Cannery Row

Cannery Row Themes


Community is one of the most important aspects of living on Cannery Row. The inhabitants are linked together in an ecological system, and they work together to insure that it is mutually beneficial. Despite their different races, genders, professions, ages, etc, they are interconnected and value each other. When one part of the community, such as Mack and the boys, does something wrong, then the entire community suffers. When there is turmoil or suffering, as with the influenza outbreak, everyone pitches in to help. When there is a person who is worthy of celebration, like Doc, then the people of Cannery Row come together as one. Steinbeck uses the metaphor of the tide pool to demonstrate how in this little universe, all of the organisms live, breathe, and die together.


Many of the characters in the text have specific ambitions. Mack and the boys want to throw Doc a party. Henri wants to live the life of a tortured French painter. Mr. and Mrs. Malloy fix up their boiler so that it feels like more of a home. Lee Chong tries to run a profitable store. While Steinbeck (through the denizens of Cannery Row) respects these characters' tangible goals, he does not value ambition for ambition's sake. The people of Cannery Row are not driven by the desire to assert their superiority. Even Doc points out that people like Mack and the boys are driven by purer intentions, while typically "successful" men are destroying themselves to get ahead. In Cannery Row, Steinbeck presents a simpler version of ambition: the desire to survive and to find happiness within one's immediate environment.


The novel is infused with spirituality, but not necessarily that from a Judeo-Christian origin. Instead, the spirituality comes from nature. Humanity and nature are inextricably intertwined; the denizens of Cannery Row live their lives according to the rhythms of the tides. Even Doc says that he does not need a clock since he knows the tides so well. Often, these characters derive happiness from being part of an ecosystem. They are not overburdened with the trappings of the material world, and are thus connected to the natural environment and its organisms. In his detailed descriptions of Monterey, Cannery Row, and the surrounding areas, Steinbeck delivers a kind of natural worship.

The Everyman

The novel celebrates the Everyman, or, as Steinbeck writes in the prologue, Everybody. His characters, so lovingly crafted, are prostitutes, bums, Chinese grocers, married couples who live in boilers, and socially awkward youths. Steinbeck does not judge or condemn these people for their stations in life; he does not preach about morality or values. Instead, he depicts the men and women of Cannery Row as idiosyncratic, charming, helpful, optimistic, and mutually affirming. They certainly are flawed, as all realistic characters are, but those flaws are not debilitating, nor do they derive from a characters' profession, race, or socio-economic status. Critics laud or decry this "canonization of the castoff," but cannot argue that Steinbeck has elevated to high literature a class of people whose lives are not often valued.


Many of the characters demonstrate a tendency toward domesticity. Mr. and Mrs. Malloy decorate their boiler, with the former acting as landlord of the attached pipes and the latter trying hang curtains even though there are no windows. Mack and his boys haphazardly furnish the Palace Flophouse and grow to love it. The girls who work at the Bear Flag live there even after they are no longer servicing customers. Henri makes a home out of his unfinished boat. Doc takes great pride the Western Biological laboratory, where he lives and works. Even a gopher makes himself a remarkable hole, of which he is very proud. The characters in Cannery Row revel in their domesticity even though they do not have much money and are often settling in spaces that are not traditionally used as homes. Nevertheless, Steinbeck suggests that human beings have an innate desire to have a space of their own. He demonstrates that one does hot have to be wealthy to derive satisfaction and comfort from his or her home. A home, no matter what it looks like, offers stability and safety in a world that can often feel devoid of both.

Outsiders and Outcasts

There is a sense of camaraderie pervading Cannery Row. It is a place where social outcasts, like Doc, can find solace because they are not judged for their idiosyncrasies. However, Steinbeck does not depict it as a utopia; this is a community of survivors. There is real suffering on Cannery Row. Loneliness, poverty, and alienation are distinct problems. Suicide is common; Horace Abbeville, William, and Joey's dad all take their own lives over the course of the novel. Frankie is socially awkward and strange, which is fine on Cannery Row, but gets him in trouble once he is outside of the realm of Doc's protection. While community togetherness is extremely important for the residents of Cannery Row, the small society nonetheless has its own expectations and norms and values; if there are individuals who do not conform, they are weeded out in one way or another. For example, Mack and the boys are out of favor after destroying Doc's laboratory. Andy is terrified after trying to speak to the "Chinaman" instead of letting him be. The boys from the San Pedro tuna boat are thrown out of Doc's party for being disruptive and disrespectful.


Parties are a crucial component of the novel. They are of signal importance to the community; when Doc's first party fails, all of Cannery Row sinks into a malaise. When the party is successful the second time around, it revives the community. Parties pop up elsewhere in the text, and not just in connection to Doc. Mrs. Talbot creates a sphere of happiness with her tea parties for cats; this allows her to help herself and her husband through tough economic times. Parties allow the characters to plan for and anticipate a happy event; these fetes give them a measure of control in a world that sometimes denies them that. Cannery Row is almost like an organism in how it responds to stimuli, and thus must always maintain some kind of balance. When the balance is thrown off (like during Doc's first party), the organism is diseased. However, parties bring the community together, which is very important in maintaining the ecosystem of Cannery Row.