Study Guide

Cannery Row Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    Western Biological deals in strange and beautiful wares. It sells the lovely animals of the sea, the sponges, tunicates, anemones, the stars and buttlestars, and sun stars, the bivalves [. . .] You can order anything from Western Biological and sooner or later you will get it. (5.1)

    Basically, Doc's lab is like the Walmart of sea life. Steinbeck gives us a huge catalogue of different animals that Doc sells. Are we supposed to be amazed by how many different creatures there are, or impressed that Doc can chase down all these things, or both?

    Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals (6.1)

    Hurrying, fighting, feeding, and breeding: sounds like a pretty good life to us. The people on Cannery Row think so too. In fact, replace "little water world" with "Cannery Row" and you've pretty much got the novel's opening description. Hmm. We think Steinbeck might be trying to tell us something.

    The anemones expand like soft and brilliant flowers, inviting any tired and perplexed animal to lie for a moment in their arms, and when some small crab or tide pool Johnnie accepts the green and purple invitation, the petals whip in, the stinging cells shoot tiny narcotic needles into the prey and it grows weak and perhaps sleepy while the searing caustic digestive acids melt its body down (6.1)

    We'll never think of a day at the beach in the same way again. Trust Steinbeck to make us see the "searing caustic digestive acids" instead of letting us appreciate a pretty creature. (Also, can we agree that there's something weirdly gendered about this? That anemone sure sounds like a backstabbing woman to us.)

    On the exposed rocks the starfish emit semen and eggs from between their rays. The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air (6.2)

    We love the smell of semen and decay in the morning. Lots of oppositions here: death and digestion, decay and birth. It's kind of like the way the sea anemones in the previous quote are really good-looking and really deadly. Steinbeck's asking us to think about how the natural world is full of oppositions like this. Animals eat other animals, but it's not like they're wrong to do this. It's all part of nature. Just like Mack conning everyone he meets, you know?

    [The boiler] became red and soft with rust and gradually the mallow weeds grew up around it and the flaking rust fed the weeds. Flowering myrtle crept up its sides and the wild anise perfumed the air about it. Then someone threw out a datura root and the thick fleshy tree grew up and the great white bells hung down over the boiler door and at night the flowers smelled of love and excitement, an incredibly sweet and moving odor (8.1)

    If you think this is just an empty lot filled with weeds and trash, think again. Rust feeds the weeds; the decaying pipe feeds the plants. Also, fun fact: datura is often confused with the genus Brugmansia, bushes with trumpet-shaped flowers that go by the common name "angel's trumpets." Since Steinbeck is talking about "great white bells" that hang down, we're guessing he's talking about Brugmansia. (Datura flowers point up.) Anyway, the point of all this? You have never smelled anything as nice as angel's trumpets. Steinbeck has the "sweet and moving odor" down just right.

    At the base of this cliff there is a pool, green and deep, and on the other side of the pool there is a little sandy place where it is good to sit and cook your dinner.

    Mack and the boys came down to this place happily. It was perfect. If frogs were available, they would be here. It was a place to relax, a place to be happy (13.6-13.7)

    This passage brought to you by the Carmel River Tourist board. Feeling a little bummed about your big, busy life in the city? Come on down the river and relax. It's passages like this that make us call Cannery Row a pastoral—check out "Genre" for more on that.

    Hazel fed the fire and put a little room of light on the beach. Over the hill a fox was barking sharply. And now in the night the smell of sage came down from the hills. The water chuckled on the stones where it went out of the deep pool. [...]

    A man dark and large stalked near and he had a shotgun over his arm. [...]

    "What the hell are you doing here?" he asked (13.38-13.40)

    Holy contrast, Batman! Everything's going great—the water is even chuckling—until that guy with the shotgun shows up. We love how Steinbeck uses that little metaphor about the water to tell us what's going on emotionally before the Captain arrives. That's a little pathetic fallacy to tell you how Mack and the boys are feeling, too.

    All the articles of [Doc's] trade were filed away on the coast, sea cradles here, octopi here, tube worms in another place, sea pansies in another. He knew where to get them but he could not go for them exactly when he wanted. For Nature locked up the items and only released them occasionally (17.2)

    Metaphor alert: Nature as a kind of annoying filing cabinet. What's neat here is that Doc's relationship with nature seems a little bit like Lee Chong's relationship with his grocery store. Doc sells anything living, while Lee Chong's store is also a "miracle of supply" (1.1).

    [Doc] didn't need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep (18.3)

    Yeah, and he can collect 200 baby octopi before breakfast! Oh wait, he can. Talk about the relationship between man and the natural world—Doc is practically not even human anymore.

    On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble (18.4)

    So every time you squish your toes in the sand, you're stepping on skeletons. Yikes. But Steinbeck doesn't seem grossed out by this. For the narrator, it's just "incredible" that the ocean floor is a big graveyard. Death and bones are part of what makes nature so fantastic.

  • Spirituality

    [Cannery Row's] inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing (1.1)

    Let's break this down. Whores, pimps, etc. = Everybody = saints, angels, etc. So everyone is a "son of bitch" and at the same time a "saint." Whoa. That makes us feel a little better about ourselves.

    Lee Chong [...] sent his boxed and brittle grandfather over the western sea to lie at last in the ground made holy by his ancestors (2.1)

    Lee Chong may have money concerns, but it seems like his people concerns are even stronger. He's so devoted to his religious practices that he had his grandfather dug up and shipped to China so he could be buried properly. Now that's commitment to your faith.

    Mack and the boys, too, spinning in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food (2.2)

    First let's pause a second to imagine Mack and the boys in getups like this or—ahem—this. And then go get some bleach for your brain. Okay, now that we're all done with that: Mack and the boys are somehow above all the misery of Monterey, because they're just not interested in "certain food," i.e. money. (Although they are interested in whiskey. Definitely whiskey.)

    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. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature (2.2)

    The "Our Father" business is Steinbeck's version of the Christian Lord's Prayer, which starts, "Our father who art in heaven." But check out where Steinbeck puts God: not in heaven, but in the earth. What does it matter where "our father" "art"? What does that mean about nature? Is Steinbeck saying that God is in everything?

    People, sleeping, heard [the old Chinaman's] flapping shoe go by and they awakened for a moment. It had been happening for years but no one ever got used to him. Some people thought he was God and very old people thought he was Death and children thought he was a very funny old Chinaman" (4.2)

    God? Death? An old guy who needs to visit the shoe store? If you were ever looking for a good example of how an author drops a symbol into a text, you've found it. Want to know more about this guy? Check out the "Symbols" section. In the meantime, think about this: what does it say that one of the only constants in Cannery Row is an old Chinese dude?

    Hazel turned one of the stink bugs over with the toe of his wet tennis shoe and the shining black beetle strove madly with floundering legs to get upright again. "Well, why do you think they do it?"

    "I think they're praying," said Doc. [. . .] "If we did something as inexplicable and strange we'd probably be praying—so maybe they're praying" (6.43-6.46)

    We don't know about you, but stinkbugs don't exactly conjure up images of praying. But if God is in nature, like the narrator says in Chapter 2, then we guess that stinkbugs are as likely to pray as anyone else.

    He was such a wonder, Gay was—the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode, the St. Francis of coils and armatures and gears. And if at some time all the heaps of jalopies, cut-down Dusenbergs, Buicks, De Sotos and Plymouths, American Austins and Isotto Fraschinis praise God in a great chorus—it will be largely due to Gay and his brotherhood (11.19)

    Okay, we're pretty sure Steinbeck's just having a little fun here. But it does make the point that Gay's car repair skills are eerie, and he may have some sort of spiritual connection to cars. Again: if everything is holy, why not a jailbird mechanic?

    And the girl's face went ahead of him. [. . . ] Music sounded in Doc's ears, a high thin piercingly sweet flute carrying a melody he could never remember, and against this, a pounding, surf-like wood-wind section. The flute went up into regions beyond the hearing range and even there carried its unbelievable melody (18.8)

    In the Doc passages, Steinbeck makes more references to music than a DJ with a short attention span. (And that's saying something.) Here, though, the music doesn't have a name. It can't even be heard. How's that for a philosophical puzzle? We're putting this passage in the spirituality section because, well, the "unbelievable melody" sure sounds like a religious experience to us.

    Doc said, "Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think," he went on, "that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. [ . . . ] 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" (23.11)

    Ha! See, when we think of philosophers, we think of guys in ancient Greece who sat around shooting the breeze and happened to come up with some smart stuff … Hey, wait a minute. That does sound a lot like Mack and the boys. Maybe these guys are philosophers—in which case, what's their philosophy?

    Certainly all of Cannery Row and probably all of Monterey felt that a change had come. It's all right not to believe in luck and omens. Nobody believes in them. But it doesn't do to take chances with them and no one takes chances (25.1)

    It's not that Mack and the boys' time in the doghouse somehow gave the whole town bad luck ... but it did. Yeah, it sounds crazy. But we think Steinbeck's point is that everything—and we mean everything—is connected.

  • Wealth

    What [Lee Chong] did with his money, no one ever knew. Perhaps he didn't get it. Maybe his wealth was entirely in unpaid bills. But he lived well and had the respect of all his neighbors (1.3)

    This idea that debt is a kind of currency is an idea that pops up all over Cannery Row. Debt buys you the good will of everyone who owes you, and in a small place like Cannery Row, that's pretty valuable.

    Everyone who knew [Doc] was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, "I really must do something nice for Doc" (5.4)

    If debt is a kind of wealth, you might say that Doc is the richest man in Cannery Row. Oh, sure, we bet he's laughing all the way to the bank.

    Mrs. Malloy had been contented until her husband became a landlord and then she began to change. First it was a rug, then a washtub, then a lamp with a colored silk shade. Finally she came into the boiler on her hands and knees one day and she stood up and said a little breathlessly, "Holman's are having a sale of curtains. Real lace curtains and edges of blue and pink—$1.98 a set with curtain rods thrown in" (8.4)

    This is a little fable about how having a little extra money makes a woman want to put up curtains in a place with no windows. Women, sheesh! Of course, men would never do anything so silly.

    The doctors of Monterey [ . . . ] were running crazy [during the influenza epidemic]. They had more business than they could do among clients who if they didn't pay their bills, at least had the money to pay them. [ . . . ] The medical profession was very busy, and besides, Cannery Row was not considered a very good financial risk (16.3)

    What could be further from Doc and Lee Chong's view of "financial risk"? Monterey is "wealthier" than Cannery Row in one sense, but poorer in another. The narrator doesn't explicitly pass judgment, but these doctors don't seem like very good guys, do they? We wouldn't want to show up to their emergency room without our health insurance card, is all we're saying.

    Doc turned away. "You take the bounty," he said. "I don't want it." He started toward the car. Only the tiniest piping of the flute sounded in his head (18.24)

    Doc could probably use the money from the bounty, so we're really wondering why he didn't take it? Maybe it would ruin the mood—Doc did seem pretty taken with the girl.

    Everyone in town was more or less affected by the skater. Trade fell off out of sight of him and got better the nearer you came to Holman's. 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.

    We have no idea what it is about the skater that makes people want to open their wallets, but whatever it is, it's significant. And Mack and the boys are immune to it. They're not interested in making money or spending it on anything but whiskey and groceries, so obviously they're not interested in some guy skating around a flagpole, either.

    Mack had him. Lee was indebted to Doc—deeply indebted. What Lee was having trouble comprehending was how his indebtedness to Doc made it necessary that he give credit to Mack (20.12)

    It's starting to become clear that Doc is the foundation of this whole system of debt and credit. But is there anyone that Doc is in debt to? Well, not exactly. He even funds his own party. But in some way, isn't he grateful to the people of Cannery Row for their friendship?

    Also being illegal Dora must be especially philanthropic. Everyone puts the bite on her. If the police give a dance for their pension fund and everyone else gives a dollar, Dora has to give fifty dollars. [ . . . ] Dora's unsung, unpublicized, shameless dirty wages of sin lead the list of donations (3.3)

    Talk about indebtedness: if Dora's brothel went out of business, it looks like the cops wouldn't have a pension. Dora's illegal business just might be one of the things keeping Monterey afloat.

    Canned peaches were sky high, eight frogs for a No. 2 can. Lee had a stranglehold on the consumers. He was pretty sure that the Thrift Market or Holman's would not approve of this new monetary system. [ . . . ] The poison of greed was already creeping into the innocent and laudable merchandising agreement. Bitterness was piling up. But in Lee's packing case the frogs were piling up too (20.18)

    This scene is kind of a low point for Lee Chong, because he's taking advantage of Mack and the boys, who don't have much more than a few frogs to their names. Greediness is going to upset the balance of debt—until Chong forgives the entire balance.

    Financial bitterness could not eat too deeply into Mack and the boys, for they were not mercantile men. They did not measure their joys in goods sold, their egos in bank balances, nor their loves in what they cost (20.19)

    For 100 points, how does Steinbeck feel about "mercantile men"? Too easy? Okay, let's complicate it: sure, they're not mercantile men. They just steal from mercantile men. Hmm, not sounding so philosophical now, is it?

  • Home

    [Dora] made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind. And by the same token she is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don't like it very much (3.1)

    For the guys who visit Dora, home isn't comfortable. Is it still a home, then? It seems like there's The Home, the one where the husbands of "married spinsters" are chained up, and the kind of home where Doc or Mack and the boys live. Huh. We're still not getting a very woman-friendly vibe from this book. It sounds a little like women just can't help ruining a home. (Except maybe Dora.)

    There are chairs and benches in this little room and of course the bed. As many as forty people have been here at one time (5.2)

    This is Doc's bedroom. What can we tell about a guy whose bedroom is full of furniture for guests? Well, he's probably not getting much sleep, for one thing.

    The Palace Flophouse was no sudden development. Indeed when Mack and Hazel and Eddie and Hughie and Jones moved into it, they looked upon it as little more than shelter from the wind and the rain. [ . . . ] They had not loved it then (7.1)

    So the Palace had to become a cushy pad. A home is more than just shelter; you've got to love it. Does the love for the home come first? Or do these guys grow to love their home after they put a bunch of work into it?

    However an unprecedented rainfall which went on for a month changed all that. House-ridden, the boys grew tired of squatting on the floor. Their eyes become outraged by the bare board walls. Because it had sheltered them the house grew dear to them (7.3)

    They're growing to like the place, but notice Steinbeck still doesn't use the word home. What's the difference between a house and home? When does one become the other?

    But once installed in the Palace Flophouse [the stove] was the glory and the hearth and the center. Its nickel flowers and foliage shone with a cheery light. It was the gold tooth of the Palace. Fired up, it warmed the big room. Its oven was wonderful and you could fry an egg on its shiny black lids (7.6)

    The stove really ties the place together. If the stove were a character, what would it be like? It would be cheerful and generous. And probably pretty heavy.

    With the great stove came pride, and with pride, the Palace became home. [ . . . ] Mack and the boys loved the Palace and they even cleaned it a little sometimes. In their minds they sneered at unsettled people who had no house to go to and occasionally in their pride they brought a guest home for a day or two (7.6)

    This is a home made of pride and love, but notice that Mack and the boys went from guys who prefer living outdoors to guys who "[sneer] at unsettled people who had no house to go to." Are they getting kind of snobby? Or is this excusable pride, since, you know, they're living in a warehouse?

    Then someone threw out a datura root and the thick fleshy tree grew up and the great white bells hung down over the boiler door and at night the flowers smelled of love and excitement, an incredibly sweet and moving odor.

    In 1935 Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy moved into the boiler. [ . . . ] True, if you came in through the fire door you had to get down on your hands and knees, but once in there was head room in the middle and you couldn't want a dryer, warmer place to stay (8.1-8.2)

    Usually we think of homes as the opposite of nature. But here, even though it's dry and warm, the boiler isn't suitable to be a home until it's been gussied up with flowers and plants. Without all the plants, it would just be a rusty old hulk.

    The kind of women who put papers on shelves and had little towels like that instinctively distrusted and disliked Mack and the boys. Such women knew that they were the worst threats to a home, for they offered ease and thought and companionship as opposed to neatness, order, and properness (15.12)

    Mack and the boys can tell the Captain's wife wouldn't like them just from seeing the paper on the shelves and the little towels. What is it about those things? Don't they just make things pretty (and easier to clean)? And, come on, aren't little towels actually a sign of hospitality? Ooh—maybe that's the problem. Little towels are a sign of hospitality, but they aren't actually hospitality.

    Henri had been living in and building his boat for ten years. During that time he had been married twice and had promoted a number of semi-permanent liaisons. And all of these young women had left him for the same reason. The seven-foot cabin was too small for two people. They resented bumping their heads when they stood up and they definitely felt the need for a toilet (22.5)

    Hmm. Henri's place is too small for two and eventually the ladies leave. While Doc's bedroom can seat 40, Henri's place only really fits one. We're thinking this difference has something to do with their personalities.

    [Mary] could do that. She could infect a whole house with gaiety and she used her gift as a weapon against the despondency that lurked always around outside the house waiting to get in at Tom. [ . . . ] Mostly she was successful at keeping the dark things out of the house but sometimes they got in at Tom and laid him out (24.5)

    Mary's home is like Biosphere 2,  all sealed off to keep the bad stuff out. But that's kind of hard on Mary, don't you think? Sometimes a girl just needs to get outside.

  • Happiness

    What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums (2.2)

    Wow, way to make success seem like failure. Sure, this is just a fancy way of saying that money can't buy happiness—but it's also a way of pointing out that money can actually make you angry. There's no reason to hate on Mack and the boys if you're actually secure in your own life choices, right?

    True, if you came in through the fire door you had to get down on your hands and knees, but once in there was head room in the middle and you couldn't want a dryer, warmer place to stay. They shagged a mattress through the fire door and settled down. Mr. Malloy was happy and contented there and for quite a long time so was Mrs. Malloy.

    The Malloys' boiler reminds us a little of the Palace: neither place was built to be a home, and both needed some work to become warm, comfortable places to live. It almost seems like, in this book, a building (or a boiler) isn't a home until you've put some work into it. That's what makes you happy.

    It was a place to relax, a place to be happy. On the way out they had thriven. In addition to the big red chicken there was a sack of carrots which had fallen from a vegetable truck, half a dozen onions which had not. [ . . . ] The wining jug was nearly half full. Such things as salt and pepper had been brought (13.7)

    Folks don't need champagne and caviar to be happy in this book. For Mack and the boys, a stringy rooster, some stolen vegetables and some dubious alcohol are as good as a meal at Chez Snobby. Sounds pretty good to us, too.

    Hazel kicked sand on the fire. "I bet Mack could of been president of the U.S. if he wanted," he said.

    "What could he do with it if he had it?" Jones asked. "There wouldn't be no fun in that" (13.64)

    Here's a little insight into what Mack wants, and it isn't money or power. It's fun. That's what makes him happy—and we're thinking that Steinbeck wishes a lot more people felt like that, too.

    On such a morning and in such a light two soldiers and two girls strolled easily down the street. They had come out of La Ida and they were very tired and very happy (14.2)

    Steinbeck portrays these couples as good, but the man who tries to kick them off the private beach would call them a bunch of drunken trespassers. Notice that this chapter comes right after the chapter where the Captain tries to kick Mack and the boys off his land. These guys are seriously trying to ruin everyone's fun.

    While they were mildly irritated that Lee was taking them for an economic ride or perhaps hop, two dollars' worth of bacon and eggs was in their stomachs lying right on top of a fine slug of whiskey and right on top of the breakfast was another slug of whiskey. And they say in their own chairs in their own house and watched Darling learning to drink canned milk out of a sardine can (20.19)

    Breakfast of champions. Mack and the boys don't bother getting angry at Lee Chong since they've had a good meal. Is it because they're not thinking ahead to the next time they'll need money, or is saving money just not as important as a tasty breakfast? (We'll just point out that you can't eat bacon when you're dead.)

    Darling was and was destined to remain a very happy dog, for in the group of five men there were five distinct theories of dog training, theories which clashed so that Darling never got any training at all (20.19)

    Steinbeck's 7th principle of happiness: avoid education. Doc's the only person who has had much formal education, and we're not thinking that he seems much happier for it. Of course, he does seems to get a lot of pleasure from his work—but is taking pleasure in something the same as being happy?

    It had become [Henri's] custom, each time he was deserted, to buy a gallon of wine, to stretch out on the comfortably hard bunk and get drunk. Sometimes he cried a little all by himself but it was luxurious stuff and he usually had a wonderful feeling of well-being from it (22.7)

    Whatever floats your boat, right? Or, in Henri's case, whatever doesn't float it. Anyway, the point is, Henri's happiness seems to consist of getting drunk and crying himself to sleep. And we are not going to stand in his way.

    [Mack] went to his bed and pulled his blanket over his head and he didn't get up all day. His heart was as bruised as his mouth. He went over all the bad things he had done in his life and everything he had ever done seemed bad. He was very sad (23.1)

    Wait, we thought Mack was supposed to be the happiest guy in the book. How come the little matter of Doc's party is eating him? He doesn't mind being cheated by Lee Chong or punched in the nose by Doc, but the thought of having messed up his party for Doc just floors him.

    He was feeling a little mellow. It seemed a nice thing to him that they would give him a party. He played the Pavane to a Dead Princess and felt sentimental and a little sad. [ . . . ] When it was done he got another whiskey and he debated in his mind about the Brandenburg. That would snap him out of the sweet and sickly mood he was getting into. But what was wrong with the sweet and sickly mood? It was rather pleasant (29.42)

    Doc is in a pretty weird mood during and after his party. He's happy, but also sentimental and sad, a funny mix of emotions. It's interesting that we learn about how Doc is feeling because he's trying to decide what music to listen to. Doc's mood and the music he listens to (either on the phonograph or in his head) are closely connected.

  • Visions of Monterey

    Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream (0.1)

    Steinbeck didn't mess around with the first line of the book. Instead of "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a run-down part of town near the sardine canning factories," he comes out of left field with a bunch of words that you wouldn't necessarily pick to describe a place. Like, none of words he chooses are concrete: you can't touch a poem, and you definitely can't lay your hands on a "quality of light."

    Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses (0.1)

    This is the second sentence of the book and the second one about what Cannery Row is. This time, Cannery Row is a collection of places and things, so we go from the abstract—qualities of light and so forth—straight to stuff. And still, no word on who actually lives and works here.

    Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing (0.1)

    Steinbeck started with ideas about Cannery Row, moved on to places and things, and now in the third sentence he's filling the place with people. Does that mean that the people are less important than the idea of Cannery Row and the physical place? Or is it possible to separate them at all?

    Then cannery whistles scream and all over town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to work (0.2)

    So Cannery Row is the spot where the jobs are, but workers don't seem to think they need to actually live there. Why? Well, it might be convenient—but we bet it doesn't smell too nice. So, why do the people on Cannery Row live there? And where do they go to make a living?

    They come running to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish. The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in and out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty (0.2)

    It's madness when the sardine boats come in. Notice that Steinbeck keeps using "and" to give us an inkling of all the fuss. It's like he doesn't even have time to divide things into separate sentences, just like the people don't have time to stop and even breathe while they're dealing with the influx of fish. We're caught up in it too, reading faster and faster without any pesky punctuation to tell us to take a break.

    [After the canning] Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns (0.2)

    For Steinbeck, Cannery Row's magic seems to have something to do with how calm it normally is. So when the canneries are active, the magic's gone.

    Lee Chong's is to the right of the vacant lot. [ . . . ] Up in the back of the vacant lot is the railroad track and the Palace Flophouse. But on the left-hand boundary of the lot is the stern and stately whorehouse of Dora Flood (3.1)

    Get out your colored pencils! It's super easy to draw a map of Cannery Row, probably because it's actually based on a real place. (Check out "Setting" for more of this.) You get the sense that people could actually live here—since they did.

    Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition (12.1)

    Okay, when you read this sentence, did you think the chapter would end with a man picking sand out of the guts of an author? We didn't. When we hear stuff like "a long and brilliant literary tradition," we expect to hear a bit about all of the different great authors who've lived in the city. Here, most of the chapter is taken up with the fate of Josh Billings, but not a word about his writing. Very funny, Mr. Steinbeck.

    There is a beautiful view from the Carmel grade, the curving bay with the waves creaming on the sand, the dune country around Seaside and right at the bottom of the hill, the warm intimacy of the town (13.2)

    This is Mack's view when he wakes up next to the broken down Model T. Steinbeck doesn't get all squeamish about saying something is beautiful: from a distance, Cannery Row looks a lot more like a poem than a stink.

    Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. [ . . . ] It is the hour of the pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops to examine itself (14.1)

    This is the time each day when the old Chinaman walks back up the hill (4.1), and boy is it gorgeous. We're talking pearls and silvery light—so is it possible that the people on Cannery Row live there because they actually like it?

  • Writing

    The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails in the bay. The figure is advisedly chosen, for if the canneries dipped their mouths into the bay the canned sardines which emerge from the other end would be, metaphorically, at least, even more horrifying (0.2)

    You're right, this sentence doesn't have anything to do with writing. We put it in here because this violent and gross process of canning sardines is totally the opposite of how Steinbeck says you ought to capture sea life and stories: gently, and without totally destroying them.

    How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive? (0.3)

    Okay, since when have poems, stinks, noises, light, tones, habits and dreams been alive in the first place? Well, Steinbeck probably doesn't mean that these things are literally alive. We're thinking he means that reader won't really feel these qualities if he doesn't write them down just right.

    When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of seawater (0.3)

    Steinbeck isn't just going off on a tangent about flat worms (though he also kind of is), he's trying to tell us that collecting these worms is like trying to get down all of these super delicate qualities of Cannery Row down on paper. You have to let them ooze, and it probably helps if there's some liquid involved.

    And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves (0.3)

    So, Steinbeck is telling us that this book is going to be like a bunch of slimy, wiggling stories all collected in a jar. This is the way Doc works, collecting things, carefully preserving them, then sending them away to his customers. In other words: don't expect much of a plot. Just worms.

    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 in a fantastic pattern (2.1)

    All right, we know this is a tough one, but it doesn't get any harder. Here, Steinbeck is talking about what happens when you try to take something in the real world and write about it. (That would be the Word sucking stuff up). When you read about it, you get something like the original Thing, but it's a little bit different, too. It's been changed by the Word. In other words, go see it for yourself, you big dummy.

    The Word 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 (2.1)

    Doesn't this remind you a little of how the canneries work? Sucking up the sea life, packing it into little cans, and then sending it off … to be eaten, digested, and excreted. He has a way with words, our Johnny.

    Western Biological deals in strange and beautiful wares. [ . . . ] You can order anything living from Western Biological and sooner or later you will get it.

    "Strange and beautiful" isn't exactly how we'd describe Mack and the boys, but we'll take it. They're the sea life that Steinbeck deals with, just as anemones and starfish are the sea life that Doc collects.

    And for students there are sharks with the blood drained out and yellow and blue color substituted in veins and arteries, so that you may follow the systems with a scalpel. And there are cats with colored veins and arteries, and frogs the same (5.1)

    So if Doc's lab is the writing desk, then the "books" are the preserved animals that Doc sends out to his clients. That would be us. We want to be able to dissect Cannery Row and understand all about how it works. But—here's the thing. Isn't it kind of, well, wrong to dissect real, living people the same way you'd peer at a shark?

    Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. [ . . . ] For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man (12.22)

    You kind of have to ask if this long story about what happened to the dead writer's stomach and liver does much to restore honor to him. And then you have to ask if Steinbeck is secretly afraid that something similar is going to happen to his liver.

    One time when it was the first of the month and there were curt notes from the water company and the rent wasn't paid and a manuscript had come back from Collier's and the cartoons had come back from The New Yorker and pleurisy was hurting Tom pretty badly, he went into the bedroom and lay down on the bed (24.6)

    It's ironic that, while the dead writer in Chapter 12 is honored (kind of), the only living writer in Cannery Row is living pretty badly. Sure, Monterey seems to be saying, just get famous and dead, and then we'll honor you.

  • Community

    [Lee Chong] trusted his clients until further trust became ridiculous. Sometimes he made business errors, but even these he turned to advantage in good will if in no other way (1.4)

    Lee Chong isn't just a guy who owns a business; he's a guy who owns a business in a community. In order to stay in business, he's got to store up as much good will with everybody as he does cold, hard cash.

    Of [Dora's] girls some are fairly inactive due to age and infirmities, but Dora never puts them aside although, as she says, some of them don't turn three tricks a month but they go right on eating three meals a day (3.2)

    It's part of Dora's job to take care of the women who can't work anymore. Like Lee Chong, she's not just a hard-nosed business woman, she also runs a kind of old age home for old prostitutes. Dora, Doc and Lee Chong all see it as their duty to take care of the people in town who need it.

    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)

    This is what Andy sees and feels when he looks into the eyes of the old Chinaman. Get it? One of the scariest moments in the text is about the awfulness of being all alone. That makes sense in Cannery Row, because almost no one has everything they need all by themselves. They need to other people in the community to help them get by.

    But Mack knew that some kind of organization was necessary particularly among such a group of ravening individualists. [ . . . ] Each man had property rights inviolable in his space. He could legally fight a man who encroached on his square. The rest of the room was property common to all (7.1-7.3)

    Mack and the boys are a community within the community of Cannery Row, and, like any community, they need rules and regulations. Mack even sets up laws in his little city—and it seems like people obey him. Do rules help keep a community strong?

    It was a bad time for [Dora] but she did it. The Greek cook made a ten-gallon cauldron of strong soup and kept it full and kept it strong. The girls tried to keep up their business but they went in shifts to sit with the families, and they carried pots of soup when they went (16.11)

    When things get tough, the tough girls of the Bear Flag Restaurant head out with their soup. This is community, Shmoopers. Prostitutes bringing you chicken soup. Remember that for the next election cycle.

    In spite of his friendliness and his friends Doc was a lonely and set-apart man. Mack probably noticed it more than anybody. In a group, Doc seemed always alone (17.1)

    Is Doc a part of the Cannery Row community at all? Well, on the one hand, he's friends with everyone. On the other hand, he really seems to stand apart from everyone and he never asks anyone for favors. You can't be a community of one.

    Mack and the boys were under a cloud and they knew it and they knew they deserved it. They had become social outcasts.

    A community isn't just about who's in it, it's also about who's out of it. You know, like Mean Girls.

    Perhaps some electrical finder could have been developed so delicate that it could have located the source of all this spreading joy and fortune. And triangulation might possibly have located it in the Palace Flophouse and Grill (25.5)

    So, things go badly for everybody in Cannery Row when things are going badly for Mack and the boys. And when things turn around, it somehow all comes from their pad. Without Mack and the boys, would they even have a community?

    Mack and the boys—the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties. They sat in the Palace Flophouse and they were the stone dropped in the pool, the impulse which sent out ripples to all of Cannery Row and beyond, to Pacific Grove, to Monterey, even over the hill to Carmel (27.1)

    In Cannery Row, community has some mystical, woo-woo aspects. Mack and the boys aren't just some bums who live in the center of town, they are the center of town. Hmm. Maybe community is the true religion of Cannery Row.

    People didn't get the news of the party—the knowledge of it just slowly grew up in them. And no one was invited. Everyone was going.

    We're starting to get the feeling that this isn't the community throwing a party for Doc; it's Doc throwing a party for the community. Makes sense. He brings them together, but he can't ever really be a part of it. No wonder he wipes away a single tear.