Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
For a novel with so slight a plot, Cannery Row is nevertheless engaging as a social document, a record of a state of mind, of attitudes about society and behavior during the “have-not” era of the 1930’s. For although the novel was published at the end of World War II, it is suggestive both in tone and spirit of a Depression mentality. The “good” people are the unemployed, the dispossessed, or, like Doc, the marginally solvent. Some, like Dora, are successful in spite of legal sanctions and social mores. As in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s definitive treatment of the Depression, there are really no “bad” people, either: only those who tightly clutch the things they have and who, like Lee Chong, leer distrustfully at those who have not. Yet the socioeconomic situation is treated comically in Cannery Row. Already behind him, the Depression for Steinbeck was no longer a grim consequence of social pathology or a crucible of heroic despair. Instead, it had become a subject for pleasant reminiscence about a time when men survived without money, on companionship, good intentions, and kindness; a simpler time, before the postwar boom, when people were valued not for the quantity of their goods but for the quality of their hearts.