So many great books and so many great authors. And the majority of them it seems, I've not yet read. I don't think I will ever catch up no matter how fast I go! I'm sure I read something by John Steinbeck when I was in school, but sadly so much of what I read when I was younger is now just a hazy memory, and a memory that I can't even be certain of anymore.
These days I tend to favor British literature over anything else, but it almost seems to be at a detriment to American authors to say nothing of foreign writers. Of all the books I'm currently reading only one is by an American the rest are British. I really should rectify that and vary my reading more (how often do I say this, though). I decided to at least get a taste of John Steinbeck's work this weekend and pulled out my trusty copy of 50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane to read his very famous "The Chrysanthemums". It's an intriguing story, though I found it to be very sad. It's steeped in symbolism, which I've never been very good at deciphering, so I had to do a little extra reading. It's been widely written about with various interpretations and even a bit of controversy. I'm only going to give my own few impressions here. If you've not read the story, I highly recommend it. Beware of possible spoilers below.
The story is set in California's Salinas Valley in winter. Elisa and Henry Allen own a ranch, where Henry takes care of the cattle and Elisa looks after their home and works on her flower garden, which consists of gorgeous chrysanthemums that Elisa takes great pride in. You get the feeling that Elisa is not terribly contented with her life on the ranch though she's very competent. She's 35 with a face long and lean and eyes clear as water.
"Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked."
Although Henry doesn't seem unloving, and he does notice and compliment her flowers, he also doesn't appear entirely in tune with how his wife feels. While Henry is off rounding up the cattle he's just sold, a tinker passes by in his slightly ramshackle caravan. He's appearance is somewhat unkempt though not overly displeasing. He takes great interest in Elisa's garden and tries to talk her into having some of her pots repaired or scissors sharpened. When she turns him down he asks for some of her chrysanthemum seeds that another customer asked him for but he wasn't able to provide. Elisa is flattered and takes great care to give him not just seeds, but tiny new shoots that she plants in a pot for him. In the end she gives in and offers the tinker a pot to be repaired so he will have some money to buy dinner with.
Elisa's encounter with the tinker has a strange effect on her. As a way of celebrating the sale of the cattle, Henry and Elisa decide to eat away from home. Elisa chooses her nicest clothes and pays great attention to her face and hair in anticipation. Henry compliments her again on how nice she looks though is bewildered by her actions and responses. she seems almost like a different woman. Her happy contentment will be dashed when she spots the tiny chrysanthemum shots laying on the road. The tinker dumped them out but kept the pot. His attentions to her and her flowers was false. He only wanted to flatter her into giving him some business.
Elisa (and maybe Henry, too) is extremely discontent with her life and the tinker's attentions and his free lifestyle on the road only brings home to her how unhappy she is. She comments on how lucky the tinker is to be able to travel and she would like to as well, but "it's no life for a woman". As to where this unhappiness stems from? Some critics seem to blame it on sexual unhappiness in her married life. She's stuck in a relationship or situation that isn't fully loving and fulfilling and childless as well. Perhaps two unhappy people are stuck together in marriage but don't know how to unstick themselves.
I suspect this is a story that a group of readers could read and everyone would come up with a different interpretation or explanation. And no doubt it is the sort of story that would become clearer with more than one reading and discussion as well. And like every other short story author I read every weekend--I really need to read more of his work.