English Courses / Course / Chapter

John Steinbeck's Cannery Row

Jessica Geer, Kevin Watson
  • Author
    Jessica Geer

    Jessica Geer holds a Masters Degree in the Art of Teaching from Willamette University, and a Washington State Teaching Credential with endorsements in Language Arts and Social Studies.

  • Instructor
    Kevin Watson

    Kevin Watson has taught ESL, Spanish, French, Composition, and literature for over 33 years at universities in France, Spain, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Ecuador. He has a bachelor’s in education and master’s in applied linguistics from the University of South Florida and a master’s in creative writing from the New School in New York City.

Explore John Steinbeck's ''Cannery Row.'' Read a summary of the novel, review the characters, study the analysis and themes, and read John Steinbeck's quotes. Updated: 02/28/2022

John Steinbeck's Cannery Row

Cannery Row is set in Monterey, California during the Great Depression. It was published in 1945. The title references a real street, Ocean View Avenue, that was once a part of the booming fish packing industry in Monterey. The street name was officially changed to ''Cannery Row'' in honor of John Steinbeck's novel. Like much of Steinbeck's work, Cannery Row exudes a strong sense of place. The opening passage serves to colorfully convey the context within which this story takes place.

''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.''

The novel tells the story of the marginalized people who populate Cannery Row. It highlights the relationships between the members of this community as they face poverty, personal struggle, and societal antipathy. The more stable members of the community take it upon themselves to care for the weaker members. It is foremost a story that celebrates humanity's ability to thrive amid adversity.

The specificity of setting and character make Cannery Row exemplary of the local color, or regionalism, movement in American literature.


a sculpture in Monterey, ca depicting the characters from Cannery Row

sculpture in Monterey California


Life in a Local Setting

In John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, the author shows local life in a regional setting in Monterrey, California. He brings the reader the regular people, not the wealthy or powerful, but the average and marginalized. Here you will meet Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora and Mr. Lee Chong. Perhaps you know someone just like them. Maybe you are someone just like them.

Some of Steinbeck's novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, take a serious look at people struggling in difficult circumstances without much help, but who still have hope. The author also has a sense of humor that comes out in works like Cannery Row. Steinbeck's voice carries a subtle tone of humor that makes the inhabitants of Cannery Row relatable and elevate them past their initial appearance, infusing them with a high degree of appeal.

The Half-Empty Glass is Also Half Full

Steinbeck displays compassion towards the human race in his ability to see good in everyone. The opening narration captures this sentiment toward the characters in Cannery Row:

''Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men' and he would have meant the same thing.''

The ''Everybody'' rings of Everyman, a morality play attempting to show the commonalities that all people share. And this demonstrates the many sides we all have and how every ''son of a bitch'' can be a ''saint''.

Misfits with a Heart

Every character is in their own way a misfit, but Steinbeck portrays them in a sentimental way. He is kind in his view of the characters he delivers to the reader. It makes it hard to be angry with characters behaving irresponsibly, as they sometimes do, like planning parties and wrecking Doc's lab. Doc is a scientist who runs a biological supply lab. Most everyone in the Row owes him some money and he is an empathetic character. Mack and the boys are local bums who live off minor theft. At one point they steal a car part to repair a car used to make money to throw Doc a party. Their good intentions almost never go right. And still, Doc sees them as somehow protected, intact, and living well. He says:

''Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think, he went on, that Mac and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and everything that will happen.'' Here Steinbeck shows that dual side to his characters, lifting the lowest up to be the highest. He goes on to say the ''successful men are sick'' but ''Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean.''

Later Doc alters the Lord's Prayer in tribute to Mack and the boys:

''Our Father, who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the housefly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys.''

Steinbeck's own views might be reflected in Doc's words. If that is so, it may be a case of man creating God in his own image, with the author's sympathy for misfits being shared by God. Though the boys live off the mainstream track of earning a living responsibly, Steinbeck shows them never ceasing to figure out creative new ways to get what the need and want. They are willing to go to work in their own haphazard, clumsy way to do something good for others. In this sympathetic portrayal of the downtrodden, the audience is made to read and laugh at the constant change in their lives.

Doc is also an oddity in this setting. He seems responsible and legally employed, a rarity among the characters of the story, and yet he fits in in his own way. Steinbeck shows an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance, creating a world where people accept each other's failings and still manage to get along in life.

Two Sides to Every Coin

No one really stands out as bad. Mack and the boys steal, break, destroy things but still try to show their gratitude to Doc and Chong.

Cannery Row Characters

Mack is the clever and charismatic unofficial leader of a small group of friends. He is 48 years old, and regularly comes up with harmless schemes in the interest of making a quick buck, or having a good time. Doc describes Mack as a philosopher. Mack and his friends share the straightforward ambition to live comfortably and be happy. They are referred to as ''Mack and the boys'', and they live together in an old shack they call the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack's boys include Hazel, Eddie, and Gay.

Hazel often accompanies Doc on specimen gathering excursions. He is characterized as having a diminished intellectual capacity, but he remembers everything he hears, although he doesn't generally understand it.

Eddie works part time at the local bar. He pours patrons' unfinished drinks into a jug he keeps under the bar, and brings the jug home to share with his friends.

Gay is a talented mechanic who avoids his abusive wife by living at the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

Doc is a marine biologist who runs Western Biological Laboratory on Cannery Row. He collects marine specimens, and preserves and stores them at his laboratory before shipping them off to various museums and universities. He is small, but also quite strong. He is universally loved by the people of Cannery Row with whom he shares his love of music, literature, and medical and life advice. Doc has an air of loneliness and sadness, which inspires in his friends a desire to do something nice for him. His is the lens through which the reader views the people of Cannery Row.

Steinbeck based the character of Doc on real life marine biologist, Ed Ricketts. Ricketts operated a lab on Cannery Row called Pacific Biological Laboratories. Steinbeck dedicated the novel to Ricketts.

Dora Flood runs the Bear Flag Restaurant, a local brothel. She is intelligent, kind, and fiercely protective of the women in her employ. She has strict rules about behavior in her establishment, but the safety and well-being of the women who work for her is her primary concern. She is described as, "a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses". She is a philanthropist who donates food and money to those in need. She is well respected among the people of Cannery Row.

Lee Chong is the owner of the local grocery store, as well as the abandoned building where Mac and the boys sleep. Although his grocery prices are set high, he is generous and freely extends credit to those in need. He doesn't charge Mack and the boys rent. He is considered a keen business man, and he is known to be kind-hearted.

Summary of Cannery Row

The initial action in Cannery Row primarily involves a surprise party that Mack and the boys plan for Doc. They want to do something nice for him, since he does so much to support members of the community. They worry about his somber nature, and hope that a party will cheer him up. Mack and the boys spend a fair amount of time procuring party supplies via moneymaking arrangements with Doc and Lee Chong. They set up the party in Doc's lab when he is out on a nighttime specimen collecting trip. The party starts while they wait for Doc, and by the time he gets home in the morning, the party is over and his lab is a complete disaster. Doc is angry, and for awhile after, the collective mood in the community is low. Various troubles beleaguer the Row for a period of time.

A turning point comes when Darling, the beloved puppy who resides at the Palace Flophouse and Grill, grows ill. Mack seeks Doc's help and advice, and Doc gives Mack and the boys guidance for Darling's care. Love for Darling, and gratitude for Doc's grace, leads Mack and the boys to dedicate themselves to cleaning up their act. Their new lease on life is infectious, and soon the entire community has a sunnier perspective. Collectively, they start to plan a new party for Doc, with everyone chipping in.

The second party is a success. Doc receives gifts from many of the community members, including a quilt made of bits of lingerie silk remnants from Dora and the women at the Bear Flag Restaurant. Doc ends the party by reading the poem, Black Marigolds, by 11th century poet, Kalvi Bilhana, later translated into English by E. Powys Mathers. The poem leaves partygoers feeling nostalgic and sentimental. This feeling is briefly disrupted when a group of strange men enter and a fight breaks out. The party finally breaks up when the fight is finished, and the people of the Row leave in high spirits.

After the party, Doc contemplates life on Cannery Row, and the people who populate it. He reflects on the duplicity of their existence, between hardship and joy, and recognizes the value of both in the human experience.

Analysis of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row

John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is a novel about the nature of true virtue, the value of human connection, and how the inherent duplicity of life is fundamental to its value. Steinbeck utilizes the motifs of music, nature, and spirituality to convey the themes of the book.

Themes in Cannery Row

Steinbeck creates a community of complicated, but virtuous, marginalized people in order to demonstrate his central themes.

The nature of true virtue

None of occupants of Cannery Row are without fault. Often, the faults they demonstrate are only those that are considered flaws by societal standards. Dora operates a brothel. Society shuns her because her work is both illegal, and considered indecent. Steinbeck writes Dora as a caring, responsible, intelligent woman who is well-respected in her community. She is virtuous in all the ways that matter.

Mack and the boys live a life that is socially maligned. They work only sporadically, they don't aspire to great wealth or status. Mack's goal is happiness and contentment, and he has cultivated such a life for himself. Society's view of Mack is in conflict with Mack's degree of satisfaction. That he has achieved happiness and fulfillment defies social norms. Doc believes Mack and the boys to be the ''true philosophers'' of Cannery Row.

'' 'It has always seemed strange to me,' said Doc. 'The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, inquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest are the traits of success.' ''

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Additional Info

Life in a Local Setting

In John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, the author shows local life in a regional setting in Monterrey, California. He brings the reader the regular people, not the wealthy or powerful, but the average and marginalized. Here you will meet Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora and Mr. Lee Chong. Perhaps you know someone just like them. Maybe you are someone just like them.

Some of Steinbeck's novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, take a serious look at people struggling in difficult circumstances without much help, but who still have hope. The author also has a sense of humor that comes out in works like Cannery Row. Steinbeck's voice carries a subtle tone of humor that makes the inhabitants of Cannery Row relatable and elevate them past their initial appearance, infusing them with a high degree of appeal.

The Half-Empty Glass is Also Half Full

Steinbeck displays compassion towards the human race in his ability to see good in everyone. The opening narration captures this sentiment toward the characters in Cannery Row:

''Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men' and he would have meant the same thing.''

The ''Everybody'' rings of Everyman, a morality play attempting to show the commonalities that all people share. And this demonstrates the many sides we all have and how every ''son of a bitch'' can be a ''saint''.

Misfits with a Heart

Every character is in their own way a misfit, but Steinbeck portrays them in a sentimental way. He is kind in his view of the characters he delivers to the reader. It makes it hard to be angry with characters behaving irresponsibly, as they sometimes do, like planning parties and wrecking Doc's lab. Doc is a scientist who runs a biological supply lab. Most everyone in the Row owes him some money and he is an empathetic character. Mack and the boys are local bums who live off minor theft. At one point they steal a car part to repair a car used to make money to throw Doc a party. Their good intentions almost never go right. And still, Doc sees them as somehow protected, intact, and living well. He says:

''Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think, he went on, that Mac and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and everything that will happen.'' Here Steinbeck shows that dual side to his characters, lifting the lowest up to be the highest. He goes on to say the ''successful men are sick'' but ''Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean.''

Later Doc alters the Lord's Prayer in tribute to Mack and the boys:

''Our Father, who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the housefly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys.''

Steinbeck's own views might be reflected in Doc's words. If that is so, it may be a case of man creating God in his own image, with the author's sympathy for misfits being shared by God. Though the boys live off the mainstream track of earning a living responsibly, Steinbeck shows them never ceasing to figure out creative new ways to get what the need and want. They are willing to go to work in their own haphazard, clumsy way to do something good for others. In this sympathetic portrayal of the downtrodden, the audience is made to read and laugh at the constant change in their lives.

Doc is also an oddity in this setting. He seems responsible and legally employed, a rarity among the characters of the story, and yet he fits in in his own way. Steinbeck shows an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance, creating a world where people accept each other's failings and still manage to get along in life.

Two Sides to Every Coin

No one really stands out as bad. Mack and the boys steal, break, destroy things but still try to show their gratitude to Doc and Chong.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the theme of "Cannery Row?"

The primary themes in Cannery Row are: nature of true virtue, the value of human connection, and the inherent duplicity of life.

What is the message of "Cannery Row?"

The primary message in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is tolerance and acceptance, and the presence of true virtue in demonstrating that message.

What is the Palace Flophouse in "Cannery Row?"

The Palace Flophouse and Grill is the abandoned shed owned by Lee Chong in which Mack and the boys reside.

How does Steinbeck describe "Cannery Row?"

John Steinbeck describes Cannery Row as, ''a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.''

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Resources created by teachers for teachers

Over 30,000 video lessons & teaching resources‐all in one place.
Video lessons
Quizzes & Worksheets
Classroom Integration
Lesson Plans

I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.

Jennifer B.
Teacher
Jennifer B.
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account