Study Guide

Cannery Row Man and the Natural World

By John Steinbeck

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.