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Essay Cannery Row

  • 1

    What do the tide pool and quilt symbolize?

    Steinbeck describes the tide-pool as full of “the smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth” (32), a place where all manner of creatures cohabitate. The quilt, which Dora’s girls make for Doc’s birthday, is a combination of fabrics culled from various undergarments and evening dresses. Steinbeck's description conjures the image of a riot of fabrics and colors, beautiful in its boldness though it is comprised of many clashing pieces. Both the quilt and the tide pool, then, are apt symbols of Cannery Row itself. The people who live on Cannery Row (as opposed to workers who are only there when the canneries are open) are all working class and united in their desire to survive. They are occasionally garish, gauche, or have difficulty fitting into the broader society. They also, however, demonstrate a brightness of spirit in the way they come together as a community. The quilt and the tide-pool are excellent symbols for the interconnectedness of individuals and society at large.

  • 2

    How do the characters of Cannery Row derive their happiness and satisfaction?

    The denizens of Cannery Row do not find happiness in ways that most of society might deem appropriate. They do not prioritize earning money for the purpose of moving up the social ladder. They do not desire to accumulate too many material goods. They do not compete or derive satisfaction from making others feel poorly about themselves. Instead, they find happiness in more present and immediate ways – they drink whiskey and cook roosters over campfires, admire tide-pools, throw tea parties for cats, and appreciate the art of fixing cars. Even Lee Chong and Dora, who are the most business-oriented members of the community, put aside their commercial interests in order to help out the community and secure peace of mind for themselves – Lee Chong by giving in to Mack and the boys even when it means he loses money, and Dora by volunteering herself and the girls for influenza duty. Steinbeck therefore suggests that happiness can be found in the most unexpected places.

  • 3

    What are the relationships between different genders, ages, social classes, and races found in the text?

    One of the reasons contemporary critics celebrate Cannery Row is for its veritable melting pot of ages, races, genders, and social classes. Steinbeck does not specifically note most of the characters' races and ethnicities, and this omission in itself dismantles the the patriarchal system that favors white men of means. Instead, women like Dora reign in the Cannery Row community. The Chinese grocer is the leading businessman. An educated man like Doc drinks beer with Mack and his boys; he finds solace in a place where he does not face judgement. Meanwhile, when Doc ventures outside of Cannery Row, he expresses frustration at having to explain his unorthodox desires to others and even kicks a hitchhiker out of his car when the man suggests that Doc refrain from drinking and driving. Steinbeck therefore portrays the poor and working-class residents of Cannery Row just as he sees them, and is careful not to allow society's pre-conceived notions into his characterizations. These people are united in their desire to survive; superficial labels lose their divisive power.

  • 4

    Why does Doc order a beer milkshake?

    The scene in which Doc orders a beer milkshake is absurd, but it also says a lot about Doc's character. This scene comes right after Doc's curt dismissal of the judgmental hitchhiker, so a reader might assume that Doc is angry. However, Doc's actions illustrate Doc's reasons for wanting to stay in Cannery Row instead of venturing out amongst other well-educated and/or middle-class individuals. He is naturally inquisitive man, and he likes to indulge his curiosity by conducting casual experiments - for which he does not face judgement in Cannery Row. He has always wanted to have a beer milkshake, but suspects that the waitress at this diner will judge him for his queer request, so he makes up a white lie and says that it's doctor's orders. This may seem contradictory, as Steinbeck explains earlier that Doc likes “true things” (104). However, ordering the beer milkshake and kicking out the hitchhiker are both part of Doc's silent rebellion against society's expectations. He also reveals his keen understanding of the way the world works by figuring out ways to disguise his idiosyncrasies, preferring acceptance and amiability to hostility or suspicion. As for why Doc chooses this moment to order the beer milkshake, it may be because after being judged for his behavior, he is choosing to do something that his heart desires.

  • 5

    What is Steinbeck’s message regarding morality in Cannery Row?

    Steinbeck indirectly outlines a specific code of morality in this novel. The author's version of morality is not tied to a Judeo-Christian faith; it does not necessarily align with the Biblical version of a virtuous life that calls for abstinence from prostitution, drinking, and fighting. Rather, Steinbeck projects palpable approval for the way his characters conduct their lives, therefore insinuating that morality is based on how person treats others and negotiates the world around him/her. In Cannery Row, morality involves a respect for nature, an open, tolerant heart, a desire to give one’s time and money to help or celebrate others, and a lack of striving for material goods or financial success. Dora is a perfect example of a character that Steinbeck respects but whom broader society condemns. She is a madam, but she is also upright, a keen businesswoman, a pillar of her community, and a loving, thoughtful friend to her girls and to Alfred. Her business is good for the economy of Cannery Row, and the residents do not view it as a scourge upon the town. In depicting a madam in such a warm light, Steinbeck asks his readers to question how the basis of their own moral perspectives.

  • 6

    What role do Mack and the boys play in the Cannery Row community?

    Mack and the boys are central figures in the community. This might be surprising to some readers at first, given the fact that the members of Mack's group are mostly jobless, live in an abandoned warehouse, drink whiskey, fight, and show little inclination to settle down into stable family lives, but over the course of the novel, Steinbeck paints them as philosophers and the heart and soul of Cannery Row. They have found a way to live happily even amidst straitened conditions. They protect and celebrate Cannery Row; they infuse it with vitality. Thus, when Mack's first party for Doc fails spectacularly and they fall out of favor for a time, the entire community seems to sink into a malaise. They are like a once healthy body attacked by a virus, which then spreads and affects everyone else nearby. Fortunately, once Mack and his boys learn their lessons about selflessness and humility, they are able to bring cheer to the community once more. They are completely inextricable from Cannery Row, and vice versa.

  • 7

    What is the significance of the ending of Cannery Row?

    The end of the novel features a scene in which Doc cleans up his laboratory, listens to music, and recites lines of the poem that he read to his party guests the night before. The poem that Doc reads perfectly encapsulates the mood of this last scene: "Even now, / I know that I have savored the hot taste of life/ Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast" (196). In this moment, Doc feels greatly satisfied with his life, but through the poem, Steinbeck simultaneously conveys the a tone of nostalgia. Doc is certainly realizing that this is a perfect moment in time, but it also appears to be a nostalgic moment for Steinbeck, who had become very fond of Cannery Row and its denizens. Therefore, it is likely that Steinbeck is using the end of the novel to convey his affection for the place, the characters, and the reverential moment he has constructed in Doc's laboratory.

  • 8

    What are the genre, style, and tone of the novel?

    There are certainly heavy moments in the text, but they are dealt with rather lightly. The suicides and Frankie’s incarceration evoke a sense of sadness, but the impression is fleeting. It also has elements of the pastoral, as Cannery Row itself conjures up an almost utopian sensation. As for style, Steinbeck varies from character to character and from scene to scene. Most of the characters speak informally, and Steinbeck describes them in a casual way most of the time. However, he occasionally becomes more formal and celebratory, exulting in the saintly qualities of the boys and discussing what makes a man truly successful. He is also poetic in his language when it comes to the tidepool. Thus, he varies his style to both suggest the type of people that actually live in the Row and to elevate and ennoble them. His tone is indulgent, tolerant. He finds his characters charming in all of their idiosyncrasies and flaws. He deals with them gently, withholding judgment or censure./

  • 9

    What is the significance of the “hour of the pearl”?

    Steinbeck mentions this quiet, magical time several times in the novel. The confrontation between Andy and the old Chinese man takes place at this time, as does the scene with the soldiers and their girls. Finally, Doc returns from his La Jolla trip during the "hour of the pearl." Steinbeck coined this descriptive phrase to describe the time of day when the streets are deserted and an opalescent mist lingers in the air. It represents an interstitial moment, the last breath of silence before Cannery Row roars to life. It takes place in the break between night and day, which means that it carries both good and possibilities. The "hour of the pearl" concept symbolizes Steinbeck's choice to focus on the parts of Cannery Row that have nothing to do with canning. The entire novel takes place either before or after cannery workers have gone home for the day; even Mack and his boys look down upon taking jobs in one of those factories. In writing Cannery Row, Steinbeck is lifting the opalescent curtain and allowing the reader to see what happens when nobody is watching. The small inter-chapters further emphasize this; Susan Shillinglaw describes them as "little [eras] of rest... when time stops and examines itself" (xxxv).

  • 10

    Describe the importance of the setting to Cannery Row.

    Cannery Row is a place that held great personal significance for Steinbeck, as he spent a lot of time there and became close friends with Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist upon whom he modeled the character of Doc. Therefore, this novel is not just about Cannery Row - it is Cannery Row.Steinbeck conveys this idea with the opening lines of the novel: "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" (5). Cannery Row represents Steinbeck's attempt to paint the intricacies of this place with his words. Therefore, the plot is loose and secondary to his descriptions of the setting. Furthermore, he includes unrelated vignettes that may seem like non-sequiturs but they are actually just another part of the vibrant tapestry of Cannery Row.

  • Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for Cannery Row by John Steinbeck that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Cannery Row by John Steinbeck and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Narrative Structure of Cannery Row

    In a certain sense, Cannery Row does not have a cohesive plot. Rather, it is comprised of a series of vignettes about individuals who live in an area called Cannery Row, and the sense is that Steinbeck was more interested in creating sketches of a place and a people rather than telling a story or conveying a message about those people and their circumstances and experiences. Write an essay in which you explain and defend Steinbeck’s choice of this narrative approach. If you think that a “plot-less" novel is problematic, then develop an argument that supports your belief. If, on the other hand, you believe that this strategy is effective in conveying a particular feeling or message to the reader, then explain your position.

    Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #2: Symbolism in Cannery Row

    Despite the brevity of this novel, Steinbeck introduces a variety of symbols that are used to effectively dramatize life on Cannery Row. One of these symbols is the row itself; another symbol is the collecting activity of Doc. Choose one or more symbols that you have identified in the novel and write an explanatory essay in which you identify how the symbols you have chosen convey meaning to the reader. Explain whether you consider these symbols to be effective. Be sure to draw upon textual evidence to support your claims.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Success on Cannery Row

    Cannery Row is a low-down kind of place, but many characters are struggling to attain their version of success. Consider one or more characters and analyze how each defines success. Be sure to explain how these individual definitions of success either contradict or conform to social norms. Identify whether there are any ethical, moral, or legal conflicts that the characters confront as they struggle to achieve their goals, and determine who is the most successful of the novel’s characters in your own opinion.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Violence in Cannery Row

    Violence, both physical and psychological, seems to be a fact of life in Cannery Row. Violence is also inflicted upon the self and on others. Take one or more instances of violence that is portrayed in the novel and explain how it is meaningful to the overall scheme of the novel. You may wish to compare and contrast episodes of violence and identify whether they serve a single function or whether they have multiple meanings in the novel.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: Character Analysis

    Cannery Row is densely populated with a group of characters, in the narrative sense of the word and in terms of personalities. There is Dora, an imposing figure of a woman who runs a successful brothel, Henri, the non-French Frenchman, Lee Chong the shrewd but kind-hearted grocer, and a host of other fascinating people who make Cannery Row so compelling. Choose one character and write an in-depth analysis of that individual and his or her relationship with the other characters in the novel. Alternately, choose two characters and compare and contrast their personalities and their functions in the text.


    This list of important quotations from Cannery Row will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck they are referring to.

    “Cannery Row is… a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. (1)

    “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches’, by which he meant Everybody." (1)

    “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." (1)

    “How can the poem and the stink and grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?….[P]erhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves." (2)

    “Not that Lee Chong was avaricious. He wasn’t, but if one wanted to spend money, he was available. Over the course of the years everyone…owed him money. He never pressed his clients, but when the bill became too large, Lee cut off credit." (3)

    “Lee Chong is more than a Chinese grocer. He must be. Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good…." (3)

    “…Dora, madam and girl for fifty years, has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind." (9)

    [Doc] can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure." (16)

    “Because he loved true things he tried to explain." (64)

    “Henri the painter was not French and his name was not Henri. Also he was not really a painter." (83)