Cannery Row

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Cannery Row




Cannery Row, which was published in 1945, is composed of portraits of the title location's inhabitants. It evokes the fish canning district in Monterey, California, in the early 1940s. Although the novel takes place during World War II, the only hint of war is the brief mention of soldiers stationed nearby and a snapshot of two soldiers and their dates. This omission is perhaps explained by the fact that Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row in response to his dissatisfaction upon his return from the battlefields as a newspaper reporter.

The characters in Cannery Row are often troubled, and they experience a great deal of conflict, misery, violence, pain, and grief. Nevertheless, they experience a social harmony in the vicissitudes and torments of life at peace amid the horrors of a distant war. This gave the novel vitality when it appeared. Steinbeck did not write another protest novel like The Grapes of Wrath. Instead, he wrote a book that portrayed a spirit of peace and community. That spirit still can be felt in the book and is enhanced by the fact that the novel is now a period piece that nevertheless remains true to characteristics that are essentially and timelessly human.

Cannery Row is a series of thirty-two free-standing chapters (vignettes) that are connected yet independent, which is a point that Steinbeck also makes about nature in the novel. In the prologue, Steinbeck asks how he can convey

what Cannery Row is like. He answers using an analogy drawn from the way marine animals are collected, a fitting one since Doc makes his living gathering marine creatures. "When you collect marine animals, there are certain flat worms so delicate," Steinbeck explains "that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be," Steinbeck suggests, "the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves."

A recent edition of Cannery Row appears in Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952, which was published in 2001.


John Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the third of four children, and the only boy. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr., managed a flour mill and was Monterey County Treasurer. His mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, had been a schoolteacher before she married. The family lived a cultured, comfortable life in a large Victorian house and passed summers in their Pacific Grove cottage or at Steinbeck's uncle's ranch.

While in high school, Steinbeck almost died of pleural pneumonia. While convalescing, he began writing stories. After graduation, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University as an English major but left without a degree in 1925, having taken several leaves in order to work as a mountain surveyor in Big Sur, California, and as a carpenter's apprentice in a sugar mill, where he also supervised day laborers and performed chemical tests on sugar beets.

In 1926, while in New York City, Steinbeck worked on the construction crew building Madison Square Garden and was a reporter for the New York American. Failing to sell his fiction, Steinbeck returned to California. In 1929, his novel Cup of Gold was published. In 1930, Steinbeck married Carol Henning, the first of his three wives. Also that year, he met Edward F. Ricketts, the marine biologist and the owner of the Pacific Biological Laboratory who became the model for Doc (the protagonist of 1945's Cannery Row). Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, brought Steinbeck fame. He published Of Mice and Men in 1937 and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. Bestsellers, both became highly successful movies. The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was also banned by many libraries and condemned in the U.S. Congress by Oklahoma representative Lyle Borden for its denunciation of the inequities of capitalism.

In 1940, Steinbeck went on a marine collecting expedition with Ricketts in the Gulf of California. Later that year, he went to Mexico with his first wife to work on the screenplay for The Forgotten Village. Steinbeck also met President Franklin D. Roosevelt and discussed propaganda initiatives against Nazi Germany. In 1941, Steinbeck separated from his first wife and began living with Gwyn Conger, a singer with whom he had begun an affair in 1939 and whom he then married in 1943. In 1942, on assignment for the Army Air Forces to write a book about training bomber crews, Steinbeck visited air bases throughout the United States. In 1943, Steinbeck became a war correspondent for the New York Tribune. He returned to New York with battle fatigue and a burst ear drum. Also in 1943, Steinbeck wrote the story that served as the basis for the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's film Lifeboat. Although he did not win, Steinbeck was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1944, the year he wrote Cannery Row.

In August of 1944, Steinbeck and Conger had a son, Thomas; two years later, in June 1946, they had another son whom they named John. In October, Steinbeck and Conger visited Sweden, Denmark, France, and Norway. In Norway, Steinbeck was awarded the King Haakon Liberty Cross. In 1947, Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, a tragic morality tale set in Bolivia about longing and greed. That year, he also traveled to the Soviet Union with the photographer Robert Capa. Their collaboration, The Russian Journal, was published in 1948. That same year, Conger filed for a divorce, and Ed Ricketts died. Distraught, Steinbeck nevertheless began work on two projects, the screenplay for the Elia Kazan/Marlon Brando film, Viva Zapata!, and the novel East of Eden. In 1950, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott. In 1954, he published Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row.

While Steinbeck continued to write novels, a travel book, and newspaper columns, he also undertook a number of "good-will" missions for the U.S. government throughout Western Europe and within the Soviet bloc. He wrote speeches for democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1960, traveled to Europe on behalf of President John F. Kennedy, and wrote parts of Lyndon Johnson's inaugural address. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck, unlike many American writers, supported the Vietnam War. He traveled extensively in Vietnam, even going into battle alongside American forces, and reported back to President Johnson. On December 20, 1968, after a series of strokes and heart attacks, Steinbeck died at home in New York City. Six days later, his ashes were buried in a plot in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas, California.



Fishing boats return to Cannery Row at dawn. People arrive for work at the canneries. The narrator wonders how to present his story.

Chapter 1

Lee Chong rents a large storage shed to Mack and his friends to live in for five dollars a week. From their doorway, Mack and the boys can see across the way into Doc's windows. They want to do something nice for Doc.

Chapter 2

Steinbeck meditates on the value and the costs of worldly success.

Chapter 3

William, a former bouncer at Dora Flood's brothel, is unable to make friends with Mack and the boys. He stabs himself to death with an ice-pick, on a dare, after his confession that he felt like killing himself was ignored or mocked by Dora, by one of the prostitutes, and by the cook at the brothel.

Chapter 4

A mysterious Chinese man "disappeared among the piles and steel posts which support the piers" every evening and reappeared each dawn carrying a "wicker basket." The children, who usually taunt odd characters, are afraid of him. But one child, Andy, taunts him with a racial rhyme. As he does, he is gripped with a sense of lonely fear that causes him to see a vast, hallucinatory, and weird landscape.


  • In 1982, David S. Ward directed a film version of Cannery Row that combines Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday. The film stars Nick Nolte as Doc and Debra Winger as Suzy. It was produced by Chai Productions and distributed by MGM.

Chapter 5

Doc's laboratory and living quarters are filled with preserved marine and animal specimens. There are prints on the wall and shelves of books. Doc knows the complexities of nature and the spiritual and intellectual delights of art, culture, and scholarship. He is a teacher for the odd souls populating Cannery Row.

Chapter 6

Doc collects marine animals. Hazel, one of the men living at the Palace Flophouse, assists him. They gossip about Gay, who has moved into the Flophouse to get away from his wife, and about Henri, a painter who is building a boat that he lives in but never finishes. Doc explains that Henri likes boats but does not like sailing.

Chapter 7

Mack and the boys turn the Flophouse into a home, crowding it with discarded furniture and a great chrome-decorated cookstove. Eddie, who sometimes works as a bartender, brings leftover liquor back to the Flophouse. Mack and the boys decide to throw a party for Doc and to collect hundreds of frogs for him.

Chapter 8

Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy live in the vacant lot between Lee Chong's store and the Flophouse, in a discarded boiler from a local cannery factory. They quarrel when she wants to hang curtains and he cannot understand why since "we got no windows." She complains men do not understand women; he rubs her back until she falls asleep.

Chapter 9

Mack offers to gather frogs for Doc at a nickel a frog. Doc agrees, but will not lend Mack his car. Doc must drive to La Jolla to collect octopi. Mack thinks Lee Chong will let them use his truck. Doc gives Mack a note for Red Williams at the gas station authorizing Red to fill their tank with ten gallons. Lee Chong's truck is broken but Gay fixes it.

Chapter 10

The boy, Frankie, has been expelled from school. He hangs around the edges of Doc's laboratory. After three weeks, he approaches Doc's worktable. He tells Doc he is beaten at home by the men who come to see his mother, or they give him a nickel and send him away. Doc has him wash his filthy hands, clips and cleans his lice-infested hair, and shows Frankie how to sort fish specimens by size, although the task is daunting for him. When Doc has guests, Frankie accidentally spills a tray full of beer on one. He retreats to the cellar, curls up in a box of excelsior, and whimpers. Doc follows him, hears his whimpers, and goes back upstairs because "there wasn't a thing in the world he could do."

Chapter 11

Gay fixes Lee Chong's Model T, and the men set out to catch frogs. Mack tries to get Red Williams to put five instead of ten gallons in the tank and give him change in cash. Red, warned of Mack's tricks by Doc, refuses.

The Model T will not take hills in first gear. But it can, turned backwards, in reverse. The needle valve of the carburetor breaks; Gay takes it to get it fixed. The car he hitches in breaks down. Gay fixes it. The grateful owner takes him to a bar. After a drunken brawl, Gay is arrested and put in the county jail, a comfortable place, where he stays for six months. When Gay does not return, Eddie hikes over to a construction site to see if he can find a Model T to steal a carburetor needle from.

Chapter 12

Monterey can boast about its concern for the honor of its writers. After embalming the body of the American humorist Josh Billings, the embalmer tossed the organs into the bay. A boy and his dog found the liver and intestines and would have used them for fishing bait had not an alert man passing noticed they were dragging what looked like a man's liver. The embalmer was made to collect and clean the parts, put them in a leaden box, and bury them inside the coffin with the body.

Chapter 13

Eddie returns before dawn with a carburetor. In the morning, the boys set out and reach a sandy edge of the Carmel River. They decide to wait till nightfall to catch frogs. They nap. Hazel cooks a rooster they have run over. The owner of the land approaches with his gun and dog. He orders them off his property. Mack ingratiates himself, addressing the man as Captain, by praising his pointer. The man agrees it is a fine dog but notes that Nola (the dog) is ill from an infected wound. Mack asks to look at Nola's wound, immediately makes friends with her, and when Mack suggests an Epsom salts compress, the Captain asks him to go home with him to tend to the dog. Mack tells the others to clean up the campsite.

Chapter 14

Early morning, Cannery Row hardly stirring, two soldiers and their girls walk tired and happy through the streets. The girls are wearing the boys' hats; the boys have their dates' hats on. They stop on the beach, drink some beer and the soldiers lay their heads in their girls' laps. A watchman comes to shoo them away, but one of the soldiers smiles at the watchman and tells him, colorfully, to get lost, and the watchman does.

Chapter 15

Mack treats the dog. The Captain offers him one of her litter and goes frog-catching with the boys in his own pond. They catch hundreds of frogs. Since the Captain's wife is away, they get drunk together, and the boys leave for home glad they are doing something nice for Doc.

Chapter 16

Dora and the prostitutes take care of the sick during an outbreak of influenza and at a time when the brothel is exceptionally busy because a new regiment of soldiers has arrived at the nearby army base. The canneries are employing as many workers as possible because of a bountiful sardine catch, which also helps to keep the brothel busy.

Chapter 17

Even when he sees the curtains drawn and hears Gregorian chant being played on the phonograph, and knows Doc has a woman with him, Mack is sensitive to Doc's loneliness. Doc drives to La Jolla for octopi. Mack and the boys are collecting frogs. Henri, from Red Williams's gas station, watches a flagpole skater who has installed himself atop the flagpole at Hollman's Department Store. Doc stops for food and picks up a hitchhiker. He stops for a beer and asks the hitchhiker if he wants one. When the hitchhiker lectures Doc about drinking and driving, Doc orders him out of the car. Curious to see what it tastes like, Doc orders a beer milk shake, telling the waitress he is sick and drinks it on his doctor's orders, having discovered that people prefer lies to the truth.

Chapter 18

Collecting octopi, Doc discovers a drowned girl underwater. Shaken by the sight, he tells a passing stranger. The stranger says he will get a bounty when he reports it. Doc leaves in disgust, telling the stranger to make the police report and take the bounty himself.

Chapter 19

Dr. Merrivale shoots an air gun at the flagpole skater. Richard Frost cannot figure out how the flagpole skater goes to the toilet. Driven from his bed by curiosity one night, he calls out the question to the skater on his perch and learns, as he tells his wife when he gets home and slips back into bed, that "he's got a can up there."

Chapter 20

Mack and the boys return the truck to Lee Chong and make a deal to trade frogs for groceries. The Flophouse gang decide to have the party for Doc at Doc's lab because Doc has a record player and because they can surprise him when he returns. They decorate Doc's place and bring over the crate of frogs. They begin the party without Doc, and it ends after one in the morning, but before Doc's return. The party turns into a melee. The case of frogs is broken open and all the frogs escape. The place is a mess and the damage is considerable.

Chapter 21

In the morning Doc returns, exhausted. The lab is a shambles; animals are in panic; records, phonograph, glass cases, and instruments are broken. Mack, waiting for Doc, admits the mess is his making. Doc punches him in the jaw twice and calls on him to fight; Mack says he had "it coming." Once his anger is spent, Doc calmly asks Mack to tell him what happened. Mack explains that they planned a surprise party for him, thinking he would be back in time for it, but that it "got out of hand." Mack tells Doc he is sorry and adds that saying that "don't do no good," and that he has been "sorry all my life," and that whenever he tries to do something good it turns out badly. He promises Doc that he and the boys will pay for the damage and clean up the place. Doc tells him that even though he means to pay, he never will and that he [Doc] needs to clean up by himself. Mack leaves. Doc has forgiven him.

Chapter 22

Henri lives in his boat, often with a female companion. His girlfriends keep moving out because the cabin is too small. One night, alone, feeling sorry for himself, Henri sees a handsome young man and a beautiful boy sitting across from him. The man cuts the baby's throat with a straight razor. Henri goes over to Doc's place in fright, hoping Doc will go back to the boat with him to see if he sees what Henri saw. Doc declines, explaining it will not help Henri whether Doc sees the apparition or not. As they talk, a woman visitor appears. She has a date with Doc. Doc tells Henri to tell her his story. She goes home with Henri and stays for five months until she moves out, like the others, because of the cramped quarters.

Chapter 23

After the party at the lab, "gloom settled over the Palace Flophouse." Mack takes to his bed. The boys are ostracized by everyone in Cannery Row. Only the dog, Darling, seems to keep her cheer. The rest of the town also suffers. The Malloys fight. A group of women effect the temporary closing of Dora's brothel. Doc has to borrow money to pay for the damages to the lab. One of the townsmen loses his legs when he falls asleep on the railroad tracks and a train runs over him. The town loses convention business because the brothel is closed. Some boats get free of their moorings and are tossed, broken, onto the beach.

The gloom begins to lift when Darling gets sick. Hazel and Jones go to see if Doc can help. He protests he is not a veterinarian, but he looks at Darling and prescribes a course of treatment. Following his instructions, the boys take the dog through her illness and restore her to health. With her return to health, everything in Cannery Row begins to get better. The brothel is allowed to reopen. Lee Chong resumes friendly relations with the boys.

Mack visits Dora and tells her how the party was actually a result of good intentions, no matter how badly it turned out, and asks her what he can do for Doc. Her answer—"You gave him a party he didn't get to. Why don't you give him a party he does get to"—greatly impresses Mack and sets the direction for the final section of the book.

Doc and Richard Frost drink beer on the Fourth of July, waiting for the parade to come by. Across the way, they see the Flophouse guys sitting outside their door. Doc compares them to people driven by ambition, and considers the boys to be truly the wise men of the age in their detachment.

Chapter 24

Mary Talbot is rumored to be descended from witches. Sometimes she has alley cats to tea. She loves to give parties. Her husband, Tom, is a writer who lives on hope even as his stories are rejected by major magazines. Finally, he is overcome by despair at his failure. When Mary sees one of the cats in the yard tormenting a mouse, and screams, Tom kills the mouse and shoos the cat away. Through this divertissement he escapes his gloom. Mary says she understands how cats are, but she will have difficulty liking the predatory cat. The chapter ends with the suggestion that she is pregnant.

Chapter 25

Good cheer spreads throughout Cannery Row. The boys decide to give Doc another surprise party, but not to force it to happen. They decide, too, that they need an occasion for the party. Mack goes over to Doc's to find out when his birthday is. Not wanting to make him suspicious, he leads up to his question with talk about astrology and horoscopes. But Doc recognizes a ploy and suspects a hidden motive and says October 27 is his birthday when, in fact, it is December 18.

Chapter 26

Joey's father killed himself with rat poison after a year of unemployment. Willard taunts and teases him and challenges him to fight without being able to get a rise out of him or compromising Joey's dignity.

Chapter 27

Mack and the boys make preparations for the party. No one is formally invited; the news of the party just spreads through Cannery Row. Everybody prepares for it. The women at Dora's make Doc a silk patchwork quilt out of old lingerie. Mack and the boys decide to have the party at Doc's, but not if he does not show up. Doc overhears a drunk in a bar mention it. Realizing that everyone will bring liquor but no one will think of food, he buys food as well as wine and whiskey. As a gift, Mack and the boys trap tomcats for Doc, and keep them at the Flophouse. Although the cats are caged, they make Darling skittery.

Chapter 28

Frankie sees a clock in a jewelry store window and longs to give to Doc. He breaks the window at night and flees with the clock and is apprehended. Despite Doc's request that Frankie be paroled in his custody, Frankie is confined to a mental hospital.

Chapter 29

The afternoon of the party, Doc finishes his work, locks away valuable, breakable, or dangerous objects and animals, and takes a shower. Mack and the boys bathe and decide not to bring the cats over to the lab. The prostitutes dress in street frocks rather than in the elaborate gowns of their trade. Everyone waits for the time of the party to begin.

Chapter 30

The party is a ritual release of repressed energy in celebration of life's messiness; it is a great success, with eating, drinking, dancing, noise, and festive brawling. Even the police, called by a woman five blocks away because of the noise, stay to take part. The squad car is commandeered for a liquor run. At the center of the chapter, Doc reads a Sanskrit poem in translation about lost love.

Chapter 31

A gopher finds a perfect spot to make his home, far from gardens, so that there is no fear of traps. After burrowing a fine domicile beneath the earth, the gopher waits for a female companion. When none arrives and the gopher grows lonely, he seeks a mate at another gopher hole only to be attacked by the male gopher who lives in it. The injured gopher returns to his home, but when no female companion appears, he moves "to a dahlia garden where they put out traps every night."

Chapter 32

Doc is in a melancholy mood. Amid his caged specimens of rats and rattlesnakes, he eats, listens to Gregorian chant, and looks at the poem he read at the party, reciting lines that celebrate the illumination brought to the poet by his past, now lost, experiences.


Horace Abbeville

Horace Abbeville is a minor character who deeds over a building to Lee Chong in order to pay off a cash debt. Lee Chong allows Mack and the boys to live in it. They call it the Palace Flophouse and Grill.


Alfred is the watchman and bouncer at Dora Flood's brothel, the Bear Flag Restaurant.


Andy is a boy who teases the mysterious Old Chinaman, and as he chants his racially disparaging rhyme, he experiences a frightening hallucination.


This is what Mack calls the man who comes to shoo Mack and his friends off his land when they are camping out waiting to catch frogs. The man is won over when Mack takes care of his ailing dog. He lets them catch frogs in his pond, and, since his wife is away, the house is a mess and he and the boys get drunk.

Mr. Carriaga

Carriaga appears in an anecdote about an actual writer, the American humorist Josh Billings. He discovers that, after Billings's body was embalmed, the embalmer threw Billings's organs into the bay.

Kitty Casini

Kitty Casini is a cat that Mary Talbot has befriended. Mary is disturbed when she sees the cat tormenting a mouse.

Lee Chong

Lee Chong is a Chinese grocer who owns the general store. He is a shrewd but honorable businessman, hard-nosed on the one hand, yet good-hearted and even generous on the other.


Darling is a dog that Mack and the boys adopt as a puppy and care for. She is loved by all of them. Darling serves, in the plot, to bring Mack and the boys back into the community of Cannery Row after the disastrous party they throw at Doc's.


Doc is the hero and central figure of Cannery Row. There is an air of integrity, melancholy wisdom, and stoicism about him. He runs a biological laboratory and collects marine specimens that he sells to experimental laboratories. He is a popular and loved figure, yet he is still lonely. He respects the boundaries between individuals but also is attentive to all human need. Despite his title of "Doc," he is not a physician. Nevertheless, when necessary, he attends to human patients and to sick animals.


Eddie sometimes lives at the Flophouse. He works as a replacement bartender and keeps jugs behind the bar and fills them with a mix of leftover drinks to bring back to the Flophouse.


Eric is a barber, a friend of Henri the painter. He gives Doc a rowing machine as a birthday present.

Flagpole Skater

As an advertising ploy, this man skates on a platform built atop a flagpole outside Hollman's Department Store.

Eva Flanegan

Eva Flanegan is one of the prostitutes at Dora Flood's. She attends church and tends to drink. When William, Dora's bouncer, tells her he feels like killing himself, her response is to yell at him and berate him.

Dora Flood

Dora Flood runs the brothel on Cannery Row. She is a tough and shrewd businesswoman but also a good boss and an active and willing participant in the community. This is illustrated best by Dora having the women who work for her sit by the bedsides of the sick during an influenza epidemic, but it is also illustrated by the amount of her charitable contributions—necessarily large payoffs because her business is illegal.


Frankie is a troubled boy who does not attend school. His mother is sexually promiscuous, perhaps even an independent prostitute. The men who visit her either hit the boy or give him a nickel to leave. Frankie is drawn to Doc and hangs around his lab trying to be helpful. He steals a clock to give to Doc but is caught and sent to an asylum.

Richard Frost

Richard Frost appears briefly as a drinking companion with whom Doc bets that Mack and the boys will not even glance at the Fourth of July parade as it passes.


Gay moves into the Flophouse because of difficulties with his wife. He beats her and she hits him while he is asleep. He is an excellent mechanic. He spends most of the time in the county jail for having committed drunken mischief.

The Greek

He is the cook at the brothel. When William tells him he feels like killing himself, the Greek does not think he really means it and hands him the ice pick with which, to the Greek's troubled astonishment, William stabs himself.


Hazel is a man. He was the last of seven children and his overburdened mother did not discover his gender until after she had named him. He lives at the Palace Flophouse. He is a simple man who asks Doc questions because he likes being spoken to.


Henri is a painter, but he does not paint. He makes art out of chicken feathers or broken nutshells or pins and pincushions. A Francophile, he is not French and his name is not really Henri. He lives in a boat he is always building and never completes. In a disturbed moment, he hallucinates a man slitting a child's throat. He is fascinated by the flagpole skater.

The Hitchhiker

When Doc stops for a beer, the hitchhiker to whom he is giving a lift lectures him about the dangers of drinking and driving. Doc orders him out of the car.


He lives at the Palace Flophouse.

Mr. Jacobs

He owns the jewelry store from which Frankie steals the clock to give to Doc.


Joey is a gentle boy. His father committed suicide and Willard teases him about it.


He lives at the Palace Flophouse.


Mack is one of the principle characters of the novel. He is a loser in terms of social success and his projects often go terribly wrong. Still, he is a good-hearted, generous man, rough but tender. He lives in the Flophouse and is paterfamilias to the other men living there.

Phylis Mae

She is one of the prostitutes at Dora's brothel.

Sam Malloy

Malloy lives in an old, discarded boiler on a vacant lot across from the Flophouse. He rents the hollow pipes in the vacant lot to hobos as places to sleep.

Mrs. Sam Malloy

Mrs. Malloy quarrels with her husband when he is insensitive to her desire to put curtains up in the windowless boiler.

McKinley Moran

Moran figures in a conversation about him between Mack and Hughie. He was a deep-sea diver, paid by the government to find buried liquor and at the same time paid by a bootlegger not to find the liquor.


Nola is the Captain's dog. Mack treats her tick wound. She is Darling's mother

An Old Chinaman

He is the mysterious figure Andy taunts. He collects things in the bay at night. One of the soles of his shoes is loose and flops as he walks.

Kitty Randolph

Kitty Randolph is a cat that Mary Talbot has befriended

Mr. Randolph

Mr. Randolph is on the board of directors of one of the canning companies. He decided to discard the old boiler in which the Malloys live.

Mr. Ryan

Ryan appears in the Josh Billings anecdote as the man Carriaga speaks to about Billings's death.

Mary Talbot

Mary is Tom's wife. She tries to keep gloom away from him, loves parties, is rumored to be the descendant of witches, and has tea parties for the neighborhood cats.

Tom Talbot

Talbot is a discouraged writer living in Cannery Row. His manuscripts come back to him with rejection notes and he is often behind in paying his bills.


Willard is a cruel boy with a streak of bully in him. He teases Joey about Joey's father, who has committed suicide.


William is dead at the time of the narration of Cannery Row. He had been the bouncer/watchman at Dora's but grew depressed because of his inability to make friends with Mack and the boys. William kills himself after complaining that he wanted to be friends and no one he told took what he said seriously.

Red Williams

Williams owns a gas station in Cannery Row.



Although never indifferent to events or individuals, Doc has the kind of quietness about him that suggests detachment. While concerned about the welfare of others, whether the boy Frankie, the painter Henri, or the dog Darling, he also maintains a distance from others. Before treating Darling, Doc protests that he is not a vet. But once he examines the dog, he gives as good treatment as a veterinarian would. When Henri comes to him overcome by fright after his murderous hallucination, Doc keeps his distance and helps Henri by sacrificing his own pleasure for Henri's. Doc does not welcome Frankie when the boy starts to hang around his laboratory but waits until the boy has become comfortable enough to come close to him. When Frankie retreats to the cellar and remains there whimpering, Doc does not go near and comfort or support him. Rather, his attitude is reflected in the narrator's remark that "There wasn't a thing in the world he could do," reflecting the idea that fundamentally each person is alone, even when in need of another. When he cannot save Frankie from incarceration after Frankie has stolen a clock, Doc is moved, but shows it only by getting back to his work. The same idea of detachment is evident in Mack's attitude regarding the second attempt at giving Doc a party. Overeager the first time, Mack comes to realize that he cannot force the event but must let it happen on its own. Similarly, the Flophouse boys are shown as admirable because they remain outside the excitement of the July Fourth parade. A particularly touching example of detachment is presented in the chapter concerning Joey and Willard, as Joey rebuffs Willard's bullying without responding to it. The flagpole skater represents an austere version of isolation and detachment.

Interconnectedness of All Life in Nature

Cannery Row itself, although named for the sardine canning industry located there, takes its identity not from that industry but from the particular ecology of the region, from the interconnected relationships within and between nature and culture. The natural resources of the region determine the industrial culture and that industrial culture affects the social culture. As a marine biologist, Doc depends on the natural environment as much as the canneries do. Dora and Lee Chong, too, both cater to the natural requirement for food and sexual release, respectively. In the first chapter, the narrator draws a connection between marine life and human life when he reveals his story-telling strategy. He wants his stories to "crawl" into his book "by themselves" the way "You must let" marine life "ooze and crawl … onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water." In chapter 21, Steinbeck first describes the behavior and attitudes of the animals in Doc's lab and immediately afterward describes the behavior of the people on Cannery Row. Philosophically, the narrator repeatedly draws a distinction between denatured people, people who sacrifice their natural disposition for the sake of worldly success and become ill, and people, like Mack and the boys, who remain loyal to their natures, even when the price is the lack of worldly success. Mack, for example, senses Doc's loneliness. After Mack's unsuccessful party for Doc, the whole town falls into gloom. Even Darling's health and the health of the town are linked.


  • Doc follows Frankie to the cellar in chapter 10, after the boy has accidentally spilled beer on one of the guests. Doc listens to him crying but then goes back upstairs. The narrator writes: "There wasn't a thing in the world he could do." In an essay of at least 500 words, explain why you agree or disagree with the narrator's conclusion.
  • Doc makes his living by supplying animals to testing laboratories. This once-common practice has since been criticized as inhumane by many advocates of animal rights. After careful research, present a twenty-minute report to your class examining the issue of animal experimentation, its current extent, and the arguments for or against it. In cases where experimentation on animals has stopped, discuss what has replaced it and the effectiveness of the newer procedures.
  • In chapter 20, the narrator reports that Lee Chong sold "felt pennants commemorating ‘Fighting Bob.’" Fighting Bob refers to Robert LaFollette, Sr. (1855-1925). Using the library and the Internet for your research, prepare a fifteen-minute presentation discussing who Robert LaFollette was, what he did, and why he was important. Explain why he is mentioned in Cannery Row.
  • Doc listens to music throughout the novel. He is particularly fond of Gregorian chant, the music of Beethoven (he listens to the Moonlight Sonata and to the Great Fugue, commonly called by its German name, the Grosse Fuge), and of Maurice Ravel (he listens to the "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and to Daphnis and Chloe). After listening to these pieces of music yourself, prepare a lecture for your class and describe how these musical works illuminate or reflect Doc's character.
  • Choose a chapter from Cannery Row and rewrite it so that it is narrated by Dora Flood.


A sense of fundamental loneliness or individual isolation runs through Cannery Row. Gay would rather be in jail than at home with his wife. Mrs. Malloy feels isolated in her sensibility because she is a woman. Her husband, although a good husband who comforts her, is alone in his emotional separation from her, and his goodness appears more as a result of sympathetic duty rather than real connection. The Captain wishes he were not married. Mack lives with a sense of his inability to connect with others, whether his lost wife or Doc. The prostitutes embody loneliness and Dora has made a virtue of it in her role as a Madam. William, the brothel watchman who committed suicide, is an emblem of lonely isolation. Doc, connected as he is to nature and the life of the town, is a deeply isolated man. He lives in a flow of ever-passing experience.

Love in Varied Form

Except for Frankie's overt declaration of hopeless love for Doc, the theme of love is implicit although pervasive. There are varieties of love. With regard to the prostitutes, love appears as lust. In several situations, for Sam Malloy, for example, love appears as domestic duty. In Doc and Mack, it is shown to be a generosity of the spirit. In the Sanskrit poem Doc reads, it appears as a nebulous sense of something lost.

Respectability versus Nonconformity

Steinbeck overtly criticizes the conventions of respectability by the nature of his main characters—Doc, a loner, Mack, a loser, and Dora, a Madam. Most of the secondary characters, too—characters the reader is meant to like, whether the prostitutes, Mack's companions, Lee Chong, Henri, or the Malloys—are marginal to society and live in unconventional ways. Steinbeck also states that the qualities that are valued, like understanding, generosity, gentleness, openness, and kindness, are associated with failure. The characteristics that are associated with success are those generally held in lower esteem: "sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egoism, and self-interest."


Narrator as Naturalist

Not only is the force of Nature a theme of Cannery Row, and not only is Doc a naturalist, but the narrator of the novel is also presented as if he were a naturalist. His characters are presented as specimens that he has collected and is studying, just as Doc collects specimens and injects them with several colored fluids so that their characteristics will be highlighted and the specimens can be studied. The narrator establishes himself in the first chapter not so much as a man who makes up stories using his imagination but as a man who gathers them from the world around him.


Naturalist rather than psychologist, the narrator draws characters as types rather than as individuals, and relationships as typical rather than as specific. Lee Chong is the familiar Chinese merchant, considered inscrutable and shrewd. Dora is the very portrait of a Madam with her mix of a hard exterior and a tender inside. Mr. Malloy and the Captain are stock characters, henpecked husbands. Mack is a prototypical hobo. Henri is a standard caricature of an unsuccessful artist. And Doc is an exemplary man of the first half of the twentieth century, strong, silent, self-sufficient, sensitive, in touch with nature, and yet lonely.


Cannery Row, a novel of approximately 130 pages, is divided into 32 chapters. Although there is a thread connecting the chapters, sometimes because of an ongoing story being told and sometimes because the events or persons described are part of the ambience of Cannery Row, each chapter is a vignette, a free-standing portrait of one or another aspect of life or nature. Even episodes in the larger story—Mack and the boys going frogging (frog hunting), or the story of Frankie—can stand alone. Chapters like those devoted to the Talbots, to the two soldiers and their girls, to the gopher, or to Josh Billings, might be removed from the book without a reader ever suspecting their absence despite the fact that their presence enriches the totality of the narrative.


Flagpole Sitting

Flagpole sitting, the practice of sitting on a small platform set upon the top of a pole for as long as possible, was a fad that reached its peak in the 1920s. Although an apparently frivolous activity, it resembles the discipline some religious hermits imposed upon themselves when they sat in isolation upon tall columns. The most famous of these is hermits St. Simeon, who sat for thirty-six years upon a column in Turkey during the first part of the fifth century C.E. Flagpole skating is a whacky variation of flagpole sitting.

The Great Depression

The exact time in which Cannery Row takes place is not given, but the story seems to be occurring just as the Great Depression is ending and World War II is beginning, so one can pinpoint the era as early 1940s. While the influence of the war is hardly visible in the novel, the culture of the depression is obvious. People are poor and live in makeshift dwellings. The Great Depression started at the end of 1929 when the stock market crashed. It lasted until the beginning of World War II. There was massive unemployment; people lost their homes, and itinerant poor traveled throughout the United States on railroad box-cars and lived in hobo encampments.


Unlike the 1960s, which saw an outbreak of interest in Asian culture, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism, in 1944, when Steinbeck was writing Cannery Row, Taoism was quite arcane. Taoism is a Chinese philosophy of non-attachment to the things of the world. It teaches the cultivation of emptiness and the belief that any way that can be called the way is not the way. Its defining text is called the Tao Te Jing or the Way of Life. Its author is believed to be the Chinese sage, Lao Tse, born around 604 b.c.e.


  • 1940s: Animals are regularly used in laboratories to develop and test medicines and cosmetics. The practice goes largely unchallenged.

    Today: The use of animals in laboratories continues, although it has become somewhat less common due to social views. Animal advocacy groups regularly protest the practice and lobby to have animal testing outlawed.

  • 1940s: Monterey is one of the major centers of fish canning.

    Today: After the fishing industry collapsed in the 1950s, Monterey's Cannery Row, a street located on the waterfront, became a tourist center. It currently attracts fishermen, scuba divers, and visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Literary tourists, people drawn to Cannery Row because of Steinbeck's novel, also visit frequently.

  • 1940s: The United States recovers from the Great Depression because of the boost given to the economy (brought on by increased production in the industrial-military complex) by World War II.

    Today: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are draining resources from the American economy (brought on by increased military spending) and the country's infrastructure and social services suffer because of it.

World War II

Although World War II is not mentioned in Cannery Row, its presence haunts the book by its absence, for at the time of the novel's composition, not just the United States but the entire world was mobilized and involved in strenuous battle. The United States, England, the Soviet Union, and their allies, fought against the Germans, the Japanese, and the Italians. Cannery Row presents a picture of a society that functions peacefully despite human weaknesses and conflicts. It presents a vision of the world as an organism composed by the balanced interaction of interdependent parts, a vision distinctly in contrast with the nature of war in which part is set against part as if they were not mutually dependent upon each other.


Cannery Row puzzled critics when it was first published, particularly because of the circumstances of the world around it. It was written and published as World War II raged, but gave hardly a word to the war. Peter Lisca traces first responses to the novel in The Wide World of John Steinbeck. Lisca reports that F. O. Mathiessen, reviewing the novel in the New York Times, declared that "it's a puzzler why Steinbeck should have wanted to write or publish such a book at this point in his career." Lisca also states that Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker, said that among Steinbeck's works, it was the one he "most enjoyed reading." Nevertheless, Wilson also reportedly found it "sentimental" and simple-minded in its "philosophy." Lisca further relates that the critic Orville Prescott declared that, with Cannery Row, Steinbeck "did not just write a trivial and seemingly meaningless and purposeless novel. He wrote with all his usual professional felicity of expression, a sentimental glorification of weakness of mind and degeneration of character."

Notably, the initially critical reception did not affect the novel's popularity, and later critics were farmore accepting of the book. Indeed, in his 1986 book, John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, John H. Timmerman focuses on the problems of civilization, consumerism, and nature in Cannery Row. Kevin Hearle, in a critique in After The Grapes of Wrath: Essays on John Steinbeck, suggests that despite "Steinbeck's formidable talent for describing actual places" Cannery Row is "profoundly concerned with the power of discourse—literary and non-literary—to shape our understanding of the world."


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In the following essay, Heims examines Steinbeck's depiction of women in Cannery Row.

After giving a sense of the ambience and surface of the setting in Cannery Row—Steinbeck mentions its people, but only to identify them by type. They may be considered equally as "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," or as "saints and angels and martyrs and holy men." In other words, he is asserting that it is nearly impossible and certainly mistaken to see people or to understand their actions from only one perspective. Nevertheless, in Cannery Row, one perspective is privileged over another, the perspective that celebrates the culture of men and dismisses or gently disparages the culture of women.

Although the prologue speaks of "the town men and women [who] scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work," and of the "upper classes" (the "superintendents, accountants, [and] owners who disappear into offices"), neither the workers nor the bosses appear in the novel. Cannery Row is not about class differences. With its focus on a group of marginalized men and women, Steinbeck presents a story implicitly concerned with the tension between male and female perspectives on the condition of being alive and how to regard that condition. Cannery Row, as Steinbeck portrays it and values it, is a man's world. It is a world of men who live their lives separately from women, even those men who are married. For these men, women serve as a diversion, an object of longing, or a restraint on natural liveliness. Women are not depicted as socially subordinate to men but as temperamentally other. The Captain's wife is a politician. Dora Flood, the madam of the brothel, is a strong and shrewd businesswoman. Nevertheless, women are portrayed as being either an enhancement or a restraint to the men around them. Their existence, even Dora's, powerful and canny as she is, is contingent on male existence and male need. Male existence, on the other hand, even among the most marginal of the men, is absolute in and of itself. When men are needy, it is not a sign of their contingency but of their human condition.


  • Ernest Hemingway's 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea, like Cannery Row, is a story of a man isolated within and by his own powers, and of this man's relation to nature. Whereas Steinbeck contemplates the unity of all things, Hemingway explores the conflict and struggle he sees as being at the heart of survival.
  • Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath, unlike Cannery Row, is one of the major social novels of the twentieth century. It also established Steinbeck as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century.
  • The popular radio performer and author Garrison Keillor wrote Lake Wobegon Days (1985). Very much in the spirit of Cannery Row, the book weaves a number of vignettes into a portrait of a fictional town in Minnesota.
  • Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic depiction of small-town America, Our Town, explores the organic connections between individuals and the interplay of life and death in human life.
  • Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night (1958), relates events that were happening in the same time period as that in which Cannery Row takes place. Night, however, discusses Wiesel's experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp, not in the more humane setting Steinbeck evokes. Nevertheless, the connection between individuals and their environment that Steinbeck seeks to explore in Cannery Row can also be found in Wiesel's book.

Steinbeck's narrative stance is that of a scientific naturalist, not a psychologist. Fittingly, then, Cannery Row shows both men and women as types rather than as complex individuals immersed in, and influenced by, cultural and social forces. Doc is a prototypical combination of the hard-bitten but profoundly sensitive man, secure and sufficient even if he is also gnawed at by loneliness (something like God before he created Adam). Mack is a similar man, although he lacks Doc's composure. He is a grown-up boy who has fallen short of being a man in his social accomplishments. But he is a terrifically resourceful and honest boy. And he is the leader of a benevolent gang of men called "the boys." Lee Chong, the stereotypical Chinese grocer, is canny, suspicious, shrewd, and calculating, but he is fundamentally decent and good-hearted. He is also self-sufficient.

The men in the novel who are married (Sam Malloy, Gay, the Captain, and Tom Talbot), are all portrayed, in one way or another, as hampered by their wives. And the women, apart from Dora, are portrayed fundamentally as children. Mrs. Malloy goes into hysterics when her husband cannot understand how she is going to hang curtains in the windowless iron boiler they live in. Gay's wife, who is only mentioned, but never portrayed, waits for Gay to fall asleep and then begins hitting him. He then beats her. Married life is such that Gay prefers life in the county jail, where he can play checkers with the sheriff. Mack was married, but he could never do anything right, according to his wife. According to him, however, he was always trying to. He has much better luck with Doc. Although he makes mistakes, he and Doc deal with Mack's failings man to man. After the ill-conceived party, Doc punches Mack twice, and then listens compassionately to Mack's explanation. Mary Talbot, Tom's wife, is shown as slightly daffy and slightly demented. Rumored to be descended from a witch, she loves to give parties and routinely serves tea to the neighborhood cats, with which she converses. She is oblivious to the manly sorrows of her husband, but is often his delight. She lessens his cares because of her girlish naïveté.

Furthermore, Mack and the boys have a grand time with the Captain. Because his wife is away, he can go frogging with them. He can also unplug a cask of whiskey, an act that his wife prohibits. His absent wife, the Captain says, "is a wonderful woman," and he gives her what may be for some men the highest compliment that can be given to a woman: She "ought to of been a man." Then he gives the compliment a spin and reveals his feeling about being married: "If she was a man I wouldn' of married her." The Captain's wife is felt to be at fault for having her own career and for not keeping the house from becoming a mess while she is away from home. She is also characterized as being a killjoy for imposing restraint on the Captain: no drinking, no mess, no fun.

The women who are presented in a positive light are those who are available to men when they are needed and who make no demands upon them. Interspersed between the two chapters devoted to the Captain, there is a utopian interlude. Two soldiers and their girls are seen in the very early morning, "very tired and very happy," after a long night on the town. The scene ends on the beach; the soldiers lie with their heads in their girls' laps. The soldiers and the girls look, smiling, into each other's eyes, sharing a "peaceful and wonderful secret." This is the interval that transcends reality. The soldiers will go back to the war. The girls will go back to their lives. Years later, when they all get married, whether to each other or to others, their marriages, as Cannery Row seems to suggest, will be nothing like this early morning idyll.

Then there is Dora Flood. As the successful proprietor of a brothel, she is an independent woman who is strong, shrewd, and wise to the ways of the world and to the men to whom she caters. Dora is an exception because her career is dedicated to catering to men, and her success is that she knows how to do it. She earns the highest praise from Mack, and it is not the backhanded praise that the Captain gives his wife. Mack means to give Dora tribute when he says: "Now there is one hell of a woman. No wonder she got to be a madam. There is one hell of a woman." What Dora has done to earn such tribute is to offer the kind of advice that no respectable wife inside the covers of Cannery Row would offer. When Mack tells her about his ill-conceived and disastrous party for Doc, and about his wish to do something for him that will succeed, Dora says: "You gave him a party he didn't get to. Why don't you give him a party he does get to?" The narrator, as well as Mack, likes and respects Dora. So does Doc. Nevertheless, she is not of their world. She caters to it. That she does so for cash is all the better. It keeps the transactions between her world and the world of the men free of the encumbrances or restraints that accompany involvement with "high-minded ladies."

The only womanly figures that exist in the men's world are mere shadows. Doc is attractive to women. The boys notice that Doc frequently has women visitors who stay through the night. But these women are shadows to the reader, figures that run through Doc's fingers like the water that he probes when harvesting marine specimens. At the core of the second party, and in the concluding chapter of the book, Doc recites out loud a poem embedded in an awareness of a lost beloved. The poem offers the possibility of attaining the spiritual elevation associated with love. These are suppressed romantic symptoms in Doc and in the book. There is no woman who can realize them. Those women who are congenial to men are comforting to their complex masculinity, like Dora and her prostitutes. The prostitutes, when one or another is brought forward, are shown as quirky, not quite stable in themselves, but efficient in their work and relatively good-natured. The deep emotional tensions and relationships in the novel exist only among the men.

But there is a lasting malaise haunting the book that focuses on Frankie and on Doc's inability to do anything for the miserable boy. Frankie is the boy who insinuates himself shyly into Doc's life, whom Doc accepts when no one else will. Nevertheless, Doc is unable to rescue Frankie after he breaks into Jacob's Jewelry Store and steals a clock, which he wants to give to Doc as a token of his love and respect. While Doc can replace the boy's dead father, he cannot replace Frankie's mother. She is not dead, but she is absent, visited continuously by men who either hit Frankie or give him a nickel to disappear. Frankie becomes, in consequence, a figure through which the absent female is suggested.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Cannery Row, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Robert S. Hughes, Jr.

In the following excerpt, Hughes takes an in-depth look at Mack and the boys to show the moral values that Steinbeck extols via their example.

… Why do Mack and the boys accommodate themselves so easily to life on Cannery Row, while several less-fortunate characters die? As we have seen, the Palace Flophouse boys pursue simple pleasures and contentment as advocated by Taoism; and, unwittingly following Christ's counsel in the New Testament, they live with fewer material goods than their contemporaries. Hence Frederick Bracher has observed that "Mack's real strength, like Thoreau's, comes from renunciation…. [M]ost of the things valued by the middle class—mechanical gadgets, security, cleanliness, prestige, comfort—Mack finds too expensive." In other words, Mack and his friends enjoy a durable, single-sex community, free from the financial, legal, and emotional commitments of middle-class life. They are neither sick from having too much money nor despondent from having too little. Based on the inverted moral perspective of the novel, then, the Palace Flophouse boys live more enlightened lives than the "respectable" Monterey with whom Steinbeck compares them.

The boys' comfortable adaptation to life is illustrated by their frog-hunting expedition into the Carmel Valley. They camp by the "lovely" Carmel River on the sandy shore of a deep, green pool, stewing a chicken (a windfall from their trip) over an open fire, as "around them the evening crept in as delicately as music." Mack and his friends blend so harmoniously with their surroundings that Steinbeck uses the word "happy" to describe their encampment. During this frog-hunting scene, Mack and the boys demonstrate not only their adaptability but also their talent for relaxation. Steinbeck more than condones this talent; he becomes its active champion. While "respectable" Monterey condemns the Palace Flophouse boys for being loafers, we know that in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) Steinbeck (along with Ed Ricketts) views loafing as a sign of wisdom and strong survival value. "Only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighting of oneself against the world and the world against itself. A busy man cannot find the time for such balancing. We do not think a lazy man can commit murders, nor great thefts, nor lead a mob. He would be more likely to think about it and laugh."

Just as laziness fosters contemplation, according to Steinbeck and Ricketts, so too does alcohol provide innumerable benefits. In The Log Steinbeck and Ricketts argue that the "theory that alcohol is a poison" is "too blindly accepted." Actually "our race has a triumphant alcoholic history," they counter, in which liquor has served as an "anodyne, a warmer of the soul, a strengthener of muscle and spirit." This philosophy—or at least its outward manifestation—certainly carries over into Cannery Row, where drinking is a universal pastime. Eddie's infamous wining jug provides a centerpiece in the Palace Flophouse. Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant, among other things, is a favorite watering hole. And Doc—admirer of eighth-century Chinese poet of inebriation Li Po—daily imbibes several quarts of beer. Thus Cannery Row has its own cult of alcohol which attributes considerable powers to its consumption. Mack, for example, peers into an empty whiskey glass "as though some holy message were written in the bottom." But just how many of the collateral benefits of drinking mentioned by Steinbeck and Ricketts the Palace Flophouse boys receive is difficult to tell. Perhaps liquor promotes their laziness, whose advantages have been outlined above. One might also conclude that they drink simply because it makes them feel good or helps them forget.

Nonetheless, Ed Ricketts (the model for Doc in Cannery Row) believed that the real-life prototypes of Mack and the boys were "the Lotus Eaters of our era, successful in their resistance against the nervousness and angers and frustrations of our time." As Steinbeck explains in "About Ed Ricketts," "Ed regarded these men with the admiration he had for any animal, family, or species that was successful in survival and happiness factors." Ricketts contended that bums like Mack and his friends would "deliver our species from the enemies within and without which attack it" (italics mine). Doc's most succinct statement about the Palace Flophouse boys comes when a "Black Gloom" has settled over them after their disastrous first party in Doc's lab. In a conversation with Richard Frost, Doc calls Mack and his cohorts "true philosophers" and then repeats the inverted moral perspective introduced earlier in the book: "In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else."

This glowing appraisal is tempered somewhat by Mack's earlier admission to Doc: "I been sorry all my life…. Ever'thing I done turned sour." Lewis Owens points out this darker side of the "flophouse castaways, a sad and less pleasing dimension of failure, rejection, and withdrawal." Owens argues that rather than adjusting well to life, Mack and his buddies represent severe maladjustment. "Mack is in retreat from the world outside of the Row; he has failed in love and in any kind of deep commitment and has come to hide out from further commitment on Cannery Row." The Palace Flophouse boys nonetheless remain crucial to the novel's inverted morality. They renounce the greed and sickness of their time, refusing to sell their souls "to gain the whole world." That they may be viewed as mere hedonists, on the one hand, or as saviors of mankind, on the other, reflects the moral ambiguity of these intriguing characters.

Helping Mack and the boys survive comfortably on the Row is their occasional reluctant benefactor, Lee Chong. Steinbeck associates the humane and astute Chinese grocer with Taoism, yet also with the "abacus and cash register." Thus Lee Chong combines Oriental inaction and contentment with Western striving for material prosperity. He is not avaricious, though "if one wanted to spend money, he was available." Lee never presses those who owe him money, yet he cuts off credit when the bill becomes too large. He is a realistic man in the details of business, yet sympathic in matters of the heart—"a hard man with a can of beans—a soft man with the bones of his grandfather." One of Lee's finest qualities is that he sees beyond his own immediate profit or loss. While a conventional grocer would hardly bargain with bums like Mack and the boys, Lee does so, often to his own apparent financial disadvantage. For example, when he reluctantly "rents" the old Horace Abbeville place to Mack and his friends, Lee has the foresight to know that although they will never pay rent, at least the building will not mysteriously go up in flames, as it might if he refuses them. In addition, he gains several steady customers in his store, the loss in rent being more than compensated for by money they spend and goods they don't steal. Thus Lee Chong belies the stereotypical business "success" (condemned through the inverted morality of the novel) by combining seemingly incompatible traits of character. He manages not only to remain healthy and prosperous but also to avoid destroying others on his way to financial security …

Source: Robert S. Hughes, Jr., "‘Some Philosophers in the Sun’: Steinbeck's Cannery Row," in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism, edited by Jackson J. Benson, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 119-31.

Peter Lisca

In the following essay, Lisca argues that the twin themes of Cannery Row are escape from material values and from belief in activism. As part of his thesis, Lisca discusses Eastern philosophy.

Between The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, Steinbeck's next major work of fiction, came a period of five years during which he was occupied with a variety of writing. During the last two of these years this writing was directly related to America's involvement in World War II, ending with Steinbeck serving five months abroad as a war correspondent. The war experience left Steinbeck so depressed that he refused even to edit his dispatches for publication in book form, and they were not published until 1958 (Once There Was a War). Instead, in less than two months he produced Cannery Row, the first of three works of fiction written in quick succession, varying widely in materials and techniques but each exploring some reaction toward a world whose basic values had plunged it in turn from eleven years of severe economic depression into the massive aggression and destruction of a world war.

In Cannery Row (1945) this reaction is one of escape into a counterculture superficially reminiscent of Tortilla Flat, except that the earlier novel is a light, tongue-in-cheek affair, and the new novel—for all its humor—is a philosophically based and impassioned celebration of values directly opposed to the capitalist ethic dominant in Western society. Looking through "another peephole," Steinbeck discovers that what normally might be called "thieves, rascals … bums" may just as truly be described as "saints and angels and martyrs and holy men." For as Doc, the central character, expresses it, the traits leading to success in our society are frequently "greed, acquisitiveness, meanness," whereas failure may be the result of "kindness, generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling."

The book is short and episodic, made up of thirty-two little chapters totaling only 181 pages. The setting is the section of Monterey, California, characterized by its sardine canneries (Cannery Row), and the time is just before World War II. Its numerous and varied characters include Doc, the biologist who runs the one-man Western Biological Laboratory; Dora Flood, madam of the Bear Flag Restaurant (a whorehouse); Lee Chong, owner of a grocery store; Mack and the boys (Hazel, Eddie, Hughie, Jones), who live in a storage shed they call the Palace Flophouse and Grill; Gay, who lives with the boys or in the jail to escape his wife; Henri, an avant-garde painter; Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, who live in an abandoned boiler; Frankie, a retarded juvenile whom Doc befriends; and many others, some of whom appear only briefly. The book's narrative line is a very thin one, consisting of Cannery Row's two attempts to give a surprise party for Doc, whom they all admire. The first one turns out to be a glorious failure, resulting in the wrecking of the laboratory and ending before Doc even arrives. After a period of gloom, a second party is launched and proves a riotous success. The novel closes with Doc washing the dishes the following morning.

Cannery Row offers neither a detailed anatomy of society's "mangled craziness" nor a program for changing it. Rather, it brings into being a new world to replace the one that is in the process of self-destruction. It is a world not of whole cloth but of bits and pieces, varying in chronology, recollected in nostalgia, and lovingly assembled, like the patch-work quilt presented to Doc by the girls of Dora's whorehouse, or one of the fantastic collages done by Henri, the novel's eccentric artist. Thus, while one episode concerns the death of the American humorist Josh Billings (1885), in another, Model T Fords are in common use; while Henry follows "feverishly … in periodicals the latest Dadaist movements and schisms," Sam Malloy's historically contemporary Chalmers 1916 piston and connecting rod is valued as a rare antique; elsewhere in the book, the year 1937 is clearly referred to as in the past. In addition to this free intermingling of various time levels, there is also a haunting effect of timelessness, achieved in part by the relative lack of plot (movement) and in part by the recurrence of specific descriptions and acts. A mysterious old Chinaman goes down to the sea each evening at five thirty and returns each morning. The rhythmic flopping of the loose sole on his shoe, normally a very temporary condition, through its presumed continuance accentuates that timelessness. These two qualities of the novel's time sense—its blurring of chronology and the sharp recurring detail—are the very essence of homesickness, out of which Steinbeck said he wrote the book; his close friend Ed Ricketts, the original of Doc, described it as "an essay in loneliness." Cannery Row brings together again in the unchanging world of art those qualities of life that—hastened by the war—had passed never to return, and for which Steinbeck felt a deep nostalgia. In this respect the novel is firmly in the pastoral tradition.

In the novel's preface, addressing himself to the problem of setting down Cannery Row "alive," Steinbeck proposes an analogy that resonates through all aspects of the work, for as its time sense is in free flux, so also are its other qualities. His comparison of the writing of this book to capturing whole fragile and delicate sea worms extends to both content (stories/sea worms) and method or form ("let the stories crawl in by themselves"/"ooze by themselves"). And as the seawater in which the specimens are held has no shape except that imparted by its container, so the novel seems equally arbitrary in form. Only about half of the thirty-two chapters pick up the tenuous narrative thread. Alternating almost regularly with these are "the little inner chapters" (as Steinbeck once called them) that sometimes add to our knowledge of the main characters and sometimes introduce material of no causal relationship. Generally, however, all these inner chapters serve in some way as comment or contrast to the novel's major theme.

The openness and freedom of the novel's structure is a formal expression of those same qualities in the Cannery Row community itself, upon which no convention or authority imposes conformity or direction. It has instead the natural order of a biological organism, manifesting its own inner dynamics. The lines of interaction between individuals and even between institutions proliferate in all directions—Frankie and Doc, the laboratory and the whorehouse, the Chinese grocery store and the Palace Flophouse, the idealized women in Doc's poetry books (Petrarch's Laura, the girl in "Black Marigolds") and Dora's practical prostitutes. Those relationships normally expected to be exploitative or repressive are mutually beneficial—the jailor and Gay, McKinley the diver and the Prohibition agents and the bootlegger, a landowner and trespassing bums, the police and a riotous party, even the whorehouse and the Ladies' Anti-Vice League. This rich variety of viable relationships is possible because all elements of the community share a quality that is most explicit in Steinbeck's description of Mack and the boys. He calls them "the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces" because in a world of greed and rapacity—"ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals," they "avoid the trap" of ambition. To this imagery of maimed animals is opposed a version of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which Mack and the boys "dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the seagulls of Cannery Row." Their lack of material gain is not seen as lack of ability. Doc is certain that these "bums" can "get money." But "they just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting." To Hazel's observation that Mack could have been President of the United States had he wanted to be, Jones replies, "What could he do with it if he had it?"

The novel's informing spirit is the Tao Teh Ching of Lao-tzu, a Chinese philosopher of the sixth century B.C. Like Cannery Row, the Tao Teh Ching was written in a time of brutal war ("Period of the Fighting States") and, in reaction to those conditions, presented a system of human values devoid of all those qualities that had brought on that war. It is interesting in this connection to quote from the prefatory remarks of two well-known editions of the Tao published just before Cannery Row:

For Laotze's book … teaches the wisdom of appearing foolish, the success of appearing to fail, the strength of weakness … if I were asked what antidote could be found … to cure this contentious modern world of its inveterate belief in force and struggle for power, I would name this book … [Lao-tzu] has the knack of making Hitler and other dreamers of world mastery appear foolish and ridiculous

(Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of China and India [1942])

And the Western world might well temper its characteristic faults by taking Laotzu to heart … "Laotzu is one of our chief weapons against tanks, artillery and bombs."

(Witter Bynner, The Way of Life [1944])

That Steinbeck was familiar with Lao-tzu's little text of forty or so pages is certain, and most probably he was familiar with it in the Lin Yutang translation, although several others were also available. In Journal of a Novel (1951) he listed Lao-tzu along with Plato, Christ, and Buddha as "the great ones." Significantly, Ed Ricketts, to whom Cannery Row is dedicated, was much attracted to Taoism and refers to it several times in his letters and unpublished papers. In chapter 2 Steinbeck speculates that Lee Chong, who takes up most of the first chapter and with whose name (which is similar to that of Lao-tzu's famous disciple Chuangtse) that chapter begins, is "more than a Chinese grocer. He must be. Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good—an Asian planet held to its orbit by the pull of Lao-Tze and held away from Lao-Tze by the centrifugality of abacus and cash register …" Doc himself sometimes reads aloud to Lee Chong in English from the poetry of Li Po, a figure associated with Taoism. In this context even the novel's ancient and mysterious Chinaman is suggestive.

Taoism rejects the desire for material goods, fame, power, and even the holding of fixed or strong opinions—all of which lead to violence. Instead, man is to cultivate simple physical enjoyments and the inner life. To be obscure is to be wise; to fail is to succeed; in human relationships force always defeats itself; even laws are a form of violence; the moral life is one of inaction.

These principles are generally visible throughout Cannery Row; frequently the consequences of their absence are illustrated in the "little inner chapters." In addition, however, much of the novel seems to exemplify specific passages in the Tao. Sometimes there is even a similarity of expression. Steinbeck writes in chapter 2: "The word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern. The World sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas." Surely Steinbeck's meditation upon his own creative act is reminiscent of the Gospel according to Saint John, but its similarity to the very first passage of the Tao Teh Ching is even more striking:

Existence is beyond the power of words
To define:
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute.
In the beginning of heaven and earth there
    were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter;
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately
Sees the surface,
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.

(Witter Bynner, The Way of Life)

There are other correspondences of statement between the two works. Steinbeck's "Virtues and Graces" live with "no money, no ambitions beyond food, drink and contentment" whereas most men "in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their target." Lao-tzu says,

There is no greater curse than lack of
No greater sin than the desire for possession.
Therefore he who is contented with contentment
   shall always be content.

(Lin Yutang, XLVI)

Steinbeck's "another peephole," through which Mack and the boys are seen in different perspective, may be a version of

Who understands Tao seems dull of
Who is advanced in Tao seems to slip
… Great character appears like insufficient;
Solid character appears like infirm.

(Lin Yutang, XLI)

When Mack and the boys will not even turn their heads to look at the Fourth of July parade because "they know what will be in the parade," they illustrate the Taoist principle that "Without stepping outside one's doors, / One can know what is happening in the world" (Lin Yutang, XLVII).

Doc himself clearly embodies the traits of a Taoist sage. He is free of all ambition. He is a consummate "wordless teacher" to the entire community. In listening seriously to Mack's schemes or to Henri's illusions, he illustrates the Taoist principle that by not believing people you turn them into liars. His involvement in the welfare of Cannery Row demonstrates that "the Sage is good at helping men"; his care and kindness toward Frankie shows that for the sage "there is no rejected (useless) person" (Lin Yutang, XXVII). In his study of a tide pool or even a stinkbug, he conforms to the Taoist precept that one should look to Nature to know oneself, one's real human nature. "He didn't need a clock … He could feel a tide change in his sleep." He is at one with his total environment—including the whorehouse, Lee Chong's, the Palace Flophouse—and thus in communion with the harmonious balance of Tao. At the height of his birthday party, Doc is seated calmly on a table, cross-legged in the Oriental posture of meditation.

The Sage dwells in the world peacefully,
The people of the world are brought into a
   community of heart
and the Sage regards them all as his own

(Lin Yutang, XLIX)

The world into which Cannery Row escapes is not a perfect one; not everyone lives according to the Tao. There is a series of misfortunes on Cannery Row, caused seemingly by some vague natural force about which "there is no explaining." But there is little in Cannery Row of the kind of evil men bring upon themselves through "greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest"; or through the desire to impose one's own standards on others; or even a single standard on oneself. And these incidents serve as contrasts to the book's theme. The poet Wallace Stevens could have been quoting Lao-tzu in his well-known line, "A violent order is disorder"; and his corollary statement, "A great disorder is an order," could be the epigraph for Cannery Row. For Steinbeck's created world is characterized by its rich variety, its benevolent chaos: "Cannery Row is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream … tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries." The same rich variety is evident in all its parts: Lee Chong's grocery store, with its hodgepodge of every conceivable commodity ("but one," Dora's), in and out of season; the Carmel River, which, though short, has a long and varied list of characteristics—"everything a river should have"; Doc's lab, with its scientific apparatus, double bed, phonograph, cookstove, poetry books, and lady visitors; Eddie's "wining" jugs, containing bourbon, wine, scotch, beer, and even grenadine mixed together; the great tide pool (a microcosm of "the cosmic Monterey") in which Doc collects his specimens and in which is found such a variety of life forms and modes of survival. All are patterns of the rich community of Cannery Row and of the novel itself-both its form and content.

In this light, Steinbeck's prefatory analogy of letting the stories ooze into the book by themselves, like delicate sea worms into a collecting jar, rather than forcing them into an order, becomes also a moral statement. (There is no formal order in the Tao Teh Ching, either.) Mack learns that the first party failed because "we forced her," and that the second will succeed if they just "let it happen." Steinbeck tells us that those celebrations that are "controlled and dominated" are "not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product." William, the first bouncer at Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant, commits suicide because, unlike Alfred, his successor, he tries to force himself on people and is rejected. Henri can love boats and be happy because he does not drive himself to the logical conclusion of finishing his boat and thus having to go out upon the water, which he fears. On the other hand, Mrs. Malloy is unhappy because she wants to do such things as "force" lace curtains upon the windowless boiler in which she lives. The ambitious wife of the landowner in the hilarious frog-hunting episode fails as a wife because she forces her compulsive neatness upon her husband. The hitchhiker is ejected from the car because he expects everyone to hold the same principles about drinking that he does. Doc knows he is a "free man" because he can indulge the rich variety of his inclinations without fear of contradictions—Bach and Debussy, Faust and "Black Marigolds"; even, and at the same time, Palestrina masses and sexual intercourse. In fact, he himself looks "half Christ, half satyr."

The twin themes of Cannery Row, then, around which the novel's characters and events casually but effectively arrange themselves, are the escape from Western material values—the necessity to "succeed" in the world—and the escape from Western activism—the necessity to impose order or direction. Like Lao-tzu, Steinbeck elaborates these two escapes into a system of "Virtues and Graces."

Source: Peter Lisca, "Cannery Row: Escape into the Counterculture," in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: CriticalEssays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism, edited by Jackson J. Benson, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 111-19.

Jackson J. Benson

In the following excerpt, Benson identifies Cannery Row as a "folk" novel and compares it to another classic folk novel, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

… It is my contention that Steinbeck has really taken Twain's place during the last few decades as the major spokesman for the "folk tradition." And the thematic complex I spoke of above finds its last major expression in his work. To trace this expression in any detail would require a book, but briefly note the importance of "Westering" in his work (and the interpretation, overdrawn but still valid, of The Grapes of Wrath as a "wagons West romance" by Bernard Bowron). That Steinbeck has assumed this position is, I think, the essential basis for his popularity, as well as the reason for the antipathy expressed toward him by Eastern intellectual criticism.

There are a number of striking parallels between Twain's and Steinbeck's careers. Both were fascinated by medieval literature, in particular Malory's Morte d' Arthur, and both were fond of allegory, the tall tale, and travel literature. Both wrote a wide variety of things during their careers, moving from form to form; and both wrote a great many things of very dubious literary value. And despite a large output, both writers are known primarily for having written one major novel. However, almost everything they wrote, even their most important works, was deeply flawed in one way or another. Both in their heart of hearts were satirists—disillusioned romantic idealists. Twain and Steinbeck have been classified as "funnymen," yet each of them had at times a very black vision of man's nature. No two American writers have had a firmer sense of the ordinary man and of ordinary life, and both maintained the common touch even after they became rich and successful. Yet each moved to the East after becoming rich and successful, and while in the East, each became more and more pessimistic and moralistic in his work. Both were very fond of metaphysics and philosophical discourse, and both were notably unsuccessful at reaching any profound level of philosophical thought.

What ties Cannery Row to Huckleberry Finn is primarily the deep antagonism at the center of both novels toward respectability and "proper" society. Steinbeck's Monterey (the town itself above the Row), with its civilized corruption, takes roughly the same position as Twain's Mississippi shore, with its shabby values. Whenever Doc leaves the Row, he encounters hostility, hypocrisy, and greed. And whenever the town reaches in to touch the Row, hypocrisy and greed are expressed. Dora and her establishment, for example, are tolerated as long as she is more law-abiding than everyone else and as long as she gives several times more to charity than everyone else. In both novels nature is the cleansing agent, so that Huck can rid himself of the taint of civilization on the river, and Doc can renew his spirit by periodic immersions (feet only) in the Great Tide Pool.

One of the main qualities that ties Doc and Huck together is a fundamental honesty, but in each case the character finds he must abandon his honesty in the face of pressure from society. Huck must tell lies and disguise himself in order to protect Jim, while Doc found as a young man on a walking trip through the South that he could not simply say that he wanted to enjoy the countryside, but had to lie and say he was "doing it on a bet." When he finally decides to try out his beer milkshake, he finds he must invent "doctor's orders" to justify his whim to a suspicious waitress. Both Doc and Huck have a certain openness, even vulnerability, which makes them particularly appealing and which contrasts with the hard façades erected by the respectable people they encounter.

Huckleberry Finn and Cannery Row are primarily satiric in mode, episodic in structure (both the escape of Jim and the party for Doc are secondary to the material developed along the way), and range in emotional tenor from light humor at one end of the scale to horror and black satire at the other. The central satiric device in each novel is the confrontation between the good people outside of conventional society, whom society frowns upon as criminals or bums, and those people within society who have been corrupted by respectability and made humorless, inflexible, and blind, with little or no ability to enjoy life.

The two most common image groupings in the two novels are death and money—thus exposing those two pillars of frontier settlement life, violence and the "hard cash" mentality. A third pillar, loneliness, is only slightly exposed in Twain's novel in the separation of Jim from his family, but it is revealed in some detail in Steinbeck's book. Whereas greed is somewhat more frequently satirized in Huckleberry Finn, there are also instances in Cannery Row: for example, there is the man on the beach at La Jolla who can think only of the bounty paid for the discovery of a body, in the face of Doc's complex vision of beauty and death. Money is the tool by which civilization tries to enforce conformity in both novels. Huck rejects the fortune held for him by Judge Thatcher to take off for the territory, and throughout the novel he resists the temptation of the bounty put on Jim's head. Mack and the boys, in the Steinbeck novel, solve the problem of enforced behavior through petty theft, fits of work (usually through the kindness of Doc), and the reluctant cooperation of Lee Chong.

There are a number of other connections, but all are rather generalized; they arise out of the value system behind the novels rather than out of the specific materials of the novels themselves. Subject, technical point of view, and specific characterizations are all different, of course. The most important point, beyond the kinship of the values involved, that can be made by using Huckleberry Finn as an analogy to illuminate Cannery Row may be that both books are products of vital, likable personalities. And it is the personality of the author in each case, as it is reflected in the tone and vitality of the narration, that appears to be the main factor in making each novel successful.

The folk position that Steinbeck shares with Twain is, as we have seen, heavily infused with what have been called "frontier values" as well as the literary conventions which have evolved from those values. Some of these values, such as the evils of civilization, are endorsed by Twain and Steinbeck. Some, such as the feud in Huckleberry Finn, are satirized, while others are the source of good fun. No one has paid much attention to the fun that Steinbeck gets from these values as they have been translated into the conventions of popular Western literature.

By changing the Row and its canneries to Dodge City and its stockyards, the Row can be viewed as the very model of the main street in a town of the old West. Doc becomes the kindly, wise, and patient general practitioner. He is the "fountain of philosophy and science and art," the only educated man, the only professional among the frontier ruffians. Dora is, of course, the saloon owner and madam, a combination practical businesswoman and mother to the entire male community. And Lee Chong runs the town's general store, a store which stocks nearly anything anyone would want, but which tends to sell more whiskey, beer, and chewing gum than anything else. Even the kids, who haunt the store when they are not throwing rocks or taunting each other or strangers, have a ragtag, frontier-town quality.

Henri is the crazy old prospector who rummages around in vacant lots looking for boat parts and who, like his Western counterpart who would be at a loss if he ever did find gold, never wants to complete his boat. Mack and the boys could just as well be living in the bunkhouse on the B-Bar-B Ranch as in the Palace Flophouse; and it is a nice touch to have the ranch foreman, Mack, taking his men to round up cats rather than cattle, and wild frogs rather than wild horses. The tactics of stampeding the frogs from one end of the "valley" into a trap are familiar.

As usual, the settlers—in this case the Malloys—are ridiculous with their chintz curtains. Then there are the inevitable knock-down-drag-out fights (all in fun and made up in good fellowship later) and the community crisis (the flu). When there is a party, the main ingredients are steak and whiskey. That Steinbeck has these conventions in mind is certified in the ending of the sequel, Sweet Thursday, wherein Doc gets the girl (a reformed saloon girl, of course) and the two of them ride his bucking car off into the sunset.

Steinbeck's parody of the Western is not the "secret" of Cannery Row; it joins a number of other modes and themes which in various ways comment on man's relationship to nature. Adjacent to the Western, another aspect of the novel concerns its pastoral elements. The pastoral does not extend throughout the novel nearly as far as the Western parody, but a few elements are obviously present and appear to work together with the parody on the lighter side of the novel. The only long-standing major article about Cannery Row is one which develops the pastoral—Stanley Alexander's "Cannery Row: Steinbeck's Pastoral Poem." Unfortunately, Alexander is caught in the trap that catches most critics at one time or another: he takes the pastoral material and pushes it too hard, trying to force the entire novel into his pattern on the basis of only a few pieces of evidence. The novel really only hints at the pastoral, and usually in an inverted way.

Alexander's first mistake, I think, is to bring William Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral to bear on Cannery Row, probably because he sees Steinbeck inaccurately as a Marxist. He refers to Empson's view that the pastoral is the "primary literary convention which reflects the characteristic class relations of western society," bringing "together in rural or even wilderness scenes representatives of (relatively) exalted social classes and (relatively) low social classes." If we try to apply this to Cannery Row, we are in trouble already, for only one out of three criteria applies. We do not have a rural scene, nor do we have a representative, except by distant implication, of exalted social classes. (There are no wealthy Monterey citizens in the novel except by distant reference to the man who gains "the whole world" and comes "to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocal[s]."

Trying to put Doc into this role simply does not work. According to Alexander, the form of Cannery Row approximates the Renaissance pastoral because of Doc, who represents "the secure, educated, powerful class from which he comes ‘down’ to operate the Western Biological Laboratory." Nonsense. No one could read "About Ed Ricketts" in The Log and think such a thing. (The language used in The Log to describe Ed is almost precisely the same language used to describe Doc in the novel—the model is extremely close to the fictional character.) However, if one wants to avoid the biographical fallacy, one only has to look at Doc's role in the novel. He is almost classless, an eccentric among other eccentrics and iconoclasts. True, Doc does bring the arts and sciences to the Row, as well as a certain wisdom. But these are presented as the peculiar facets of Doc's character, not the badges of class. He may be the intellectual who has dropped out and joined the counterculture, but he has not dropped out of wealth, power, and security.

Alexander gets closer to the real uses of the pastoral in the novel when he admits that the locale is "neither sylvan dale nor frontier ranch nor family farm; it is instead an industrial slum." That may be putting it a bit strongly (for those who remember the Row in its heyday, it is difficult to think of as a "slum"), but we should keep in mind the fact that the Row is dominated by factories which house machines which cut up animals and stick them in metal cans, and that Mack and the boys have been finding shelter in the discarded pipes of the canneries. The fact that they can only exist on vacant lots and among the refuse of factories suggests what the sylvan dale has finally come to.

The setting suggests that this is the reversal of the pastoral, or the pastoral corrupted. Alexander seems to recognize this temporarily when he talks about Doc sharing the scene with "mock-pastoral bums and whores who in better days were swains and maids." Indeed, if Cannery Row must be referred to as a pastoral, it surely should be called a "mock-pastoral," playing upon the original form as it does by reversing many of the pastoral conventions. And if we must refer to Empson, it would be more appropriate to consult his chapter on the mock-pastoral, which examines The Beggar's Opera. While Mack and the boys may not have a great deal in common with Mac and his gang, surely Newgate with its rogues and whores is closer to the Row with its rogues and whores than the Renaissance's "another part of the forest" with its disguised nobility.

If Doc is not the disguised prince among peasants, who is he in the pastoral scheme? The most likely answer, it seems to me, is that he is the shepherd. Who or what are his sheep? Well, one possibility is that all the inhabitants of Cannery Row are his flock. Or he may be the shepherd of the sea animals. Doc, who is described by Steinbeck as having a face "half Christ and half satyr" (no doubt in part a private joke between Steinbeck and Ricketts), may be an exaggerated version of the swain who is traditionally thought of as half connected to humanity and half to nature. But I agree with Peter Lisca, who suggests that Doc can be seen as a sort of "local deity" (not, again, that he is powerful so much as he is more accepting, wiser, and more concerned with the welfare of others than anyone else around him—that is, he is Christ-like). If he is meant to resemble a god, he would appear to resemble Pan, who was the god of the shepherds and patron god of the pastoral and who was half man, half goat. Doc is constantly connected with music throughout the novel, and in the most striking pastoral interlude in the book, he hears a "high thin piercingly sweet flute" as he experiences a vision of great beauty. Also like Pan, Doc is "always in love with one nymph, or another, but always rejected." Since Pan eventually became the god of all nature for the Greeks, it is fitting that Doc represent him in the universe of Cannery Row, wherein, as described by Steinbeck, "Our Father" is in nature.

Northrop Frye has said that "the pastoral of popular modern literature is the Western story," which seems to imply that all that is needed for a pastoral is people in a rural setting with animals. Actually, the conventions of both the Western and the pastoral are more complex than that, and such a statement really does not mean much. Nevertheless, although the amount of overt pastoral material in the novel is meager, we can say that the mock-Western, which we reviewed earlier, and the mock-pastoral in Cannery Row form a kind of community of parodic commentary on man's changing perception of his relationship with nature.

Source: Jackson J. Benson, "Cannery Row and Steinbeck as Spokesman for the ‘Folk Tradition,’" in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism, edited by Jackson J. Benson, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 132-42.


Hearle, Kevin, "‘The Boat-Shaped Mind’: Steinbeck's Sense of Language as Discourse in Cannery Row and Sea of Cortez," in After The Grapes of Wrath: Essays on John Steinbeck, edited by Donald V. Coers, Paul D. Ruffin, and Robert J. DeMott, Ohio University Press, 1995, pp. 101-12.

Lisca, Peter, The Wide World of John Steinbeck, Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp. 197-98.

Steinbeck John, Cannery Row, in Novels, 1942-1952, Library of America, 2001, pp. 101-225.

Timmerman, John H., John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986, pp. 133-65.


Astro, Richard, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist, University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Ricketts was the model for Doc in Cannery Row, and the man to whom Steinbeck dedicated the novel. This book explores the relationship between Steinbeck and Ricketts.

Parini, Jay, John Steinbeck: A Biography, Henry Holt, 1994.

This literary biography reconstructs Steinbeck's, life as a writer.

Riesman, David, The Lonely Crowd, Yale University Press, 1955.

This landmark sociological study of the challenge to individuals living in a mass society, pays particular attention to the various adaptations possible, focusing on three particular responses that Riesman calls tradition oriented, inner directed, and outer directed, categories that well describe the characters in Cannery Row. Doc, for example, is an inner directed man.

Sinclair, Upton, The Jungle, Grosset & Dunlap, 1906.

This landmark novel focuses on the meat packing industry in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike Cannery Row, it is not only a novel of local character but is also a work of propaganda that is meant to incite social change.

Steinbeck, John, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallstein, Penguin Books, 1975.

This is an extensive, comprehensive collection of Steinbeck's letters, whether to his wife or to the president of the United States. The letters are dated from 1923 until right before Steinbeck's death.