrysanthemums symbolizes his lack of interest in Elisa as a person and as a sexual being, ultimately crushing her hopes and dreams.

7. What is the overall message of the story?
The overall message of the story is that women are often repressed and unfulfilled in their desires, and that societal constructs and gender roles can hinder their personal growth and happiness.

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