You know the parents who think their little Johnnie is the sweetest little darling, even as he sets fire to the dog? That's how Steinbeck feels about the characters in Cannery Row. He's got a lot of affection (and a big blind spot) for them. He even calls Mack and the boys "the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties" of Cannery Row (2.2).
This, about a bunch of dudes who don't shower and seem to live mostly on cheap whiskey.
And the narrator doesn't just have affection for them, he bends over backwards to excuse what we imagine anyone else would see as pretty bad behavior. Take the time that Gay leaves Mack and the others on the side of the road while he goes for a part for the broken down Model T. The way we see it, he met up with some people looking for a good time, forgot all about his friends waiting for him, and finally had such a good time he ended up in jail.
But Steinbeck's narrator doesn't see it that way. The way he sees it, the whole thing wasn't Gay's fault at all: "Fate just didn't intend Gay to go on that frog hunt and Fate took a hell of a lot of trouble and people and accidents to keep him from it" (11.42).
When we talk about comedy as a genre, we're not just talking about the Marx Brothers (though that counts, too). In literature, a comedy might be knee-slappingly funny, or might just take a wry look at serious matters. The important thing is that it always has a happy ending.
Well, we've got the funny. Mack and the boys using frogs as currency? That's comedy genius right there. And we've got the happy ending—the second party works out, and everyone has a good time.
Or do they? Is Doc totally psyched at the end of the novel, or is he maybe a little sad? Could he be inhabiting a totally different genre from the rest of the characters? Hey, anything's possible.
Traditionally, a pastoral is a story about shepherds and shepherdesses falling in love in a super pretty natural location. So what are we on about calling Cannery Row a pastoral? Dockside slums are about the farthest thing from a bucolic countryside we can imagine.
But when you think about it, there's something utopian about Cannery Row. We've got a tight, loving community, pretty small problems and even though no one has any dough, everyone's basically happy. That's how those old shepherds and shepherdesses lived, too. (At least in the minds of struggling urban writers. Real shepherds probably had to deal with a lot more poop.)
The title isn't a huge mystery. Most of the book takes place in Cannery Row, so Cannery Row is a pretty safe choice for a name.
But—bear with us—what if the book were called Doc's Party (okay, that's pretty dumb) or Mack and the Boys? Then Steinbeck would be telling us that a certain character or group of characters is maybe more important than the others, and more important than the setting. By calling the book Cannery Row, Steinbeck's telling us that the place is more important than the characters.
After the epic party, Doc wakes up, has a beer and a peanut butter sandwich (part of a balanced breakfast), and gets started on all the dishes. Right at the end of the book he recites a little more of that poem he was reading during the party. Then,
he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. And the white rats scampered and scrambled in their cages. And behind the glass the rattlesnakes lay still and stared into space with their dusty frowning eyes. (32.11)
Let's get this straight. Doc had all his friends over and lots of (kind of) cool gifts, and now he's getting all misty-eyed? Maybe he should stop reading such depressing poetry. The poem he's reciting is about a breakup, and its author spends about 50 stanzas talking about how he remembers what used to be. (Check out "Shout Outs" for more on that.)
So, we get the idea that something is making Doc sad and nostalgic. Is it that everything on Cannery Row is just too perfect and can't possibly stay that way? Since World War II and the end of the canning business are right around the corner, this is definitely true. But how could Doc know that? Well, he couldn't. But Steinbeck sure could.
And what about our final images of rats running around and snakes sitting still? After all, the rats and the snakes would still be there doing what they do (being dead and captive) no matter what Doc was up to. So why end this light-hearted romp through Cannery Row with such a depressing image?
Could Cannery Row take place anywhere else? We say probably not. You can't separate the plot from the setting anymore than you could pick the dirt out of the chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe. (Ew. Not that you'd want to.)
If Doc didn't live by the water, how would he go about his business? If the Row didn't have guys like Mack and the boys, how would he ever get enough frogs? If the canneries didn't throw out nice, roomy boilers, where would Mrs. Malloy hang her curtains?
In the beginning of the book, as we're getting to know Cannery Row, Steinbeck uses places in town as a jumping-off point for stories about the folks who spend time there. For instance, in Chapter 3, first we learn that Dora's "stern and stately whorehouse" (3.1) is to the left of the vacant lot. From there, Steinbeck gets to the sad story of William's suicide in the kitchen of the Bear Flag Restaurant.
So what? Well, these incidents show us how important location is. These people's lives are literally tied to the places where they lived. And that leads us to …
Steinbeck spends a lot of ink to tell us all about Cannery Row, down to almost giving us a map of Doc's lab. By the end of chapter 5, you know where in the lab you'd need to look for a snack (in the filing cabinets) and how to find the bathroom (off the kitchen).
If this feels like a real place, that's because it is. Steinbeck used to hang out on the actual Cannery Row (which was then called Ocean View Avenue, later changed to Cannery Row in Steinbeck's honor). Doc was a real person named Ed Ricketts, and he really did have a lab. (Check out "Best of the Web" for some pictures of these real, live places, and check out Doc's "Character Analysis" for more about sexy Ed Ricketts.)
Back in the day, Steinbeck and Ricketts would chill at the lab talking philosophy and go on collecting expeditions together. Ricketts was a big influence on Steinbeck's writing, something you can see in Cannery Row. Not just the character of Doc, but the whole tide pool theme comes from his time with Ricketts (source).
Up the hill from Cannery Row is the rest of Monterey, the rich side of town. Up here you've got the department store and the rich old guys who visit Dora's on the weekends. In some ways, the town on the hill is the anti-Cannery Row. It's on a hill while the Row is at the waterfront; the people who work in the canneries live up there, while the people on Cannery Row … don't really seem to work at all.
By the time Steinbeck was writing, Cannery Row might not have had much in the way of canneries. Cannery Row was published in 1945, the year World War II ended. But the story takes place before that, after the Great Depression and before the war. We know that everything goes down after the depression because Dora "nearly went broke" helping everyone out during that time (3.3), so we get the impression that things have started to get better.
And a little research tells us that the war hasn't started yet: in Steinbeck's sequel to Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, Doc has just come back from fighting in World War II.
If you keep getting a sense of nostalgia as you're reading (especially at the end, where Steinbeck has us take a bath in it), that might be because the whole thing takes place in a kind of magical time: the Depression is over, but no one's heard about the Nazis yet. Our friends at the New York Times also tell us that the sardines that kept the canneries humming "disappeared from the bay" in the "mid-1940s" (source).
Steinbeck isn't exactly trying to make this hard for us. With some exceptions (and they're kind of big exceptions—we'll get there in a sec), Steinbeck uses pretty simple language to tell us a pretty simple story about a bunch of guys trying to throw a party.
So, what about those exceptions? At a couple of points, Steinbeck kind of loses it and starts comparing the characters to planets all while getting a little heavy with the biblical references (we're looking at you, Chapter 2).
But think about it this way: Cannery Row is a story about how every person is a little bit divine and how the real saints out there might be the bums lazing around outside the grocery store. Without the planetary comparisons, you've just got the story of some guys collecting frogs to throw a shindig.
Steinbeck uses a lot of different "registers" in Cannery Row. "Register" is a fancy word for what kind of speech or writing is appropriate when (check out a definition here).
You guys know this. If you came in to school and greeted your teacher with a slap on the back and a "What up, dawg?," you'd be speaking in the wrong register. And possibly in detention. The characters in Cannery Row speak in a pretty casual register, even when they probably shouldn't. Think of the soldier on the beach at sunrise who asks the watchman, "Why don't you take a flying fuggut the moon?" (14.5).
But what register does the narrator use? Let's take a look:
This is no fly-by-night cheap clip joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who, madam and girl for fifty years, has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind (3.1)
Here, at least, the narrator is using some slang—"fly-by-night cheap clip joint" aren't exactly words a university professor would choose. Yet the rest of the sentence is a little more formal: it's in a higher register than the characters' dialogue. Could you imagine Mack saying that Dora has "tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism"?
Of course not. He just says, "There is one hell of a woman" (23.63).
And then, sometimes, the narrator really goes off the deep end and starts spouting off like some guy in the Bible (which guy in the Bible? Get thee to the "Shout Outs" section):
Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys (2.2)
So the narrator goes all biblical on us up there, but then he sneaks in some stuff, like "no-goods" and "blots-on-the-town" that bring us right back down to earth. So, why all the switching of registers? Well, we think that it shows us we can trust this narrator. He may be a smart guy—but he doesn't think he's too good for Cannery Row.
Ah, racially marked symbols.
We know the Old Chinaman is a symbol because everyone in the book is busy trying to figure out what he means. Is he God? Is he Death? Is he just "a funny old chinaman" (4.2)? Like any good writer, Steinbeck never says straight out what's going on with this dude, so let's take a look at his big scene.
We meet the old chinaman in Chapter 4. He comes out at "the hour of the pearl" (14.1), to go either to the beach or come back from it. (This sounds a lot like the setup for a koan to us.)
He never stops in Cannery Row and nobody knows anything about where he is when he's not passing through town. But they can hear him coming:
He wore an ancient flat straw hat, blue jeans, both coat and trousers, and heavy shoes of which one sole was loose so that it slapped the ground when he walked. [ . . . ] People, sleeping, heard his flapping shoe go by and they awakened for a moment. It had been happening for years but no one ever got used to him (4.1)
If we had to guess, we'd say he looks a little like these guys, some of the many, many Chinese men who worked on the railroads in the 1860s. Notice they're wearing "flat straw hats" and what looks like denim. Before skinny jeans were invented, by the way, jeans were work clothes. (Now we challenge you to do anything in jeans. You can't even sit down in some of them.)
So we're guessing that this old Chinaman might have been a laborer who worked on the railroads. But that doesn't seem to occur to anyone on Cannery Row: they're just creeped out. Even the kids don't bother him, because "he carried a little cloud of fear around him" (4.2). Only one kid (someone visiting Cannery Row, not a local) tries to mess with him. And boy does he get it:
The old man stopped and turned. Andy stopped. The deep-brown eyes looked at Andy and the thin corded lips moved. [. . . ] The eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye—one huge brown eye as big as a church door. And looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like cows' and dogs' heads and tents and mushrooms. (4.4)
Whoa. Okay, let's continue:
There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound. And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness—the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn't anybody at all in the world and he was left (4.4)
And again, whoa. Heavy stuff. So in the Chinaman's eyes we have a really, really bleak landscape with these kind of psychedelic mountains. Where is it? China? The American West? Both? What really scares the kid most isn't that the mountains have animal heads (though, um, that's pretty scary), it's the "desolate cold aloneness" he senses.
In Cannery Row, being alone is the absolute worst. And you can see why: in a place like Cannery Row, you really have to depend on your neighbors. So in that way it makes sense that the very, very alone Chinaman gives everyone the heebie-jeebies.
Because he's dressed as a laborer, the old chinaman also a reminder that the railroads in the West were built with the help of lots and lots of Chinese laborers who had to endure discrimination, bad working conditions, low pay, you name it. So there's an element of guilt here, too, like he helped build railroads we all really needed, but we refused to let him be a part of the county he was helping to build.
And finally? The Chinaman is far from home. He's an exile and a stranger here in the States. Even the kids are scared of him. No wonder his eyes are full of loneliness.
Before we start talking about the flagpole skater, take a look at this video clip from 1932.
Wow, right? You can imagine why "everyone in town was more or less affected by the skater" (19.4). Henri even sees "philosophic implications" (17.5), and you know what? When an author just tells us point blank that something has "philosophic implications," we kind of have to spend some time thinking about what they might be. Granted, it's Henri—Mr. Chicken Feathers and Nutshells—who's saying this, but still, we've got to look into it.
First: The flagpole skater is hired by Holman's Department Store to promote a bunch of sales they're having. So he's up there for days and days in order to help Holman's make money. That seems significant, especially considering the narrator's and characters' general attitude toward money: having a little is okay, but wanting more will just mess you up.
No surprise, then, that Mack and the boys, who don't care much about money, also don't care much about the flagpole skater: "Mack and the boys went up and looked for a moment and then went back to the Palace. They couldn't see that it made much sense" (19.4). Maybe what they're seeing is that the crazy things people do for money—like sticking a poor skater up on a flagpole, or worse, agreeing to be the poor shmuck up on a flagpole—just don't make much sense.
Second: the skater is "a lone man on his platform" (19.2). Sounds kind of heroic, doesn't it? He's literally on a pedestal, like a sculpture of an important person. Unlike a sculpture, though, this guy is a living human with certain … needs. Like a toilet.
Here he is, this heroic-looking figure, braving loneliness day after day. But people keep giggling when they think about him because they can't figure out how he goes to the bathroom. The flagpole skater, then, seems to symbolize the hollowness of this ideal of the lone hero. Maybe the real heroes here are guys like Doc: living right in with the prostitutes and bums, not skating in ridiculous circles high above their heads.
What do you get a guy who has everything? (If by everything, you mean babies in jars.) A quilt, because have you even seen his?:
It was covered with an old faded red blanket full of fox tails and burrs and sand, for he took it on all his collecting trips. If money came in he bought laboratory equipment. It never occurred to him to buy a new blanket for himself. (27.7)
So Dora's girls decide to make him a quilt:
Dora's girls were making him a patchwork quilt, a beautiful thing of silk. And since most of the silk available came from underclothing and evening dresses, the quilt was glorious in strips of flesh pink and orchid and pale yellow and cerise. [ . . . ] Under the community of effort, those fights and ill feelings that are always present in a whore house completely disappeared (27.7)
A patchwork quilt is made up of a bunch of little individual pieces of fabric all sewn together to make a beautiful pattern. If that isn't a good metaphor for a community like Cannery Row, we don't know what is. All the individual pieces of the community are connected to form something beautiful, something warm, something comforting.
And, like Cannery Row, this quilt is a little louche and unorthodox, too. All alone, Doc doesn't even think to get a new blanket for himself. It takes the community to realize that he needs one.
Well, that's awfully poetic sounding. So what is the hour of the pearl? It's "the interval between day and night when time stops to examine itself" (14.1).
Uh-huh. We're still a little confused over here, so let's try again: "it is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest" (14.1).
This is helping. It's a time when almost nobody's out on the street, and it's not so dark that you can't see anything, but also not so bright that everything looks the way it normally does during the day. Everything's gray, or pearly—and pearls are precious and rare, like this special time that only comes for a little while twice a day.
So, what happens during the hour of the pearl?
(1) the old Chinaman goes by
(2) the two girls and two soldiers leave the bar to sit on the beach
(3) Doc returns from his trip to La Jolla to find his lab destroyed.
Let's figure out what this connection is. The Chinaman is a symbol of loneliness, so it makes sense that he would appear when the streets are nearly empty. The girls and their dates seem to be taking a rest between a big night at the bar and whatever the bright day will bring (probably a hangover, and hopefully no unwanted pregnancies). And Doc's destroyed lab is silent (except for the wet sound of frogs hopping out the front door) until Doc comes back and has to face the mess.
So we can think of the hour of the pearl as a little break between the action of the night and the action of the day; it's the big transition point between Party 1.0 and Party 2.0. Another fun fact: Steinbeck apparently had a thing for pearls. Do you think there's any connection between the hour of the pearl and The Pearl?
All the sea creatures hang out at the tide pool—living, eating, reproducing, fighting, and dying. Hey, check it out—that's just what the creatures on land do. We're getting the feeling that Steinbeck wants us to see a relationship between Cannery Row and the Great Tide Pool. Check it out:
• When the sardine boats come in, there's massive activity in Cannery Row: "the whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles" (0.2).
• And when the tide is in down at the shore, everything is crazy and foamy in the Great Tide Pool: "when the tide is in, [the tide pool is] a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef" (6.1).
Hm, it's starting to sound like the rhythms of life up on Cannery Row are pretty much the same as the rhythms of life down at the Great Tide Pool. Let's look at some more evidence:
• When all the sardines are canned, "Cannery Row becomes itself again, quiet and magical. Its normal life returns," and all the denizens of Cannery Row re-emerge (0.2).
• Down at the Tide Pool? When the tide goes out, "the little water world becomes quiet and lovely" (6.1). All the creatures come out from under their rocks and resume normal life.
Are you feeling a little bit of a headache coming on? That's probably because Steinbeck is almost hitting us on the head with the similarities between the "quiet and lovely" tide pool and "quiet and magical" Cannery Row.
Omniscient means "all-seeing," and that really describes our narrator here in Cannery Row. The guy knows all about what everyone's thinking and feeling—and he's got opinions on it.
Let's take Lee Chong. When Lee Chong is mulling over Mack's frogs-as-currency proposal, his "mind nosed over the proposition like a mouse in a cheese cupboard. He could find nothing wrong with it" (20.14). This isn't just a little insight into what Chong is thinking; it's also a look at how he thinks. Basically, our narrator just gave us a little tour of the grocer's brain.
And Mr. Omniscient can go even further than that. He also knows that "Lee Chong is more than a Chinese grocer"; he's "an Asiatic planet [. . .] suspended, spinning, whirling among groceries and ghosts (2.1). Again, we don't just know what Lee Chong is thinking, we know all about him metaphysically.
So why go the omniscient narrator route? Steinbeck is trying to tell the story of a community. We want to get to know everyone, not just have one person's perspective on what happens. This way, we feel close to all of the different characters. And only an omniscient narrator could tell us all the metaphysical stuff, too.
Steinbeck does play a little bit with this omniscience business. To pick on Lee Chong some more—the narrator says, "What he did with his money, no one ever knew" (1.3).
Um, okay, Mr. Narrator. Aren't you supposed to be omniscient? Well, here the narrator is limiting himself to the perspective of Cannery Row. So maybe the narrator does know where Lee Chong stashes all of his money—but he's sure not going to tell us.
If you like a little biography along with your narrative, the book's dedication is kind of tantalizing. It's dedicated to Ed Ricketts, the "real life" Doc. Since we know that Steinbeck also hung around Cannery Row, it's tempting to think that some character in the book is a stand-in for Steinbeck. Who do you think it could be? (Our wild guess would be Richard Frost. Don't ask us to justify that.)
Or could it be the narrator—someone, like Doc, who's a little bit above it all?
All the residents of the Palace Flophouse agree that they ought to do something nice for Doc. Mack has a bright idea: they should throw a party for him.
Mack and his band o' bros trek up to the Carmel River to gather frogs. But first! They must tame the fearsome Model T, climb an almost impossible hill, and charm the Captain into letting them onto his land.
Everything looks good to go: Mack and the boys have returned with the frogs, they've got the booze and decorations all ready ... but the party starts too early and they end up wrecking Doc's lab before he even gets there to enjoy it. Major bummer.
Mack and the boys gather their strength and vow to achieve their goal: a successful party. This time they get the whole community on board, including the prostitutes.
The party is epic. It heals the rift between Mack's boys and the community, Doc receives the tribute he deserves, and everyone goes home happy. Plus, a police car ends up on the beach.
Here in Cannery Row, Mack and the boys have just gotten a new home. Thanks to Lee Chong's generosity they're the proud proprietors of the Palace Flophouse and Grill. This part of the text introduces us to all the important characters and sets the stage for the little slice of life we're about to get.
Mack and the boys decide to throw Doc a party to show their appreciation for him. It's a big pain to scrape the money together—involving frogs, a jug of whisky, and some burned curtains—but finally they manage. Well, sort of.
Will Mack and the boys be able to pull this off? We're thinking no.
The party is a disaster. (We're shocked.) The guests trash Doc's lab, Doc shows up too late, Cannery Row is mad at Mack, and even the dog is sick. Something better happen soon, or this is quickly going to become a tragedy.
Of course, Doc fixes it by healing Mack's dog. Mack and the boys come up with the bright idea of throwing Doc another party. Wait, but this one's going to be successful. How do we know that? Because everyone's working together to make it happen.
The party is killer and everyone, including Doc, has an awesome time. As Doc cleans up his lab he feels a twinge of something. Sadness? Nostalgia? A hangover?
Mack and the boys plot to throw Doc a surprise party, then they work hard—or, as hard as they can, which involves some lying and stealing—to get the money and supplies they need to pull it off.
The party is a total flop. Everyone's mad at Mack and the boys (even we're a little mad at them), and things are looking bleak.
If at first you don't succeed, throw a bigger and better party. At least, that's what Mack and the boys decide to do. But this time, the whole community steps in to help, and the party totally rocks.
You'll notice that all of these references involve Doc.