Study Guide

Cannery Row Wealth

By John Steinbeck


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.