Cannery Row is a "poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream" (1). It is full of groceries and warehouses and rust and tin and wood and its inhabitants are Everybody. Every day, the boats pull in and the cannery whistle blows. The rich people arrive in their cars and the poor "Wops and Chinamen and Polaks" come to work with the fish. Once they leave, the quiet magic returns to Cannery Row.
At night, the girls at Dora's brothel stroll around town, Doc buys beer at Lee Chong's, and Henri the painter scavenges for material.
It is impossible to capture the essence of a thing as a whole; the stories have to be allowed to "crawl in by themselves" (3).
One can buy nearly everything at Lee Chong's grocery. It may be small and crowded, but it is always open. Lee allows customers to buy on credit, but cuts them off if they fall too far behind on their payments. He is pleasant but sometimes, he gets into trouble with the Asian gangs and has to hide out in San Francisco. For the most part, his Cannery Row neighbors like and respect him.
While working at his grocery store, Lee always stands behind the cigar counter, guarding the shelves of whiskey. He allows other members of his family tend to customers in other parts of the store, but Lee and only Lee is in charge of the whiskey.
One day, Lee thinks about a recent business deal. One customer, Horace Abbeville, owed Lee a great deal of money. He came into the store and wearily offered Lee a warehouse he owned in order to pay off his debt. Lee agreed and once the deal was done, Horace went to the warehouse, which was used for storing fish meal, and shot himself.
Once Lee owned the Abbeville building, he wasn't sure what to do with it. Then, Mack, the "elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment" (9) asked Lee if he and his gang could live in the warehouse and take care of the place. Mack had added that the place "might burn down" if no one watched it. Lee understood the genial threat and decided to let them stay there for five dollars a month in rent. After all, this arrangement would mean that the place would be safe, the gang would be happy, and good will would reign. Since then, the place has been known as the Palace Flophouse and Grill.
Now, Mack and his boys sit at the door of the Palace Flophouse and watch the goings-on of Cannery Row. They see Doc crossing over to Lee Chong's for beer and Mack comments that Doc is a nice fellow and they ought to do something for him.
Steinbeck offers some philosophical insight into Cannery Row. He mentions that Lee Chong is more than what he seems - he is loyal to and respectful of his cultural traditions. Meanwhile, Mack and the gang 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 to find food" (15). They avoid falling into the trap of responsibility and steady work, and society excoriates them for it.
Lee Chong's Grocery is to the left of a vacant lot, and to the left of that is Dora Flood's whore house, which is called the Bear Flag Restaurant. It is clean, sturdy, and upstanding. Dora is beloved by everyone except the wives of the men who patronize her business. There are twelve girls at Dora's house as well as a Greek cook and a watchman, Alfred, who goes above and beyond his job description. He helps the girls, fixes up the house, throws out drunks, and is always up to date on everyone's home life.
Dora knows her business is illegal and thus keeps everything else aboveboard and donates money to the community. Her girls are polite and discreet.
Before Alfred (or "Alfy,") Dora employed a watchman named William. William was lonesome and depressed. He tried to befriend Mack and the boys but they did not accept him. This led William to contemplate suicide. He mentioned it to Dora and she joked that he should kill himself "on [his] own time [so he wouldn't] mess up the rugs," (22) which only made William more morose. He ended up talking about his depression to the Greek cook, who told him that once someone threatens to commit suicide, he or she rarely follows through. Defiantly, William reached for the ice pick and stabbed himself in the heart.
Unlike William, Alfy is always welcome to sit with Mack and the boys on the porch.
One evening, an old, wizened Chinaman carrying a wicker basket walks through the vacant lot next to Lee Chong's. He disappears near the pier, then emerges at dawn with the basket dripping wet. He has been doing this for years, but nobody has figured out why. Locals have speculated that the man is either God or Death, but nobody ever speaks to him.
However, a ten-year-old boy named Andy who is visiting from Salinas feels brave, so he follows the Chinaman and mocks him. The old man stops to look at Andy and suddenly, the Chinaman's eyes spread out until he is no longer a man; Andy can see through a door to a lonely countryside ending in mountains. Andy feels as though he is the only person left alive in the whole world and whimpers. He shuts his eyes and when he opens them again, he is back on Cannery Row. The Chinaman returns to his normal routine and no one ever challenges him again.
The Western Biological Laboratory is across the street from the vacant lot next to Lee Chong's store. Available for sale there are strange creatures and treasures from the sea, such as sponges, barnacles, crabs, little dragons, urchins, and more. Products like human fetuses and sharks with the blood drained out are intended for students' use.
The basement of the Western Biological building is full of shelves and has a place for embalming; upstairs there is an office. Behind the office is an aquaria filled with animals, microscopes, drugs cabinets, and chemicals. The room smells of formaldehyde, steel, paper, rope, banana oil, rattlesnakes, and rats. To the left of the office is a library, complete with books and pamphlets. There is also a phonograph, a bed, reproductions of famous art, and many chairs and benches.
Doc owns and operates Western Biological. He is small, wiry, strong, and has a face like Jesus crossed with a satyr. He is well regarded in the community because of his selfless acts. He has "the hands of a brain surgeon, and a cool warm mind" (28), and is incapable of hurting a living creature without a practical reason to do so. His only fear is getting his head wet and thus, he always wears a rain hat.
Doc is entrenched in the culture of Cannery Row and shares with its denizens his vast knowledge of literature, art, philosophy, and science. He can take nonsense and turn it into wisdom; he can explain weighty things to children in a way that they can understand. Doc's world is exciting and full of wonder, and everyone on Cannery Row often considers how indebted they are to him and how they want to do something nice for him.
Doc is down at the Great Tide Pool collecting specimens. This wondrous place is quiet when the tide recedes, revealing a pulsating, teeming world. All manner of sea creatures swim, stalk, or hunt here. Shrimp, crabs, octopi, starfish, and others fill the pool. The strong smell permeating the air around the Great Tide Pool consists of everything from algae to sperm – these are smells of "life and richness, death and digestion, of decay and birth" (32).
Hazel, one of Mack's boys, helps Doc to collect creatures on occasion. Hazel came by his name via a confused and rattled mother who did not notice that her eighth child was a boy. He went to reform school and learned nothing; he did not even pick up on the viciousness or cruelty of the other boys. Now, Hazel is twenty-six and loves helping Doc.
Today, Hazel and Doc are trying to fill an order for three hundred starfish. As they work, Hazel asks Doc many questions but does not often listen to Doc's answers; he just likes the act of talking and hearing a response. Hazel's conversational pattern is difficult for Doc, who likes providing concrete answers and moving on.
Doc asks about the Flophouse and Hazel replies that a new man, Gay, is moving in. Gay and his wife fight frequently (she hits him) and he used to go to prison for a few nights as a refuge. However, the new prison is too comfortable and his wife does not want Gay to go there anymore. Hazel asks Doc about Henri the painter as they depart the tide pool; Hazel thinks Henri is crazy. Hazel becomes offended when Doc says everyone is just as crazy as everyone else.
The opening line of the novel acts as a microscope, directing the reader's focus right to the unique sliver of America that Steinbeck is portraying: “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” (1). Right away, Steinbeck engages all of the reader’s senses, while at the same time juxtaposing the earthy with the elevated, the high with the low. He calls Cannery Row both a “magical” place (2) but grounds it in the experience of “Everybody” (1). He describes a world that is accessible in its familiarity, making it clear to the reader that this novel is going to focus on those whom society has deemed "no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums" (18) rather than the men who "gain the whole world" but end up with "a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals" (18). Steinbeck's realistic portrayal is based on years of firsthand research; he lived in Cannery Row for a spell during the 1930s.
Steinbeck not only explores the inner lives of these underrepresented characters, but he also turns the tropes that surround them upside-down. The madam and her brothel are "sturdy" and "virtuous," while Mack and his boys are "the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces" (18). By depicting these people as three-dimensional human beings with flaws and idiosyncrasies, Steinbeck celebrates the grocer, the no-goods, the madam, and her girls; he commends them for their "gift of survival" (18). As a result, Steinbeck draws a connection between the population of Cannery Row and "Our Father who art in nature;" because of their basic and unfussy needs and wants, the inhabitants of Cannery Row are closer to God.
The anecdote about William embodies the dichotomy between realism and glorification. While Mack and his boys are bums, they have always been able to navigate Cannery Row with relative grace and ease. However, William was decidedly an outcast; he had no place in the community. He may have had a job, which was more than could be said of Mack and his gang, but he still felt that he was “too far beneath [Mack and the boys]…[he] thought dark and broody thoughts. No one loved him. No one cared about him” (19). William's loneliness eventually led him to commit suicide. The tragic tales of William and Horace Abbeville reveal the dangers of feeling lonely and desperate. Through these brief flashbacks, Steinbeck explores the theme of the individual vs. the community; the "wealth" of Cannery Row comes from the solidarity amongst its citizens; without this sense of camaraderie, the difficulty of life can cause an individual to crumble.
Despite the gritty realism of his depiction, Steinbeck also weaves supernatural elements into Cannery Row that point the reader towards a particular overarching theme. One example of this occurs in this section: the encounter between Andy and the "Chinaman." Andy, a young boy, is a visitor to Cannery Row and therefore violates the custom of ignoring the elderly man. However, their brief interaction results in Andy having a vision of a vast, terrifying wasteland. This, as well as Henri's disturbing vision of a man killing a child, are moments in which the characters choose to look beyond the quotidian and face certain deeper truths; thus, they are forced to face their greatest fears and question their place within the universe. However, after Andy's encounter, nobody ever tries to speak to the Chinese man again - thus showing that a certain level of denial and/or ignorance is crucial for survival on Cannery Row.
The chapter that chronicles Andy's encounter with the Chinese man is one of many "inter-chapters" that Steinbeck utilizes in several of his novels, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath. These chapters are usually short, lyrical, and philosophical; Steinbeck inserts them into the text even though they are often only tangentially related to the main narrative. However, Critic Jeffrey Schultz highlights their importance, because these chapters are "often vignettes that speak to larger themes in the novel." In Cannery Row, the prologue and chapters 2, 4, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 19, 26, and 31 fall into this category.