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.
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...
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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 and exploitation of Cannery Row. Mack and his friends refuse to work in the canneries except intermittently, and only when there is a specific, emotionally worthwhile objective. Thus, they get jobs in order to acquire enough money for Doc’s party, but quit immediately afterward. Doc says of the group, “They could ruin their lives and get money. . . . They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting.” Similarly, Doc limits his profitable animal harvesting, recognizing the inherent value of any life-form. This consciousness is symbolized by the floating dead girl Doc sees after his capture of twenty-two little octopi. He is haunted by the girl’s beauty, “the face burned into his picture memory,” representing Doc’s awareness of the natural beauty he has destroyed.
Likewise, Lee Chong and Dora and her girls illustrate the primacy of noneconomic values in any real community. Lee Chong allows Mack and his friends to “rent” the Palace Flophouse (a former storehouse), knowing they will never actually pay him. Also, Lee Chong happily participates in Doc’s successful party despite considerable monetary loss in the failed first attempt. Similarly, Dora and her girls are happiest at the party, presenting to Doc the beautiful quilt they made. Only their economic life causes problems, illustrated by tuna fishermen mistaking Doc’s party for the Bear Flag Restaurant and barging in for service. The ensuing brawl nearly wrecks Western Biological, but affirms that the essence of this human community is beyond economic exploitation. Indeed, Steinbeck’s narrator makes this point in writing that “Mack never visited the Bear Flag professionally. It would have seemed a little like incest to him.” With characters who sublimate materialistic, capitalistic values to friendship, ecological concern, and giving to and celebration of life with others, Steinbeck postulates humanistic values as the solution to California’s cultural, gender, and economic divisions.
In 1930’s Monterey, California, sits an abandoned structure near the noisy, smelly sardine factories and wharves that line the Cannery Row neighborhood along the Pacific Ocean waterfront. A good-natured vagrant named Mack, the leader of a gang of vagabonds who inhabit the structure and have named it the Palace Flophouse and Grill, persuades the men to give a party for Doc. Doc is a friendly marine biologist who operates the Western Biological Laboratory, a modest scientific enterprise.
Mack and his gang have no money for the proposed party for Doc, so they hatch a plan to gather the necessary resources. After first considering getting jobs, they unanimously dismiss that idea in favor of a more subtle plan that involves doing a supposed favor for Doc. Under Mack’s leadership, the gang devises a scheme to approach Doc and offer its services in a frog-gathering operation. They would go into the countryside, collect as many frogs as possible, and then sell the amphibians to Doc at five cents each so he can embalm and retail them later as biological specimens. Lacking transportation, the men haggle out a deal with Lee Chong, a local grocer who is also their landlord, to borrow a dilapidated truck on the condition that they restore it into working order. After discussing the details with Chong, the men repair the truck and embark on a madcap frog-hunting expedition that forms one of the most amusing episodes in the novel.
Despite getting drunk along the way, trespassing on private property, and stealing wayward chickens from local ranchers, the gang succeeds in catching hundreds of frogs, an event that they mark as one of the most successful frog-catching expeditions in all history. The gang then returns in mock triumph to Cannery Row to celebrate their victory, yet they still lack the funds to throw their intended celebration. After approaching Chong, Mack works out another scheme in which he sells frogs to Chong as currency.
Many of the individuals who inhabit the Row have tragicomic stories. The debt-ridden Horace Abbeville commits suicide after deeding the building that eventually became Chong’s grocery. Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy live destitute in an abandoned boiler that Mrs. Malloy attempts to decorate by gluing curtains to the windowless, iron interior. Then there is Frankie, a mentally challenged child who lurks around Doc’s lab, and whose sweet-natured attempts to be helpful always run amok and alienate him from the community. Henri the Painter has a confused identity: His name is not Henri, he is not French, and he is not really a painter; he is afraid of the water, yet spends most of his time building and modifying a landlocked boat, moored safely in a pine grove far from the Pacific shore.
One bittersweet tale involves a man named Gay, a woman named Mary Talbot, and a boy, Joey. Gay moves in with Mack and the rest of the gang to escape his wife, who often beats him after he falls asleep. Mary has little money but compensates for it by staging elaborate teas for the cats in the neighborhood, and the young Joey is forced to endure the taunts of neighborhood children because his father committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.
While Mack and the gang are on another frog quest, Doc heads south to collect octopi in the La Jolla tide pools. He captures several specimens but is disturbed when he discovers the drowned body of a young girl among the rocks. Meanwhile, Mack and the gang are busily preparing for the party, which is attended by several residents of the Row. Unfortunately, long before Doc returns, things get out of hand and a fight breaks out among the revelers, leading to broken doors, shattered glass, spilled books, and the destruction of the packing case that holds all of the captured frogs. By the time Doc arrives, the frogs have escaped and his place is in shambles.
The failed party shames Mack and the gang, and a gloomy mood settles over the Row until the arrival of more benign events. The gang nurses a sick puppy, Darling, back to health, then Mack begins planning a second party to celebrate Doc’s birthday. Word gets out about the party, and before long, nearly everybody on the Row is looking for presents to give Doc. Mack’s surprise, however, comes as no surprise to Doc, who finds out about the party beforehand. Doc prudently removes all the breakable items in his home before the guests arrive.
The party is a raging success, even though Doc is forced to spend as much time making food and caring for his guests as he does celebrating the occasion. As part of the entertainment, Doc plays recordings of classical music and even reads translations of Sanskrit poetry, which moves the guests to a state of sweet sadness until the idyll is broken by a gang of tuna fishermen, who crash the party and ignite a large brawl. When the police arrive to break up the fight, order is restored and harmony returns, to the point that even the cops are persuaded to join the festivities.
The morning after, Doc awakens with music still ringing in his ears. He then washes himself, puts a record on the phonograph, picks up a copy of Black Marigolds, and, from the closing pages of the book, recites a final stanza of this life-affirming Sanskrit verse.