Echoes in Steinbeck’s “Chrysanthemums” and Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate”
“She threw a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate…”
The Chrysanthemums is a powerful yet subtle short story near the beginning of John Steinbeck’s 1938 collection of stories titled The Long Valley. Though I’ve not read the book in thirty years, I remember vividly several of the stories, this one especially. All the stories in this collection have California’s Salinas Valley as their setting.
There are three characters in this particular Steinbeck story. Elisa, an intelligent and attractive woman in her mid-thirties, who works on the farm. Her husband Henry. And a tinker who stops by while she is working on her chrysanthemums.
SPOILER ALERT: If you want to read it first, go here or proceed with this analysis if it doesn’t matter to you.
The story is simplicity itself. Henry goes to town, a tinker pulls his rickety wagon into her driveway. A conversation ensues, followed by a transaction. The smooth-talking tinker persuades Elisa to purchase his services to fix a pot or pan, and during this brief encounter she is enamored by his worldliness, the fact that he has been around. Impressed as he is by her flowers, she gets down on her knees and pulls some chrysanthemums for him, which he graciously receives.
It’s all so very understated and appears to be such a simple story, until Henry gets home and she has bathed to go out with him, feeling a rush of excitement about life. As she and Henry drive off down the road she sees something that makes her ill, at which she is afraid to look though she knows what it is. The tinker has dumped the flowers on the road. Inwardly she says bitterly that at least he could have dumped them off the road and made a pretext of caring.
The transaction is sexually charged even though no sexual action has taken place. Yet the very description of Elisa kneeling before him to provide him with the chrysanthemums is presented in a manner that implies sexual submission. In the end she pays the tinker 50 cents for fixing something for her. Which he tosses into his cup.
This moment of transaction is the second echo that brought to mind Dylan’s “Twist of Fate.” I can here Elisa’s coins as they clink into the tinker’s tin. It’s the same sound that we hear as “she dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate / and forgot about a simple twist of fate.”
The story ends with Elisa asking questions about what it’s like to see a boxing match in person. Men see all kinds of things outside the scope of a woman’s experience and she wants to know. I see the description of the fight, however, as metaphor for her own experience with the tinker and the chrysanthemums. Seeing her flowers in the road, yielded from a very personal place within herself, strikes her hard, like the bloodied fists of professional boxers, breaking noses and leaving welts, or worse.
In 2013, when I wrote about Dylan’s Simple Twist of Fate, I used it to illustrate the meaning of cognitive dissonance, that feeling of discomfort that occurs when one holds conflicting ideas, beliefs or convictions. This time around, and maybe my fourth time, I’ve been struck by another matter that parallels Steinbeck’s story, which is a recurring theme in both music and literature. One character is living with illusions while the other has no illusions about the relationship. In Steinbeck’s story it’s Elisa who is living with illusions. In Dylan’s song here it’s the young man.
He knows she’s just a hooker, a woman who’s working the waterfront “where the sailors all come in.” Yet he secretly believes there’s a relationship between them. Or so he lies to himself. She, on the other hand, has no such illusions. For her, the transaction in the motel room is forgotten as quickly as it occurred.
Nevertheless, the man is not dissuaded and like a Pavlovian dog he keeps returning to the waterfront to find her. “Maybe she’ll pick him out again / How long must he wait?”
Dylan’s story here parallels a similar story, though Robert Gover’s Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding also has a racial element as well. In Gover’s 1962 bestselling novel the main character is a white college student whose heart has been captured by a 14-year-old black girl who works at a house of ill repute in the Deep South. The college student has illusions about their relationship, but for Kitty there are no illusions. This is a financial transaction, nothing more.
When the sun comes up, and we see the light do we hide our heads in the sand so we can hold on to our illusions?
Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” is similarly a song about the stripping away of illusions.
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal
Elisa had something stolen from her. In her case it wasn’t everything, but it was something real… her dignity.
Dylan wasn’t simply aware of Gover’s novel, he later praised it in a 1963 interview with Studs Terkel on radio station WFMT. Maybe there was a seed sown when he’d read it that blossomed into this great song from Blood on the Tracks, another simple twist of fate.
Interested in reading more about The Chrysanthemums? Click here.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com