Study Guide

Cannery Row Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    Folks in Cannery Row live pretty closely with nature. Everyone's livelihood depends on the fish that live off the coast, and quite a few characters live more or less out of doors. In Cannery Row, Doc seems especially in tune with nature. He needs it to get by—he sells it after all—but he also spends a lot of time just mulling it over. But watch out: whenever Steinbeck starts talking about how gorgeous all the sea life is, he's about to pull the rug out from under us with some story about how violent and bloodthirsty all the pretty sea anemones are. Just like on Cannery Row, life in the Great Tide Pool is nasty, brutish, and probably pretty short.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    • Is it artificial to separate the natural world from the world of men? What would Doc say? How about Steinbeck?
    • If Doc makes a living capturing animals and then embalming them, is it still possible for him to be respectful of the natural world?
    • Nature doesn't belong to anyone, and that guy who comes by with the shotgun to kick Mack and the boys off his land is totally in the wrong. But wait a minute: Doc takes nature and sells it for profit. Is there a difference between these two things, or is Steinbeck just being inconsistent? Why or why not?
    • Is it unfair that the sea anemone in quotation 3 lures its prey by being so beautiful and cushy-looking? Is it unfair of Steinbeck to portray it this way? What might Steinbeck be saying about appearances?

    Chew on This

    In Cannery Row, what goes on under the water is a reflection of what's happening up on shore.

    The natural world is unlike the world of Cannery Row's men and women. Men and women worry about grocery money and their social status; animals and plants are just living and dying in harmony with the rest of nature.

  • Spirituality

    Steinbeck is all over the spiritual map in Cannery Row. He's got references to Catholicism (St. Francis), to Daoism (Lao-Tse), to Greek goddesses (the Graces) ... you name it, Steinbeck's name-dropped it. And that's not counting his hints that you might be able to find God out there in the natural world, maybe in a stinkbug or something. What do we make of this big, simmering, spiritual stew? Is it all just a tasty mish-mash? Well, one thing almost all of these nods to spirituality have in common is that Steinbeck always manages to bring things down to earth. The St. Francis in question, for instance, is Gay, a gifted car mechanic who spends more time in prison than on the outside. Hmm, this may be one kind of spirituality we can really get behind.

    Questions About Spirituality

    • What kind of religion do people on Cannery Row seem to practice? Is everyone and everything holy in Cannery Row?
    • If the stinkbugs are praying in (6.43-6.46), does that make them as great as people or as silly as people? Do we ever see people praying? If stinkbugs pray when they lie on their backs and wave their little legs in the air, then what silly things do people do when they pray?
    • Do you agree with Doc that Mack and the boys "know everything that has happened in the world" (23.11)? Where do they get their special insight? Is it spiritual, or is it more philosophical?

    Chew on This

    In Cannery Row, music is particularly associated with spirituality.

    By always joining high falutin' spiritual stuff (like prayer) with low, gross things (like stinkbugs), Steinbeck wants to suggest that holiness is everywhere.

  • Wealth

    When we talk about "wealth" in Cannery Row, we mostly mean "debt." Surprised? Sure, they seem like they should be opposites. Either you're Scrooge McDuck splashing around in a swimming pool full of money or you've loaned out all your money and you're poor, right? But in Cannery Row, the "wealthiest" people don't have a lot of cash in the bank. That's because the most valuable currency isn't currency at all; it's other people's debts to you. In other words? Throw out all that talk of balanced budgets and deficits, and signs yourself up for a few shiny credit cards! (Oh. You mean, owing money to a multinational corporation isn't exactly the same as an informal network of obligation and favor binding a community together? Hmm.)

    Questions About Wealth

    • Do Mack and the boys really care as little about money as the narrator says? If they care so little about money, why are they always trying to get things for free?
    • Lee Chong makes bank (or at least thinks he will) when Mack and the boys can only pay for food in frogs. Is he a bad character? A good one? Somewhere in between?
    • Why is Steinbeck giving us little morality and economics lessons with his stories of the Malloys and the frogs?
    • Is the only difference between Cannery Row and the rest of Monterey that Cannery Row is poorer? Does poverty cause their attitude, or does their attitude cause their poverty?

    Chew on This

    Money isn't the only kind of currency in Cannery Row, or even the most important. Favors, kindness, and frogs can all pay back a debt.

    There's no job shortage in Cannery Row: anyone could go and start working at one of the canneries. There must be some other reason that Cannery Row residents don't have steady jobs.

  • Home

    Cannery Row is home to all the characters in the book. Within it, they've each got their own more-or-less private home. Some are super private, like Henri's, and some are open to everyone, like Doc's. When you're trying to get a handle on a character, it helps to see how they live. Steinbeck spends a lot of time telling us about different homes and drawing conclusions from them. Mack and the boys manage to turn a cold, smelly building into a warm, friendly home. Other homes are fussy and unwelcoming, like the home the Captain's wife has made. One thing's for sure: in Cannery Row, home is where the heart—and the whiskey—is.

    Questions About Home

    • What makes a good home in Cannery Row? Why do people choose to live where they live?
    • Do fat pads like the Palace always mean the people who live there are happy? Which homes in Cannery Row seem happy, and which ones seem unhappy?
    • Why doesn't Henri add an addition to his boat so his lady friends would be more comfortable? Why doesn't Doc lock his door once in a while? Are there moments when people's homes don't seem to match up with their personalities?

    Chew on This

    The best homes in Cannery Row are improvised. The Malloys have a lovely home in a boiler, while Mack and the boys have turned an old fish meal warehouse into a sweet crib.

    You can tell a lot about Doc from looking at his home. First, it's not a home at all, but a lab. (Of death.) Second, his bedroom isn't private at all. He's a guy who lives and breathes his job, but still really needs other people.

  • Happiness

    To paraphrase Tolstoy, happiness is usually pretty boring. That's why most novelists don't spend much time on it. It's way more interesting when characters are mooning around and miserable, which also explains the popularity of emo music. But it turns out, most of the folks in Cannery Row are actually happy. Is this why Cannery Row never became one of Steinbeck's heavy hitters?

    Questions About Happiness

    • What's Cannery Row's recipe for happiness? Can we learn from the boys on Cannery Row, or is their happiness tied to their location?
    • It seems like money can really harsh a bum's mellow, though not having any doesn't seem to make anyone happy either. How do characters manage to have just enough?
    • What's the difference between having too much money and not quite enough? Does alcohol always make people happy in Cannery Row? What other ways do people on Cannery Row try to feel happy?

    Chew on This

    Being broke and hungry doesn't get Mack down, but feeling rejected by the rest of Cannery Row really ruins his mood. In this world, relationships with other people are more important than having enough to eat.

    Doc is the only unhappy character in Cannery Row.

  • Visions of Monterey

    Steinbeck decided to name his book after where it takes place, so it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the setting is a pretty important part of the book. Unlike, say, Robocop, it's hard to imagine Cannery Row in some other place. If Doc and Mack the boys and everyone were in New York, how would anything that happens in the book be possible? There wouldn't be a Palace Flophouse available, Doc would never be able to find all the sea life he needs in the Hudson River and Lee Chong sure couldn't be the only grocer in town.

    Questions About Visions of Monterey

    • Can Cannery Row really be a "poem" and a "stink" (0.1)? And how could it be both at once?
    • Are the folks on Cannery Row a part of the place, or do they just live there? Can you imagine them just picking up and leaving some day?
    • Is it important that the rest of Monterey is uphill from Cannery Row? Does that mean that the rest of Monterey (literally) looks down on it?
    • If you were to draw a map based on Steinbeck's descriptions of Cannery Row, what would be smack in the middle? Is that important?

    Chew on This

    The buildings in Cannery Row—the whorehouse, the Malloy's boiler, the Palace Flophouse—aren't just places; they're characters in the story.

    Steinbeck's descriptions of Cannery Row emphasize its heterogeneity: it's a big mix of classes, races, ages, and sexes.

  • Writing

    You know authors and their egos: they just love to write about writing. So, it's never a huge surprise when writing is a theme of a book. In the first chapter, Steinbeck sets up a big metaphor between collecting sea life and trying to write about life in Cannery Row, and he's not afraid to get gross: the stories are worms, the resulting books are like embalmed cats and frogs, and so on. Writing in Cannery Row isn't something that artistes do with nice pens at fancy desks. It's a job, like working at the cannery or collecting sea worms. But probably less smelly than either.

    Questions About Writing

    • Steinbeck talks about how he's going to go about writing the story about Cannery Row, but he never tells us why. Why does he want to get this kind of crummy place on paper in the first place? What about it is so special, and why does it make a good subject for writing?
    • What's wrong with writing a book like the canneries can sardines? That is, with not being careful about making sure you "set down alive" all of the stories? What kind of book would be like a can of sardines?
    • Is it a bad thing that "the Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spits it out" (2.1)? Is Steinbeck killing Cannery Row in some way, by writing about it?

    Chew on This

    If writing is like collecting sea life, then Doc is like the writer, making stories out of life. And like a writer, he seems to stand a little apart from the rest of Cannery Row.

    Steinbeck's treatment of writing suggests that Cannery Row is leaching the life out of the real Cannery Row. Writing about something inevitably changes it, and to change Cannery Row would kill it.

  • Community

    Cannery Row is a place on the map, but it's also a community of lovely people: the "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches" that Steinbeck talks about in the beginning (0.1). It may be a rough place, but you can find tons of examples of people in Cannery Row helping each other out and generally being big softies. In fact, it seems like the folks in Cannery Row are as dependent upon each other as these girls. Cannery Row? Try Cannery Pyramid. When there's a flu epidemic, they all pull together. And when Mack and the boys are miserable, everybody else is too.

    Questions About Community

    • Is "good will" just as valuable as money to business people like Dora and Lee Chong (1.4)? Why do business owners need to deal in good will as well as dollars?
    • What are the rules that govern the community of Cannery Row? Are they different from the ones that other communities have?
    • Is there some reason that Mack and the boys seem to be so important to the whole community?
    • If Mack is so important to the community, why does everyone seem to be afraid of him?

    Chew on This

    Even though Doc is important to the community of Cannery Row, he's not really a part of it.

    Doc is the most important member of the community of Cannery Row. Everyone is indebted to him and everyone loves him.