In this story, we encounter a woman who has led a systematic, slumbering farm existence until she unexpectedly encounters an unusual peddler. She is then transformed briefly into a vivacious young girl before she realizes that her fantasies and the stranger are both cruelly fraudulent. Meanwhile her husband is largely unaware of the deeply disturbing metamorphosis his wife has undergone as he sits beside her at the end of the story, steering their little roadster into town to share a rare night out together.
The story opens peacefully. It is a time of quiet, Steinbeck says, but the tranquility of this mood contains an ambivalent oppressiveness and anticipation. Elisa Allen is alone, tending her garden. Not only is she alone but the farm itself, even the Salinas Valley, seems to be isolated. High dark fog rises all around the valley walls, its flannel-like texture shutting this small world off and isolating it so that we are forced to peer closely into it for small signs of life. There is no sun in the valley, and the cold December sky seems to have dropped like a lid onto the top of the valley.
The earth is colored unnaturally dark, like metal; the fields hold no crops, only stiff stubble, and there is only thick scrub along the riverbanks.
In Steinbeck's descriptive setting of the valley and the land, he suggests a sense of barrenness and, at the same time, a hope that the earth might once again become pregnant with life, but the optimism is only a mild hope because today's fog is proof that the skies will not promise rain because "fog and rain do not go together." The people and the land must be patient, doing small idle tasks during this time of quiet and of waiting.
For example, there is little farm work now to be done on the Allen farm. The hay has been cut and stored and the orchards have been plowed up, their thirsty furrows awaiting rain. The only activity on the Allen farm is the quick decisive snipping being done by a small figure bending low over the dead stalks of last year's chrysanthemums.
Elisa Allen's hands move eagerly, almost too eagerly and too powerfully for the small chrysanthemum stems. At work is a woman who seems trapped beneath her heavy work clothes. She lives alone with her farmer husband, she has no children, and has transplanted her energies into creating substitutes for her lack of children raising immense chrysanthemums. Except for the smudge of dirt on her cheek, which she left there when brushing a cloud of hair out of her eyes, she is as solid as her farm. If some women refer to themselves as housewives, she might be considered a farm wife, as sturdy as her "hard-swept little house." When Steinbeck notes the accidental smudge on Elisa's face, he suggests that her face is usually clean, perhaps as clean as her house with its "hard-polished windows." Her heavy garments protect her body from the weather — from rain if it comes and from dirt and garden soil in the same way that they also protect her from the world beyond this valley.
She glances briefly at the strangers standing by the tractor shed who are talking with her husband. Earlier in the story, she had looked across the yard and watched them for a moment. The visual contact with the strangers kindled a spark of interest and curiosity within her. The appearance of a stranger is usually a moment of anxiety and anticipation for one who lives in a rural setting — and it is especially significant here that she "sees" the strangers. She does not "hear" them for instance; nor is the basic conflict in this story initiated by perhaps her "feeling" in the air a raindrop or by Steinbeck's having her nibble and taste one of the green sprouts of chrysanthemums as she studies the strangers. Recall that when describing Elisa, Steinbeck focused on her dumpy, armor-like clothes, but said that her features were hidden beneath a man's black hat. We could not see her eyes; it was Steinbeck who had to tell us that "her eyes were clear as water." They, of all her senses, seem to have retained the freshness of a young woman's vision, just as her gardening actions belie her stolid, obtuse appearance. Her energy has been largely squandered by years of acquiescing to farm chores, yet it remains still alive as she flashes her knife across the dead chrysanthemums, then removes a glove and thrusts a hand into the "forest of new green chrysanthemums that were growing around the old roots."
Steinbeck's symbols here are lush with both sterility and fecundity. Since this story will focus on a woman's new awareness of herself, we are being prepared for Elisa's responding to a man in a way that she has not done for a long time — if ever. Already she is unconsciously readying to open herself to new possibilities as she touches the tender new chrysanthemum sprouts. She spreads the leaves, examining the clean virgin growth. They are as immaculate as the moments that await her. She looks closer, as Steinbeck comments that she discovers no sowbugs or snails or cutworms among the old straw-stubble roots. She has been "terrior-like" in protecting her flowering chrysanthemums as she has been with her own life. Soon a stranger will offer her a world of spontaneity and gladness and she will accept the novelty of his allure and be as responsive to him as the new chrysanthemums are to be planted and begin new life. Elisa's garden, evocative of Eden if one elides the sounds of Elisa and Allen, will be invaded by a large, dark stranger offering to repair and sharpen whatever of Elisa's has become dulled — and if one extends the metaphor to Elisa herself — he offers to sharpen a life that has become prosaic, tedious, and spiritless.
The profoundness of Elisa's trance-like state is so full that her husband's approach startles her when he speaks to her beyond the wire fence. His words are sufficient to return her to her former repose. It is as though he had interrupted her while she was naked, for her back stiffens and she pulls on her gardening glove again. A sternness and pride reassert themselves within her. She is a good gardener — one of the best — so unique that her husband Henry calls her ability to grow remarkable flowers a "gift." He wishes that she would garden in his orchard and touch his apples with her magic instead of being content to dabble with flowers. She considers it for a moment and is convinced that if she chose, she would be effective with Henry's orchard because her mother also had this gift. Whatever her mother stuck into the ground, she could make it grow. Elisa has that same gift — but she has confined it to working with flowers. And what flowers she has created! They are monstrous in proportion and symbolic of their having sapped her life and infused themselves with her vitality. No one else's flowers can equal her chrysanthemums, flowers that are curiously unflower-like: brittle colored and largely impervious to wind and drought.
Within the next few minutes, Elisa will be offered two proposals. Henry's offer to her will be to celebrate his sale of some steers and, with the profits, they will go into town, buy a dinner at a restaurant, and see a movie. How ironic that her simple farmer-husband would offer her as a treat a meal and a movie. Movies themselves are worlds of make-believe that one substitutes for escape and, doubly ironic, is the fact that the movie will be paid for with the money that Henry receives for selling a herd of steers. Elisa's response to Henry is similar to previous actions: rote-like. "Good," she repeats three times and checks with Henry to make sure they will not attend the fights tonight. Fights frighten her. Within the shelter of her husband and her prescribed farm rituals, venturing no farther than town and an occasional movie, Elisa is safe and so returns to her chrysanthemums again.
Elisa's other proposal comes from the stranger. First, she hears a squeak of wheels and a plod of hoofs. Metaphorically, the sounds are unpleasant and diabolical. The wagon carrying the stranger is twice described as curious; and it is drawn by both a horse and a burro, an unlikely team. Following behind the back wheels of the wagon is a rangy dog, a mongrel that parallels the grotesqueness of the "crawling" schooner-topped wagon and its mismatched team of work animals. Emblazoned on the canvas of the wagon's sides are advertisements that are clumsily and crookedly painted.
The man driving the wagon offers to mend pots and pans, knives, scissors and also lawnmowers. This last word has been painted as two words (lawn and mores) and connotes metaphorically that the driver can deal also with "mores" — standards of behavior. This is emphatically proclaimed because on the second line of the advertisement is painted the "triumphantly definitive" word "Fixed" in black paint, further underscored by drips of sharp paint points below each letter.
The wagon is a strange apparition, most unlike the Allen farm vehicles. It is crazy and loose-jointed and its crooked old wheels skirl and squeak, then stop before the house. The horse and burro pause, drooping "like unwatered flowers." They are as dry and weary as their owner, who is already eyeing the woman before him. The Allen's farm dogs dash out toward the invading vehicle, protective of their mistress and their territory, and the dog belonging to the man on the wagon seat retreats. Elisa notices its raised hackles and bared teeth.
The dog's owner warns Elisa that the mongrel is a bad animal, especially in a fight "when he gets started" and Elisa laughs. The man echoes her laughter but their laughter is not alike. Elisa's is motivated by nervousness and fear and the man's by his mocking powerfulness. Like Elisa he is not old, and once he ceases laughing, his eyes become dark and brooding.
Removing his battered hat, the man explains that he is "off my general road." Elisa discourages him from attempting to try and ford across the river to the Los Angeles highway because of the deep sand but the stranger is insistent, and Elisa realizes that the man, his team, and his dog are creatures of determination "once they get started," a phrase of his that she jokes with him about. There is a coyness to the couple's conversation as he tells her that he lives by no set schedule nor is he in a hurry. Like Elisa's cyclical life, he goes from Seattle to San Diego but he is not bound by the seasons; he travels only when it is nice weather. Elisa echoes his word "nice," saying that his life sounds like a "nice" way to live, but her use of the word "nice" indicates a yearning to be free, for his life does consist of freedom.
He is as confident as he leans over the fence and inquires if Elisa has anything to be mended or sharpened as she is quick to resist his offer ("terrior-quick" Steinbeck referred to her as being earlier) and she is certainly as defensive as were the farm dogs at the stranger's approach.
The stranger continues to question her, willing to hammer closed the holes in her pots and sharpen her scissors, but she resists. The imagery is both phallic and female here. He implies that not only is her life dulled but that she needs a new edge of sharpening to her life and offers her sharp-as-new shears that can cut through the bondage of her humdrum life. "Sharpening scissors," he says, "is the worst kind," stating that people ruin scissors trying to sharpen them. For years Elisa has tried to sharpen her scissors by using them correctly, snipping away annually at her chrysanthemum stems, creating larger and larger blooms for a seedless variety of flowers. Chrysanthemums, one should note, must be cut, like the steers, if they are to be profitable and productive, for they carry no seeds of their own. Then they must be, ironically, inserted into sandy, not fertile, soil.
And it is not only Elisa's scissors that need sharpening: the stranger offers to pound away at the punctures in her farm pots and in her farm life-until they have been plugged and will hold liquid again. He promises to fix them "like new." The sign on his wagon proclaims his own gift.
Because of Elisa's curt insistence that she has nothing for the stranger to do, he knows that he has upset her. Thus, he tries a new tactic. His face falls to an exaggerated sadness and his voice assumes a whining undertone. He teases for her pity, explaining that he will have no supper that night and that he has always had to depend for his living on the kindness of others. Then, skillfully, he returns to the subject of her chrysanthemums. His ignorance about flowers — and his interest about the chrysanthemums — soothe Elisa's irritation. Child-like, she confesses that she alone can raise such giant white and yellow flowers. But he gambles too quickly that he has wholly charmed her, however, for she sharply retorts that her chrysanthemums do not have a nasty smell, and he is quick to agree with her that the flowers have a good, if bitter, smell — one that he likes.
Leaning ever farther across the fence, the stranger offers to be a messenger for her, offering to carry's Elisa's chrysanthemums to a woman who also appreciates beauty but whose garden lacks chrysanthemums. This woman has begged the stranger to bring her any if he ever happens to discover some and, now (miraculously) he has found some. His appeal to Elisa makes her overly generous. She explains fervently that chrysanthemums are very special flowers and require special rooting because of their lack of seeds. We sense that she imagines herself and the stranger forming a team. She will transfer some shoots into a pot and he will take them to be transplanted. Together they will create a new small world that was devoid of chrysanthemums.
He inquires if the flowers will be as beautiful as she promises and she impetuously tears off her battered hat, repeating the word "beautiful" and loosens her dark, pretty hair, exposing her loveliness. In a moment of exuberant trust, she urges the stranger to enter her garden.
Elisa's new-found happiness becomes ecstatic. She runs excitedly to the back of the house and returns with a big red flowerpot. Her once-protective gloves are now discarded and forgotten. No longer does she don them to avoid contact with the raw earth. She kneels before the stranger and digs into the soil with her fingers, pressing new starts of life into the sand and tamping around them with her knuckles. She explains to the stranger what must be done as she entrusts her prized chrysanthemums to him, and she promises that they will soon take root. Later, in the heat of midsummer they must be cut back to a length of eight inches above the ground before they erupt with buds.
Her zeal overwhelms her and then she suddenly stops. Her next set of instructions to him are difficult. They deal with nothing as rational and pragmatic as what she has been speaking of. Now she must attempt to share a knowledge that is private and almost mystical. Speaking to the stranger intimately, she reveals that the true secret of her chrysanthemums lies in what she terms "planting hands." No amount of specific gardening knowledge is necessary or crucial. One must release one's instincts and allow one's fingers to selectively choose which buds are unnecessary. A loosened sense of procreation must be released to flow down into the finger tips while one sits back and watches the fingers, unimpeded and unchecked, pluck the buds until the rhythm of plucking and creating are joined and become one with the plant. When one can achieve that harmony one cannot be wrong. Elisa's breasts swell passionately as she asks the stranger if he understands the primitive creation she has been speaking of. The sensuousness of her husky voice and the erotic quality of her conversation about the chrysanthemums release his cautiousness. His interpretation of what Elisa has uttered about her flowers he translates into rough, dangerous language. He conjures before her certain nights when he has been alone and when the silence was black and when he felt the sharpness of the stars so keenly that when he rose up with his body, he was impaled on them. And he died — in their hot, sharp loveliness.
The language is frankly sexual — and successful — and his payoff occurs when Elisa hesitantly reaches from her kneeling position and allows her fingers almost to touch his trousers. The stranger does not have to demand any more from her. He has won her as surely as if his seduction had been physical. Above her, watching her crouching low, he reminds her coldly that such excitement is "nice," but not "when you don't have no dinner."
Elisa is transformed. She scurries off to find a couple of old battered saucepans for him to mend and his manner now becomes professional. Elisa ponders his skill with the anvil and the small machine hammer. She notices as his mouth grows sure and knowing, and she asks him where he sleeps, envying his carefree life, a way of living which most people believe to be impossible for a woman. But it is a way of life that she can envisage for herself until he asserts with masculine possessiveness that "it ain't the right kind of life for a woman." He will flatter her in exchange for work, but he will not allow her to daydream about living a life similar to his. He is alarmed at Elisa's pride in herself and he is uncomfortable at her suggestion that she too could be able of beating dents out of little pots and sharpening scissors. Elisa is serious: she is confident that she could show him what a woman might do. The idea that his style of living would be too lonely for a woman and the possibility that the nights might be infested with animals creeping under the wagon does not frighten her. Nor does the stranger's abrupt leaving. She watches as he steadies himself in the seat, promises to follow her instructions, and also promises lackadaisically to keep the sand damp around the new flower shoots. Then the wagon turns and crawls back onto the road. Elisa whispers good-bye to him aloud, startling herself, then attempts to shake herself free from a hypnotic glowing within her.
Running hurriedly into the house, she tears off her soiled gardening clothes and flings them into a corner. She grabs up a pumice stone and begins to bathe herself until her thighs, and loins, chest and arms are scratched and red. When she is finished, she stands before a mirror, tightens her stomach, and thrusts out her full breasts. Her bathing has been a thorough cleansing away of old attitudes toward herself, old habits, and old clothes, and her fervor is so intense that her blood is heightened. She is proud and stately as she views her new magnificence.
She dresses with youthful care, pulling on her newest underclothing, her nicest stockings, and a dress that is "the symbol of her prettiness." She begins then with her face, rediscovering the clearness of its color, highlighting her lips with rouge and fashioning her eyebrows. Henry calls to her from outside, but she avoids him. She urges him to begin his own bath as she lays out his clothes and shoes, then goes to the porch and gazes toward the river road.
Henry is dumbfounded by the striking change that has occurred within his wife. She wants, even demands, compliments from him and he is further confused. He feels helpless before her and can only joke that she looks "strong enough to break a calf over her knee and happy enough to eat it like a watermelon." He hastens to the car but his joke lies heavily between them.
The two set out and it is only minutes until Elisa spies a dark speck far ahead. When they reach it, she sees the chrysanthemum sprouts lying abandoned in the road. Her eyes try to avoid them but she cannot, and alongside the chrysanthemums, her children, lie her dreams. The flowerpot, she notices, is missing; the stranger was so greedy that he dumped out the flowers and kept it. She averts her eyes as she and her husband pass the stranger's covered wagon and then she manages to rein in her fierce disappointment.
"It will be a good dinner tonight," she proclaims, determined to salvage herself and this evening. She inquires if they can have wine and, assured by Henry that they can, she asks if the fights are as bloody as she has read that they are; do the gloves really become heavy and soggy with blood? Revenge and rage fester within her. She is livid that she has allowed herself to become so weak and defenseless and dreamy that she shared her private secrets with a stranger who betrayed her.
Henry offers to take her to the fights but Elisa suddenly refuses; she is not strong enough to wrestle with a steer or eat it like a watermelon or continue her contest with the savage intruder. Her resolve crumbles and she turns up her coat collar to hide herself and her tears. The strength she felt only hours before is gone; she has become an old woman.