Short Story Month, Day 17: "The Chrysanthemums"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Rachel Cochran. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t “get” John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” the first time I read it.  I was nineteen, and it was assigned in a writing workshop class I was taking, sandwiched between readings that were more exciting and more bizarre (Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” comes to mind).  I knew and liked Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, but “The Chrysanthemums” dragged through its few pages.  I watched Elisa Allen in her garden, “over-eager, over-powerful”, but I was unmoved by her story.  I thought the dialogue was unextraordinary, the symbolism overt, and I kept waiting for something to happen.  The stories I was used to, after all, had opium addicts and bodies walled up in wine cellars.

The end surprised me.  After Elisa cried, I turned the page searching for more story, and there was none.  I looked for an explanation, for an action, but that wasn’t the story Steinbeck wrote.  The teenage me would have mentally rewritten an ending where Elisa Allen goes to a violent fight and watches the boxer’s gloves become saturated with blood, lives for a day as a man.  Perhaps she even would have left her home, taken to the road like the traveling tinker whose life so fascinated and inspired her, finding work where she could and sleeping in the backs of wagons.

Surprise quickly faded to confusion, and I looked back on the story as though it was an easy puzzle I hadn’t been able to piece together.  Always a bright student–a perennial favorite with my English teachers–I wasn’t about to let such a short story pass me by without understanding everything there was to know about it.  Approaching the story with new eyes, I read again.

I found that reading took energy from me.  The weight I now gave to every word, to all nuances of dialogue, positively drained me.  I began to understand that, in a work like this so much more than in a novel, each phrase had to elbow for space, and what came across to the reader was the dimmest glance into a person’s life.  But if you really paid attention, then those glances were not aimed at the faces and arms and bodies of the men and women at work, not at their actions or even their thoughts, but somehow at the strongest essence of what they were.  Characters in novels might languish and slowly form in a way that characters in short stories cannot do.  Elisa was only able to exist for one afternoon of her life, but rather than saturate the prose with a brief history of Elisa’s life so that I might understand why she cries in the end, Steinbeck let me stand in for her and provide that understanding myself.  If that means some readers walk away from the story underwhelmed as I was the first time, that was a risk Steinbeck was willing to take.

What “The Chrystanthemums” taught me is that while event may be external, change is internal.  It taught me ways of saying without saying.  Elisa suppresses and cries because we all suppress and cry.  The second time I reached the ending, I cried alongside her.

Rachel Cochran received her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is a current MA candidate specializing in Creative Writing – Fiction at the University of Missouri.