What is the main idea of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck?
Many critics argue that John Steinbeck was trying to create a kind of social utopia through his presentation of this society and the way that a group of strange misfits and characters, mostly occupying the lower rungs of the social ladder, coexist thanks to their warm-hearted nature and tenderness. However, what is interesting to note is the way that there are examples of cruelty and violence that seem to stand in opposition to this overall hopeful, idealistic and optimistic presentation of mankind. For example, men commit suicide, Doc discovers a dead female on the beach, and a harmless backward boy is locked up in an institution because he attempted to steal a gift as a token of love. Such evidence of cruelty and violence seems to represent a questioning or a doubting of the existence of such a utopian happiness. In addition, you might want to consider the way that the real world shows its presence in the novel, in teh form of the impact of World War II on the community in Cannery Row. Such facts seem to cast into doubt the existence of a utopia that is perfectly free from evil and violence. Steinbeck seems to point towards the way in which the outside world and human nature will always render a utopia imperfect or dystopian.
I agree with the view that Steinbeck is painting the picture of a partial Utopia. The characters around the group with Mack in the Palace Flophouse have repudiated in an inchoate way the norms of US society - getting on and possessing. At times it is implied that they live like this at the margins because of inadequacy, alcohol addiction or mental health issues. Mack and the boys discuss on P34 earning money at the Cannery and Mack makes a little speech about the groups approach to employment. 'S'pose we take a job for a day or so- we'll lose our reputation for sticking. Then if we needed a job there wouldn't have us.' Here he seems to be enunciating the policy of the group in relation to work - a deliberate casual approach to taking work only when required by necessity, but at the same time being aware of their reputation as workers and there future employability. A second example is the way that Gay is described as a brilliant mechanic, almost miraculously so. His approach to rehabbing the Model T is systematic, organised and knowledgeable, yet he does not wish it seems to work consistently at this trade which he clearly loves.
One has to respect Steinbeck's approach to work. It is an essential feature of his approach as a writer that he is interested and close to workers in all sorts of trades. He had wide experience of basic labouring and hard jobs as a young man and studied agricultural labour closely in his research for 'The Grapes of Wrath'. He is very sensitive to social class issues as for instance in the early sections of the book he describes the workings of the cannery and emphasizes the divisions between factory workers and the accountants and managers who worked in the office. Is he though sentimentalising these homeless men and their approach and philosophy of life?
i thinks the answer has to be yes, but perhaps not to the extent of caricature. Cannery Row acts really as a fable about life in California and like a good dramatist Steinbeck imbues his characters with colour, humour and emotion. Some traits are exaggerated and therefore not documentary or realistic. In many ways this is a 'soap opera' and the portrayal of a down-and-out community as bursting with hidden talent and cohesiveness community is a message of hope and some kind of critique of the normal capitalist or middle class lifestyle in the US. It is very noticeable that there is no swearing in the dialogue and violence between men is presented as inevitable and often comical. The lack of swearing is mainly due to the time the book was written (imagine a similar book written in the 21st C, every other word would have to be f**k). There is cruelty and oppression, but never does Cannery Row ever really stray into bleak alienation as in e.g. Last Exit to Brooklyn is a 1964 novel by American author Hubert Selby, Jr. Published only 20 years after Cannery Row, Selby's novel became a by word for the more futile and hopeless kind of degradation - Cannery Row with the hope violently excised.
The accusation of sentimentality comes to mind again where Steinbeck deals with sex workers. Prostitution is presented as a fact of life and is even glorified. P108, recounts the onslaught of the 'high-minded' ladies of the town who insist on closing down the brothel. S describes how this leads to economic losses to the community as various conventions move to other locations, implying that the supply of commercial sex was an essential feature of US business life at the time. Of course the realities of prostitution for the sex worker even in the apparently benevolent brothel in Cannery Row is harsh and Stenbeck avoids this by not documenting at all the lives of the 'girls', but instead focusses on the doorman and the Madam.