Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
John Steinbeck, one of the most famous and productive American authors, produced twenty-nine novels, short-story collections, journals, films, memoirs, and play-novellas during his writing career. In 1962, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Steinbeck spent his youth in Salinas, then a small town in a fertile agricultural valley nestled...
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John Steinbeck, one of the most famous and productive American authors, produced twenty-nine novels, short-story collections, journals, films, memoirs, and play-novellas during his writing career. In 1962, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Steinbeck spent his youth in Salinas, then a small town in a fertile agricultural valley nestled between two mountain ranges, less than thirty miles from Monterey and the Pacific Ocean. His experiences there provided him with the raw material that would feed a lifetime of fiction about the land and people of central California.
After graduating from high school, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University in 1919. He studied intermittently until 1925, when he left the school without completing his degree. In the five years that followed, he supported himself with several jobs including manual laborer, caretaker at a resort in Lake Tahoe, and New York journalist. Along the way, he worked on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), an uneven allegorical tale about pirate Henry Morgan. After marrying, he moved to Pacific Grove and published the first of his California fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and began working on some of the short stories collected later in The Long Valley (1938).
By the time Steinbeck published Cannery Row, he had already sealed his reputation as a significant American writer with such books as Of Mice and Men (1937) and his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Written as something of a diversion from the exhausting work he performed during World War II, when he wrote everything from press dispatches from North Africa to war propaganda such as Bombs Away (1942) and the antifascist novella The Moon Is Down (1942), Steinbeck conceived Cannery Row as a complex, experimental work with several layers of meaning. On the surface, the novel pays tribute to the colorful waterfront community of Monterey, but underneath the comic facade is a subtle, scientific examination of the interconnected lives of the many marginalized characters living there.
The main theme of the novel focuses on the need for human connection and on the consequences of alienation. Like the intercoastal areas Doc visits during his specimen-gathering trips along the Pacific shore, Monterey is a human tide pool, teeming with life, washed to the edges of the continent by the forces of American manifest destiny. However, what captures Steinbeck’s imagination in this environment is not mainstream respectable folk such as bankers, lawyers, doctors, or businessmen. Instead, he trains his fictive gaze on the human flotsam found there—the down-and-out and the underdogs like Mack and his gang of misfits, prostitutes like Dora Flood, loners like Henri and Doc, and the marginalized, such as Lee Chong. All of these characters live on the fringes and lead their own lives of quiet desperation, yet they depend upon one another to survive.
To explore this theme, the book follows a loose, organic structure rather than the usual pattern of rising action, climax, and falling action found in many conventional plots. Critics such as Warren French have likened this pattern to a wave that grows slowly and gains momentum, then divides, re-forms, and ultimately disperses upon the shore. Accordingly, eighteen chapters trace plans for the party for Doc and describe the unsuccessful first party, the sadness that follows, the gradual rejuvenation of hope, and, finally, the celebration when the second party surges toward its successful conclusion.
In the remaining fourteen chapters, Steinbeck employs devices including parables and interpolated fables such as the one of the mysterious, solitary “Chinaman”; the story of Henri the Painter; and the tale of the energetic gopher in chapter 31, who symbolizes the idea of failed dreams and lost paradise. Like his human counterparts on the Row, the gopher follows his dreams to a plot of empty land, where he builds what he thinks will be his ideal home. Unfortunately, no women live there, and ultimately he is forced to abandon his imagined Eden for more dangerous environs across the road.
The character who resonates most strongly is Doc. Although he is often aloof and detached from others, he has the last word; it is for him the party is held. His is the spirit that most clearly reflects the elemental humanness of the Row. Something of a man for all seasons, he rises above the other characters truly because only he is the guardian of wisdom and keeper of the creative spirit. The other characters, such as Mack, Chong, and Dora, lack the type of transcendent vision Doc possesses. Doc is the linchpin that connects the lives on the Row, and through music, art, and science, he binds them all.