The Long Valley - Plot Synopsis

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"The Chrysanthemums"

Elisa Allen, the protagonist of "The Chrysanthemums," Steinbeck's most frequently anthologized short story, gardens on the foothills ranch she shares with her husband, Henry Allen.  The story opens with a description of the surrounding Salinas Valley and narrows in on Elisa Allen pruning last year's chrysanthemums as she notices Henry talking with two men in business suits.  Elisa, who is thirty-five, is described in masculine terms.  She is "lean and strong" and "looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes […] Her face was eager and mature and handsome" (1-2).  After Henry finishes his conversation, he approaches and compliments Elisa on her "gift with things," as she produces the most impressive chrysanthemum crop around (2). Henry off-handedly mentions she should come out and work in the orchard and then informs her he just sold some steer to the two businessmen with whom he was conversing. To celebrate, he offers to take Elisa into Salinas for dinner and a movie.  He jokingly offers to take her to see the "fights," but Elisa "breathlessly" refuses the offer (3). 

Henry then departs to round up the steers and a mysterious wagon comes plodding up the country road. A man, in a "worn black suit" that is "wrinkled and spotted with grease" emerges (4).  Seemingly lost, he strikes up a casual conversation with Elisa and asks if he can sharpen her scissors or mend any pots or pans.  Elisa, slightly annoyed by the man's presence, refuses the offer.  The man then notices her work in the garden and asks about her chrysanthemums. Her tone changes as she passionately explains how to plant and cut them and she gives him a flower pot containing some sprouts to take to a woman down the road whose garden, the man says, would be greatly enhanced by them.  Strangely overcome, she tells the man what it "feels" like to have "planting hands": "Everything goes right down into your fingertips.  You watch your fingers work.  They do it themselves.  You can feel how it is" (8).  As "[h]er breast swelled passionately[,]" Eliza nearly reaches out and touches the man, but she comes back to her senses and is possessed by a sense of shame (9).  She quickly pays him fifty cents to mend a few saucepans so he can be on his way.

After the man leaves, Elisa runs into the house and vigorously bathes, scrubbing her entire body, including her "loins," with a block of pumice (10).  After she is dressed for dinner, Henry notices something different about his wife.  In a blundering attempt to compliment her, Henry tells Elisa, "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon" (11). 

Elisa and Henry then leave for town.  As they are driving, she notices a "dark speck" in the roadway (12). Elisa knows immediately that the traveling handyman has tossed her sprouts into the roadway and kept her pot.  The story ends with Elisa asking her husband about the boxing matches: "[…]do the men hurt each other very much?[…] Do any women ever go to the fights?" (12-13).  Henry is perplexed by her curiosity.  He offers to take her to see the fights, though he does not think she will enjoy herself.  Elisa settles for wine instead and sits back, "crying weakly—like an old woman" (13).

 

"The White Quail"

Part I of "The White Quail" opens with a description of Mary Teller's living room window overlooking a garden—her perfectly planned garden that she knew to be "Right" (14).  Mary remembers how she had described the garden to her then future husband, Harry Teller, and only after he had approved of her vision, did she agree to marry him. 

In Part II, the Tellers' home and garden is complete.  Mary Teller insists that nothing in the garden ever be altered.  Her husband shrugs off her eccentricities by calling her a "curious little bug" (17).  Mary tries to explain, telling Harry, "Well, you see I've thought about it so long that it's part of me.  If anything should be changed it would be like part of me being torn out" (17).     

Part III develops Harry's perspective of his wife.  He finds her pretty and is proud of her deportment and her garden.  He enjoys watching her working and planting and he especially enjoys the time they spend together killing slugs in the garden.  One evening Mary expresses her worry that not enough birds come to the garden pool to drink.  She fears a cat may be in the area and resolves to put out poison fish.  Harry says he will watch for the cat and shoot it with an air gun to permanently scare it away.  Part III ends with Mary meditating about the protective wall of fuchsias that line her garden.  For her, they keep all that is "rough and tangled and unkempt" at bay (18).  Harry wonders at her speculations and admires Mary's mind for being so "collected" and "so—sure if itself" (19).  Mary contradicts him, however, saying her mind is "[n]ot so awfully sure.  You don't know, and I'm glad you don't" (19).

Part IV describes one of Mary's night forays into her garden.  Fearing her scissors, which she had left out might rust, Mary goes to the garden to retrieve them and has an odd out of body vision of herself while peering into her living room window.  She desires to share her experience with Harry but fears he will not understand.  She ends up making Harry self-conscious about his business practices in the loan industry instead, telling him, "It just sounds as though you took advantage of people when they were down" (20).  Later, Harry attempts to come to her in her bedroom but finds the door locked.  That is Mary's "signal" that she is not interested in him (21).  Mary muses about how Harry kindly respects all of her wishes, even when she denied him his desire to have a dog since a dog would dig in her garden. 

Part V describes one of Mary's late afternoon visits to her garden, which she refers to as "the really-garden-time" (22).  This is Mary's favorite time to sit and watch the birds come down from the surrounding hillside to drink out of her little pool.  On this particular afternoon, Mary is delighted by the visit of a white quail.   Mary identifies the quail with her own inner nature, much like her garden, and says, "This is the me that was everything beautiful.  This is the center of me, my heart" (24).

In Part VI, as evening settles on the garden, Mary is startled by the sudden appearance of a cat.  She is paralyzed with horror and nearly has a fainting spell.  Harry brings her in and tries to comfort her while she hysterically tells him of the cat and her fear that it will kill the white quail and therefore part of her own inner nature.  Perplexed, Harry doubts she saw a white quail, but nonetheless agrees to rid the garden of the cat.  He sets his alarm clock for dawn and goes out to wait for the cat.  While he waits, the white quail emerges from a bush to drink and Harry shoots and kills it.  He then guiltily buries her under a pile of leaves on the hillside.  Harry goes in and tells Mary the cat will never return then retires into the living room to brood over his deed and his own intense loneliness.  

 

"Flight"

"Flight" opens with Mama Torres' decision to send her lazy, nineteen year old son, Pepé, alone to Monterey to get medicine and salt.  She finds Pepé throwing his deceased father's switchblade at a post for the amusement of his younger siblings, Emilio and Rosy.  Pepé becomes more serious with the acknowledgement of his new responsibility and tells his mother he will be careful on the trek to Monterey as he is "a man" (30).  Mama Torres responds telling him, "Thou art a peanut" (30).  After Pepé departs, Emilio asks Mama if Pepé's journey has made him a man.  Mama Torres says, "A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed" (32).

Later that night, Pepé returns and tells his mother he got drunk and killed a man in Monterey with his father's knife.  Mama Torres then helps Pepé prepare to run off into the surrounding mountains.  He is given a horse, a bag of jerky, water, a rifle, and his father's hat and coat.  His mother says farewell and warns Pepé to remember his prayers and to avoid the "dark watchers" in the mountains (35).  She then formally mourns the loss of her son and retreats into her weather worn shack.

Pepé departs and rides all day until sun down.  Near dawn, Pepé is awakened by the sound of his pursuers and rides wildly away, leaving his hat behind.  As he moves up the mountainside, his horse is shot from underneath him and Pepé scrambles for cover.  He is shot at again and his hand is pierced by a sliver of granite.   He continues his trek up the mountainside, but he begins to suffer greatly from the pain in his hand and arm and from thirst as he left his water with the horse.  That evening, after abandoning his father's coat, he stumbles and rolls down a hill and passes out.  He awakens to find himself trapped in position by a mountain lion.  Eventually the mountain lion is scared off by the sound of Pepé's pursuers.  Pepé scrambles on, but turns back when he realizes he left his rifle behind.  Pepé cannot find the rifle though and is forced to go on without it.   Losing strength and consciousness, Pepé, who is described as a "hurt beast," decides to face his pursuers and stands up upon an outcropping of rock.  He is immediately shot in the chest and falls to his death.   

 

"The Snake"

"The Snake" opens on young Dr. Phillips, who is returning to his lab from the tide pool with a collection of sea stars.  He plans to use them as specimens to record the different stages of starfish sexual reproduction.  He is interrupted by a woman who desires to see his largest male rattlesnake kill and eat a rat.  Slightly annoyed by the interruption, Dr. Phillips makes her wait while he begins his experiment on the starfish and embalms a cat he had just killed for a biology class.  When he is done, the strange woman offers to buy the snake and a rat so she can watch it eat. Dr. Phillips, who only keeps and experiments on animals for scientific purposes is horrified by the woman's request.  In fact, readers learn, "He hated people who made sport of natural processes.  He was not a sportsman but a biologist.  He could kill a thousand animals for knowledge, but not an insect for pleasure" (55).  He feels "deeply sinful" for acquiescing to the woman's request (55).  The woman, to the doctor's disgust, erect and riveted, watches the process with rapt attention.  In his horror, Dr. Phillips forgets about and ruins his experiment on the starfish.  When the show is over, the woman tells him she will be back often to feed the

 

"Breakfast"

In "Breakfast" the narrator recalls a brief episode simply because remembering awakens in him a "curious warm pleasure" (61).  One chilly morning, while walking down a country road, he comes across a young woman outside of a tent beside a stove. She is cooking breakfast while nursing her baby. He walks up to the stove to warm his hands and meets two men—one old, one young—who emerge from the tent. The men, dressed in new clothes, invite the narrator to have breakfast.   They gorge themselves on high biscuits, bacon, gravy, and hot coffee.  The men, who are obviously migrant workers, reveal they have had twelve straight days of work and express thanks for the meal. They then invite the narrator to join them picking cotton, but he declines and they depart.  The narrator concludes, saying "[…] there was some element of great beauty there that makes the rush of warmth when I think of it" (64).

 

"The Raid"

In Part I, two men, the older named Dick and the younger named Root, enter a town late at night in preparation for a meeting.  Steinbeck implies the "meeting" is a Communist labor organizers' rally.  The older man jokes about the younger man's lack of experience. He also mentions that he himself is "dry behind the ears" (97).  Root expresses his fear that he might run if the meeting is raided by violent thugs.  Dick threatens him and says, "But you try running, and I'll turn your name in.  We got no place for yellow bastards" (67).

The men approach the meeting venue in Part II.  Root becomes increasingly antsy as he imagines hearing men approaching.  The older man chastises him for his visible display of fear. Finally a man appears and warns them that the meeting is a set up and a group of townsmen are approaching to beat and jail the organizers.  Dick refuses to budge saying, "We got orders to stay.  We got to take it" (71).

The two men wait anxiously for the raiding party in Part III.  Dick tries to steady Root with Communist philosophy telling him, "[…] if someone busts you, it isn't him that's doing it, it's the System.  And it isn't you he's busting.  He's taking a crack at the Principle" (72).  Root's fear continues to grow as it seems to take forever for the men to arrive.  When they do arrive, Root eventually steps bravely forward under the critical eye of Dick to open the meeting.  Part III ends with Root being pummeled to the ground.

Root awakens in a jail hospital cell in Part IV.  Dick congratulates him on his bravery and warns him to protect his head and face next time.  Root then attempts to compare his actions with Christ's by remembering Christ's prayer to his father to forgive his crucifiers, "[…] because they don't know what they're doing" (76).  Dick chastises him once more, telling him to "lay off that religion stuff" as it has no place in Communist philosophy (76).  

 

"The Harness"

"The Harness" opens by introducing the protagonist, Peter Randall, "[o]ne of the most highly respected farmers of Monterey County" (77).  Peter is married to a sickly "little skin-and-bones woman" named Emma, and under her watchful eye, he runs their farm and sees to the conventionality of their conservative lives (77).  His most notable feature is his upright demeanor—"shoulders back as though they were braced, and he sucked in his stomach like a soldier" (77).  Steinbeck also reveals Peter disappears for a week once a year on a "business trip," after which, upon his return, Emma takes to her sick bed for a month or two (77). 

One particular fall, Emma takes to her sick bed for the last time and dies after "a long, terrible illness" (80).  Upon her death, Peter becomes hysterical in his grieving.  He is described as "half mad" and has to be sedated with morphine, which the onlookers, the doctor and friend Ed Chappell, note is way out of character for the restrained Peter Randall (80).  Later that night, after a bit of whiskey, Peter divulges his deep, dark secret to Ed Chappell.  Peter physically unburdens himself, much to Ed Chappell's embarrassment, by stripping down to his underwear and removing a "web harness that pulled his shoulders back" (82).  He then emotionally unburdens himself by confessing that his "business trips" to San Francisco were drunken, profligate, and secretive ones to brothels.  He admits he required the trips to keep him from exploding out of his repressed and conventional life.  He vows to never wear the harness again and to live a new life free from the oppressive memory of his wife. 

After this episode, which Ed keeps secret, Peter, once considered an authority on crops in the area, loses some esteem as he refuses to share any of his plans for the upcoming season.   The local farmers question his secrecy, but soon discover Peter had the audacity to plant forty acres of sweet peas, a touchy crop that is considered quite a gamble by the locals.  His fellows assume Peter must be "touched in the head since Emma died" and predict disaster for his crop (88).  Much to the farmers' chagrin, the sweet peas grow magnificently, and Peter takes quite a profit.

After his triumphant harvest, Ed Chappell comes across Peter Randall in a hotel in San Francisco—rich, drunk, yet strangely unhappy and haggard. Peter confesses he has again been to visit the brothels.  He tells Ed, "I just had to come up to the city.  I'd'a busted if I hadn't come up and got some of the vinegar out of my system" (91).  Ed is perplexed by Peter's behavior.  In an attempt to explain, Peter tells Ed it was Emma: "She didn't die dead […] She won't let me do things.  She worried me all year about those peas" (91).  Though he is perpetually vexed by her memory, he ends by telling Ed he will "damn well" never wear that harness again" (91).

 

"The Vigilante"

"The Vigilante" opens on a dissipating mob that has just lynched an African-American.  The slightly irritated protagonist, Mike, protests against someone's attempt to burn the body while reflecting on his emotional response to the scene.  He is possessed by a "dull tiredness" and is a bit perplexed that he is not significantly awed and shaken by the terribleness of the situation.  He wanders away feeling "a cold loneliness" and reminisces about the events of the evening (94).  Feeling a pain in his chest, Mike remembers how he had been pushed against the bars of the jail as the mob attempted to retrieve the victim.  Mike finds a bar, the owner of which had opened up in hopes of serving a few beers to the thirsty retreating lynch-mob.  The curious owner, Welch, questions Mike who recounts the events of the lynching, revealing the victim, who had been clubbed down in the jail, was already dead before he was hanged.  Mike also shows Welch his trophy, a piece of cloth torn from the victim's blue denim pants.  Welch offers Mike a free beer and two silver dollars for half the cloth.  The two then walk towards home together debating about the true guilt of the victim.  Mike departs in irritation and goes home to his waiting and angry wife.  Mike's wife accuses him of having been out with another woman.  She says she can "tell by the look on [his] face" (99).  Mike then refuses to tell her the outcome of the lynching and retires to the bathroom where he admits to himself he actually feels like he had been with another woman.

 

"Johnny Bear"

"Johnny Bear" is told from the perspective of a first person narrator who has taken up residence in the tiny village of Loma, California as a supervisor for a swamp reclamation project.  The narrator stays at the dismal boarding house of Mrs. Ratz.  For company, and whiskey, the narrator frequents Fat Carl's Buffalo Bar, a "terrible place" (102).  One evening, after a rendezvous in the woods with Mae Romero, the narrator retires to the Buffalo Bar and is confronted by the aptly named Johnny Bear, who resembles "a great, stupid, smiling bear" (103).  The narrator watches in amazement, and embarrassment, as someone orders a whiskey for Johnny Bear who then goes on to perfectly pantomime a conversation that had just taken place between the narrator and Mae Romero in the woods.  A patron of the bar, Alex Hartnell, explains that Johnny Bear can "photograph words and voices" though "[h]e doesn't know the words he's saying. […] He hasn't brains enough to make anything up, so you know that what he says is what he heard" (105).  After another pantomime in which Johnny Bear besmirches the good name of two of the town's foremost ladies, Emalin and Amy Hawkins, Alex and the narrator leave the bar. Alex is visibly upset and tries to explain how the women are important pillars in the community because they are "symbols" (109).  Alex says, "They're what we tell our kids when we want to—well, to describe good people" (109). 

The next day, Alex invites the narrator to dinner and they pass the two women who are on their way to church.  The narrator is flabbergasted as they look exactly as he imagined they would based on Johnny Bear's imitation.  He realizes what Alex meant by calling the women aristocrats and thinks to himself, "A community would feel kind of—safe, having women like that about" (111).  After dinner the men return to the Buffalo Bar where, to the shock of all present, Johnny Bear acts out a scene between Emalin and the town doctor which reveals Amy tried to hang herself.

After a spell of bad luck and accidents at his work site, the narrator returns to Alex's house and on the way spots Johnny Bear lurking around the Hawkins' residence.  He discusses the merits of the Hawkins women in further detail with Alex who senses that there is something wrong with the women.  He fears the worst since the women represent the "community conscience" (116).

Two days later, the news quickly spreads that Amy Hawkins has committed suicide.  The narrator observes the patrons of the Buffalo Bar as they try to reconcile such a shocking event in their minds.  Johnny Bear soon enters and the men goad him with whiskey to learn the truth about the suicide.  Johnny Bear acts out a discussion between Emalin and the doctor that reveals not only did Amy hang herself, but she was also pregnant.  Alex joins the silent crowd after the fact and the narrator tells him about the pregnancy.  Johnny Bear comes forward for more whiskey and tempts the men by breaking into a "sing-song nasal language that sounded like Chinese. […] And then another voice, slow, hesitant, repeating the words without the nasal quality" (119).  Alex springs forward and punches Johnny Bear who defends himself by bear-hugging Alex.  Fat Carl has to knock Johnny Bear out to get him to release Alex.  When the scuffle is over, Alex reveals to the narrator that second voice imitating the Chinese was Miss Amy implying that the deceased woman was impregnated by one of her Chinese workmen.  

 

"The Murder"

 "The Murder" tells the history of Jim Moore's marriage to Jelka Šepic, "a Jugo-Slav girl" (122).  He inherited his parents' farm at 30 after their deaths and soon afterward married Jelka.  He is ashamed of her foreign family and remembers with disgust how Jelka's father advised him on their wedding night to beat her once in a while: "Jelka is a slav girl.  He's not like American girl. If he is bad, beat him.  If he's good too long, beat him too.  I beat his mama.  Papa beat my mama.  Slav girl!  He's not like a man that don't beat hell out of him" (122).

Jim has a difficult time imagining ever needing to beat the docile and complacent Jelka.  She is quiet and doting and a marvel of efficiency in the home.  Jim's hot dinner is waiting no matter what time he comes in from the fields.  In fact, she is so quiet and doting, Jim makes no emotional connection with her and eventually looks elsewhere for companionship.  After a year with his "painfully dutiful wife," Jim begins to long for the company of silly, chatty women and begins to frequent the "Three Star," the brothel in Monterey where he often amused himself prior to his marriage.   

One particular Saturday night Jim decides to go to town and is met along the way by a local farmer who tells him he found a slaughtered calf's remains with Jim's brand upon the hide.  After checking on his stock, Jim returns home to find another horse tethered in his barn.  Jim sneaks in the house and finds Jelka in bed with one of her cousins.  In a rage, Jim shoots Jelka' cousin in the head and runs out of the room and rides away into the night.

The next day Jim returns along with a deputy sheriff and the coroner.  The deputy sheriff assures Jim the murder charges against him will be dropped. "Always is in this part of the country," he says (132).  Once alone, Jim retreats into the barn and beats Jelka with a bull whip as "[b]ad as [he] could without killing [her]" (133).  Jelka, who seems mildly pleased with the beating, retreats into the house to make breakfast.  Jim joins her and tells her they will build a new house further down the canyon.  The story ends with Jelka seeking reassurance from Jim that he will beat her again.

 

"Saint Katy the Virgin"

"Saint Katy the Virgin" is a parody that opens with a description of Roark, "a bad man" who keeps a pig (135).  Roark, who takes too much delight in other's misfortune, is even a candidate for excommunication.  His evil seems to rub off on his pig, Katy, and she becomes truly vicious. She even eats her own newborn piglets. Eventually Brother Paul and Brother Colin come by and Roark, just to be mean, tithes the pig off onto them. At first Katy is violent and chases the two brothers up a tree, but after a debate over whether one is redeemed through faith alone or through good works, Brother Paul manages to convert Katy to Christianity and the pig becomes saintly.  They bring her back to the monastery where the Abbot decides she cannot be slaughtered because she is a Christian.  Her "subsequent life […] was one long record of good deeds" and people began making pilgrimages from all over to see her (142).  After a theoretical debate, the proposition to call her Saint Katy the Virgin is approved, even though she is not technically a virgin.  After her death, Katy's bones are preserved as relics and continue to heal the sick—even curing a woman suffering from a "hair mole" (144).


Setting | Character Summaries | Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts