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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

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 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...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 904 words.)