Cannery Row Summary
by John Steinbeck

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Around the sardine factories of Cannery Row in Monterey, California, lived those who worked only when they had to, preferring to talk, fight, drink, and be lazy. These are the characters of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, who have been compared to the rogues depicted in English artist William Hogarth’s engravings and in the picaresque novels of the eighteenth century.

Monterey is only a whisper away from Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck and his first wife lived in the early 1930’s. The two worlds, however, are continents apart ideologically. Pacific Grove developed as a Methodist campground. One could not buy liquor there, and the sidewalks were deserted not long after sunset. Three miles away, Monterey’s bars stayed open almost until dawn. The population of each town was distinct, although the communities were virtually adjacent.

Mack presides over a band of derelicts who live from one drink to the next, one fight to the next, and one day to the next. If earlier picaros lived their irresponsible lives in ways that advanced them socially and economically, Mack’s boys do not. Their progress is strictly horizontal. They live by bartering, borrowing, stealing, and conning Lee Chong, the Chinese merchant. They are the street people of an earlier age, although some of them have shacks to retreat into when they must. One of them, Malloy, lives sometimes in a huge boiler that his wife has decorated with chintz curtains.

The novel has only a loosely defined forward momentum. Mostly its characters drift laterally rather than move forward. This assortment of undistinguished humanity, however, is working together toward an outcome: getting a present to give Doc—a marine biologist, modeled on Ed Ricketts, who runs a small business supplying biological specimens to commercial distributors—at a surprise birthday party they are planning for him. One of them has taken a temporary job as a bartender, enabling him to save the dregs of people’s drinks in large containers; this accumulation of leftovers constitutes their liquor supply for the party.

The boys scour the community, gathering Doc’s birthday present, which is to consist of all kinds of specimens he can sell: cats, rats, frogs, dogs, anything biological enough to qualify. They invite everyone from the row to the party, including Dora, the local madam, and her girls. The climax of the novel comes in the hilarious fight that breaks out as the crowds gather and their spirits intensify. At the end of the novel, nothing has changed. The characters will go on living exactly as they have, ever good-natured, drifters who drift within the limited precincts of Cannery Row.

As he did in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck uses interchapters to comment on the main thrust of the novel and to set it into a philosophical context. In these interchapters, one finds the strong influences of Ed Ricketts’s nonteleological philosophy, which was fully explained in Sea of Cortez.

Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

InCannery Row, John Steinbeck depicts the precarious survival of a heterogeneous human community in the cannery section of Monterey, California. In emphasizing alternative values to capitalistic greed as the basis for that survival, Steinbeck implies that the only means by which peaceful amalgamation of diverse economic, cultural, and gender groups can occur is through community.

The diversity of Cannery Row is represented by Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer; by the varied group of European American young men, led by Mack, who maintain the Palace Flophouse; by Dora and her girls, prostitutes at the Bear Flag Restaurant; and by Doc, the scientist owner of Western Biological Laboratory. The novel’s rather simple plot concerns efforts to give a surprise birthday party for Doc, the cohesive force within this community. The problems but eventual success of these efforts clarify the alternative values allowing the peaceful transcendence of differences.

The characters in the novel constitute a genuine community because they defy the capitalistic greed...

(The entire section is 1,865 words.)