"Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pinups, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody."
Right away, Steinbeck make two things clear. First of all, the characters in Cannery Row are not going to be typical literary tropes; this is not a tale of aristocrats, gentry or even working-class townspeople. Instead, his novel explores the lowest rungs of society from whom most readers would commonly like to distance themselves. Secondly, Steinbeck asserts (rather boldly and provocatively) that these people are "Everybody," thus associating them with a society which frequently chooses to turn the other cheek. In doing so, Steinbeck insists that his reader see these characters as kindred spirits who are sharing in a common human experience. Their professions and reputations do not matter; rather, they should resonate with us because deep down, we are all seeking love, acceptance, and respect.
"And perhaps that might be the best way to write this book - to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves."
Steinbeck intersperses several "inter-chapters," including the prologue, throughout the main narrative. These seemingly-unrelated vignettes add texture to his depiction of Cannery Row. Besides straying from a linear narrative, Steinbeck also diverges from a chronological timeline and often refers to past events. These are some of the reasons for his disclaimer that he has allowed the stories of Cannery Row to "crawl" into the book; the structure of the novel is erratic, perhaps more attuned to natural rhythms than any externally imposed rules for literature. Cannery Row is like a living organism, just as his characters mirror the creatures left behind by the tide. The novel grows and moves about sinuously, ebbing and flowing between space and time. Steinbeck emphasizes the theme of interconnectedness by shaping the novel as a multifaceted yet ultimately unified entity.
"He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. And everyone who thought of him thought next, 'I really must do something nice for Doc.'"
It is clear that Steinbeck admires Doc from the way he describes the character. Doc isn't perfect (his shortsightedness regarding Mack and the boys after the first party is regrettable), but he is completely human in that he demonstrates many idiosyncratic and contradictory traits. He has advanced medical knowledge and is incredibly curious. Women are often drawn to him, but he ultimately avoids settling down with one. He is lonely but beloved by the townspeople. He has an education, but he feels most at home amongst the misfits living on Cannery Row. Doc is the anchor of the narrative, just as Ed Ricketts (the real person upon whom Steinbeck based Doc's character) originally introduced Steinbeck to the world of Cannery Row. Because Doc has the ability to straddle the Row and the society around it, he is the channel through which the reader is able to understand the appeal of this place. Ultimately, Doc has chosen to live on Cannery Row, while other many residents have settled there because they do not fit in anywhere else.
"There was no place for him. He wasn't an idiot, he wasn't dangerous, his parents, or parent, would not pay for his keep in an institution."
Frankie's arc is one of the tragedies of Cannery Row. Young Frankie does not belong in the society that he was born into. The authorities who repeatedly punish him yet they cannot specifically identify his affliction. However, despite Frankie's troubles, he feels as though he fits into life on Cannery Row, mostly thanks to Doc. He does not face the same judgement within Cannery Row as he does outside of it. He attempts to live between the worlds, but eventually gets in trouble for trying to live by the rules of Cannery Row outside its boundaries. Police deem Frankie a menace to society after he steals the clock as a gift for Doc. However, Mack and his boys commit a similar "crime" by throwing a party in Doc's laboratory and breaking all of his things. However, their intentions were good and that means something to Doc, who does not punish them. Meanwhile, the law is much more straightforward - and it does not matter that Frankie only wanted to do something nice for someone he loved. All that counts is that he broke the law to do it.
"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, to be happy."
The residents of Cannery Row live in a pristine natural environment and thus feel a strong connection to nature. Therefore, many of the scenes in which Steinbeck's characters achieve contentment have some kind of natural element to them. Here, Mack and his boys deem a simple place in Carmel Valley "perfect" simply because it is peaceful and beautiful. Mack and the boys, like many of Cannery Row's residents, derive happiness from the natural world instead of focusing on material goods and financial success. In fact, the members of Mack's group choose not to work in the canneries that give their community its name, thinking of that as a last resort. This effort to collect the frogs is not for selfish gain, but rather, it is to throw a great party for someone they love. They only need to survive - nothing more, nothing less.
"Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress."
Doc fits into the Cannery Row community, which openly accepts all of his strange traits and idiosyncrasies. However, the wider world has a bit more difficulty with the earnest, bearded scientist. His spontaneous travels and insatiable curiosity often garner suspicion from those who do not know him. Unlike Frankie, however, Doc understands that he has to justify his behavior in order to step into the world outside Cannery Row. This is why he sprinkles a few white lies into his explanations for his actions. The scene in which Doc orders a beer milkshake reinforces precisely why Doc loves the Row and chooses to live there. Were he to make such a request at the Bear Flag, for example, he would not experience the surprised looks nor would he have to offer a medical explanation. It is likely that nobody would think twice about Doc asking for a beer milkshake. People in Cannery Row are content to survive, and they do not need any more explanation than that. Nobody questions the Malloys living in a boiler, nor Henri's decision to live on his perennially unfinished boat. They accept things as they are.
"Everyone in town was more or less affected by the skater."
The man skating around the flagpole at Holman's department store is one of the tangential anecdotes in the novel; it does not serve to drive the plot forward. However, it does connect some of the other disparate narrative threads and characters on Cannery Row. For Henri, the skater exemplifies fierce dedication to a cause, one that resembles his own passion for French art. However, the most important aspect of the skater's feat has nothing to do with his resilience or his athleticism at all. It is much more practical than that; the whole town is buzzing about how on earth the skater goes to the bathroom while he is on the flagpole. Once Richard Frost finds out that he's "got a can up there," everyone's curiosity is satiated. This represents the fact that on Cannery Row, people are more concerned with the practicalities of survival and do not really understand the purpose of frivolous achievements or artistic flourishes.
"It was not known whether Henri was a good painter or not for he threw himself so violently into movements that he had very little time for painting of any kind."
Henri is one of the minor characters of the novel, but he symbolizes inherent contradiction, just like Doc. He has constructed an elaborate mythology in order to present himself as a tortured bohemian artist. However, Henri is more obsessed with the idea of being a painter than actually painting - and he is not very good at it, either. Meanwhile, he is a crack craftsman. His boat, Steinbeck explains, is lovingly and exquisitely constructed, and Henri even lives on it. However, because Henri is afraid of the ocean, he will never finish building the boat, thus giving him a legitimate excuse to avoid ever taking it out to sea. Living on the boat is another reason why Henri's marriages don't last; women get tired of the cramped quarters and lack of a bathroom. Therefore, Henri is forever mired in limbo, but the townspeople in Cannery Row do not demand any explanations from him or force him to choose a direction. Like Doc, Henri has options of living elsewhere, but chooses to live in Cannery Row because people accept him as he is and he does not have to justify his idiosyncrasies.
"'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. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people.'"
Doc utters these sentiments while Mack and the boys are outcasts from the community, but his words show that he understands their value to Cannery Row. Doc's description exemplifies Steinbeck's own opinions about the characters in this novel: they might not be princes or corporate tycoons or war heroes, but they accept the reality of their lives. They know how to derive happiness from what naturally occurs around them and because of this, they are survivors. Some critics have alleged that Steinbeck went too far in elevating these types of individuals in his work, but others laud him for his celebration of the people on the lower rungs of society who may not have achieved the typical hallmarks of success, but have managed to survive despite the odds.
"'Even now, / I know that I have savored the hot taste of life / Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.'"
These lines were originally written by Bilhana Kavi (and translated by E. Powys Mathers), whose work "Black Marigolds" is a fifty-stanza love poem written in the 11th Century. The work is profoundly evocative and nostalgic, which mirrors the tone of this final chapter of Cannery Row. The scene in which Doc cleans up after his party is sweet but sad, and the poem gives the reader the same sense of melancholy mixed with joy that Doc is feeling at this moment. Some critics posit that Steinbeck is making a subtle commentary about the soon-to-pass world of Cannery Row. World War II and the end of the sardine canning boom would forever alter the place, and Steinbeck may have wanted to leave the reader with a wistful sense that this colorful world was not long for this lifetime.
Cannery Row Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Cannery Row is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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