Study Guide for John Steinbeck‘s “The Chrysanthemums” (1938)

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  1. In The Story and Its Writer (Ann Charters, Ed., 1998) Jay Parini writes that the story “opens with a personified landscape, a paysage moralise in which the weather and geographical setting are deeply symbolic” (p. 1530). Examine the opening paragraphs of the story to identify the details of the imagery of the weather and the geographical setting. Then discuss how Steinbeck’s description helps to reinforce the major themes of the story and what it reveals about the characters in the story. For example, comment on what the following would stand for: fog, rain, clouds.
  2. Identify the details of Elisa’s physical description in the earlier paragraphs of the story and discuss what it reveals about her as a wife and a gardener. What is the symbolic value of Elisa’s chrysanthemums and her garden?
  3. Study the conversations between Elisa and her husband at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the story and discuss what the conversations reveal about them?
  4. Comment on what the following quotes might reveal about Henry: “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.” /“You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat like a watermelon.”
  5. Why does Steinbeck use a limited third person narrator in his story? How does this narrative voice affect your understanding of the story?
  6. Why is the tinker given no name in the story?
  7. Identify the paragraphs that describe Elisa’s encounter with the tinker and then discuss the symbolic value of her encounter with this man.
  8. What could Elisa’s taking a bath after the tinker’s departure signify? What does Steinbeck’s description of Elisa’s looking at herself in the mirror reveal about her?
  9. Analyze the tinker’s character in relation to the following quote from the story: “She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”
  10. Why does Elisa think about the prize fights at the end of the story?
  11. Comment on the last paragraph of the story. Why does Elisa cry weakly – like an old woman?

© Ali Nihat Eken, Istanbul, October 2008
Photo: Courtesy of Digital Vision

Useful links: Life and Times of SteinbeckFrequently Asked Questions / Listen to Steinbeck’s Banquet Speech – Nobel Prize in Lietarture 1962 / The National Steinbeck Center / Center for Steinbeck Studies / Fast Facts About Steinbeck / Watch: PBS Video /YouTube Video: Reflections on Steinbeck /

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