The story opens with a panoramic view of the Salinas Valley in winter, shrouded in fog. The focus narrows and finally settles on Elisa Allen, cutting down the spent stalks of Chrysanthemums in the garden on her husband’s ranch. Elisa is thirty-five, lean and strong, and she approaches her gardening with great energy. Her husband Henry comes from across the yard, where he has been arranging the sale of thirty steer, and offers to take Elisa to town for dinner and movie to celebrate the sale. He praises her skill with flowers, and she congratulates him on doing well in the negotiations for the steer. They seem a well-matched couple, though their way of talking together is formal and serious. Henry heads off to finish some chores, and Elisa decides to finish her transplanting before they get ready to leave for town.
Soon Elisa hears “a squeak of wheels and a plod of hoofs,” and a man drives up in an old wagon. (He is never named; the narrator calls him simply “the man.”) The man is large and dirty, and clearly used to being alone. He earns a meager living fixing pots and sharpening scissors and knives, traveling from San Diego, California, to Seattle, Washington, and back every year. The man chats and jokes with Elisa, who answers his bantering tone but has no work for him to do. When he presses for a small job, she becomes annoyed and tries to send him away.
Suddenly the man’s attention turns to the flowers that Elisa is tending. When he asks about them, Elisa’s annoyance vanishes, and she becomes friendly again. The man remembers seeing chrysanthemums before, and describes them: “Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” Elisa is delighted with his description. The man tells her about one of his regular customers who also gardens, and who always has work for him when he comes by. She has asked him to keep his eyes open in his travels, and to bring her some chrysanthemum seeds if he ever finds some. Now Elisa is captivated. She invites the man into the yard, prepares a pot of chrysanthemum cuttings for the woman’s garden, and gives him full instructions for tending them. Clearly, Elisa envies the man’s life on the road and is attracted to him because he understands her love of flowers. In a moment of extreme emotion she nearly reaches for him, but snatches her hand back before she touches him. Instead, she finds him two pots to mend, and he drives away with fifty cents and the cuttings, promising to take care of the plants until he can deliver them to the other woman.
Elisa goes into the house to get dressed for dinner. She scrubs herself vigorously and examines her naked body in the mirror before putting on her dress and makeup. When Henry finds her, he compliments her, telling her she looks “different, strong and happy.” “I’m strong,” she boasts. “I never knew before how strong.” As Henry and Elisa drive into town, she sees a dark speck ahead on the road. It turns out to be the cuttings the man has tossed out of his wagon. She does not mention them to Henry, who has not seen them, and she turns her head so he cannot see her crying.
- Busch, Christopher S. "Longing for the Lost Frontier: Steinbeck's Vision of Cultural Decline in 'The White Quail' and 'The Chrysanthemums'." Steinbeck Quarterly 26.03-04 (Summer/Fall 1993): 81-90.
- Pellow, C. Kenneth. "'The Chrysanthemums' Revisited." Steinbeck Quarterly 22.01-02 (Winter/Spring 1989): 8-16.