Chapter 4 continues

The story so far: The Rev. Mayfield dispenses fire and brimstone.

On Monday, final hour, in his 11th grade class, something marvelous happened.

He had assigned a short story in their anthology, "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck. It provoked a discussion the likes of which he had not enjoyed before.

The story concerns a married couple living on a farm near Salinas, California, Elisa and Henry Allen. Henry has just sold some cattle and to celebrate asks Elisa if she'd like to go into town for dinner. She agrees. As she continues work in her flower garden, a man comes up the road in an old wagon and asks if she has some work for him. He is a tinker. She tells him no. The man appears to take an interest in the chrysanthemums she is cultivating, however, and tells her that he knows a woman up the road who would like to grow some too.

Elisa's attitude toward him changes at once. Very pleased, even excited, she puts several clippings in pots for him and gives him detailed instructions for planting. She also gives him, feeling a little guilty, a couple of old saucepans to pound out for her. Later, as she and Henry drive into town, she sees clumps of dirt along the side of the road and knows that the man has thrown out her clippings, keeping only the pots because they might be worth a few pennies to him. She understands that she has been used. Collapsing inside, she weeps silently.

Allen had been afraid that the story might be too subtle for his 16-year-old students. It wasn't.

"How do we know that Elisa is more capable than her husband?" he asked.

"She grows giant chrysanthemums," a girl said.

"Is that hard to do?"

"It requires a special talent. She has a green thumb. Like my mother."

"And how do we know that Henry is not quite in the same class with her?"

Little Jimmy Kvist, the smallest boy in the class but apparently unbothered by his size, responded at once. "When he sells his cattle he tells her that he got almost his own price. She would have gotten full price for them. Maybe more."

"Exactly. You get an A for today, Jimmy," Allen said.

Everybody laughed.

After that, the discussion soared. They commented on the fact that Elisa covers up her own potential by wearing heavy clothes in the garden — a man's black hat, clod-hopper shoes and leather gloves. When Henry admires her flowers and teasingly suggests that she might work in the orchard and grow apples as big as her flowers, she tells him that she could.

"Why doesn't she work in the orchard?" he asked. "Why doesn't she help out on the farm?"

"Because it's not considered women's work," a girl said.

"And how would Henry feel if she really did go to work in the orchard?"

"He might feel threatened. She would grow bigger apples than he does."

"Yes, very good." He was pleased with their responses. "Do you think Henry understands that?" he asked.

"He's a dummy. He doesn't know what he's married to."

More laughter.

Then little JoAnne Winner in the front row waved her tiny hand. "I think their relationship is very formal," she said. "Their conversation sounds awfully stiff. When he asks her if she wants to have dinner in town, all she says is 'That would be nice.' Isn't that strange? She doesn't seem excited at all. She doesn't say, 'Oh, gee, that sounds like fun — let's do it.' "

"Good." Allen hesitated. Should he ask this question or not? He did. "And what about Henry?" he asked. "Is he excited? Does he have an ulterior motive for suggesting that they have dinner in town?"

Now JoAnne Winner was bursting with excitement. "He wants to sleep with her afterwards," she said. "He thinks that if he takes her out to eat she'll go to bed with him when they get home."

Roars of laughter.

"You're absolutely right. You get an A for today too. That's the way we men are. Do you think they sleep together very often?"

"Once a year," boomed a big voice from the back of the room.

More laughter.

"They even sleep in separate rooms," someone said. "Near the end of the story, when Henry comes in the house and asks where she is, she says 'I'm in my room'."

"Very good. So might we say that Elisa is unfulfilled?"

"Unfulfilled is right," said JoAnne Winner, "and it's his fault. He's just a clod."

"But not a bad clod, right? He's a nice guy, don't you think? He doesn't get drunk or beat her or chase after women. He just doesn't understand what's going on."

"Like most guys."

They talked at length about her relationship with the man in the wagon. Was there more, he asked, to that brief encounter than met the eye?

They looked at him questioningly. So he talked for a moment about symbolism in fiction, how certain objects or acts might represent something beyond themselves. "Why does she seem so emotional when she cuts the clippings for him?" he asked. "What does that symbolize? Why does she take off her heavy leather gloves?" He read a little bit from the story, how her hands move instinctively, how they become one with the plants, how her breasts swell passionately, how she reaches out and almost touches his trousers.

"They're having sex!" little Jimmy Kvist shouted.

Whoops from the back of the room.

More laughter.

"Yes. They're having sex. Not literally, of course, but symbolically. Literally, nothing happens. Symbolically, everything happens. She's transformed. She's rejuvenated." He wasn't sure they knew the word. "Not only is she satisfied — she's inspired."

"Is that what happens after sex?" someone asked.

"That's what's supposed to happen after sex," he said. "Elisa not only feels herself a woman, she understands her own power." He paused a moment, glancing at his notes. "For what other reason does she feel that power? Why does she feel so strong after he leaves?"

"It's because when she sends those clippings off to someone else," a girl said, "she's extended herself. She's no longer contained by that little farm. She's grown."

"That's a wonderful answer."

"And she takes a bath — that's symbolic too, isn't it? — and puts on her prettiest clothes. Her husband hardly recognizes her."

"Good. And what does the bath symbolize?" he asked.

He waited for an answer. They looked as if they were concentrating hard.

Tomorrow: Chapter 4 continues.