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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Context


Cannery Row in Monterey

Monterey, a small city on the central coast of California, was the first capital of California when it was under Mexican rule in the 18th century. The city is located on a peninsula at the south end of Monterey Bay on a hillside, with wooded ridges to its south, sloping down to the bay. Pacific Grove, a community on the western outskirts of Monterey, is connected to the city by a road once named "Ocean View Avenue," known to locals as "Cannery Row" because of the many sardine and salmon canneries located there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The road has since been officially renamed "Cannery Row" due to the notoriety it gained from being the setting for three of Steinbeck's novels: Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), and Sweet Thursday (1954). When overfishing damaged the canning industry because of high demand for canned food in World War II (1939–45), the area became derelict. However, due in part to interest in Steinbeck's work, the area has since experienced rebirth as a shopping and tourist destination.

Steinbeck grew up in California where his parents had a weekend home in Pacific Grove on the outer edge of Monterey. As a child, he enjoyed exploring the ocean, and he returned to the family cottage after dropping out of college. Later he and his first wife, Carol Henning, stayed in the Monterey area where he lived just blocks from his good friend Ed Rickett's home and lab, the Pacific Biologic Laboratory, located on Ocean View Avenue. Ricketts—a marine biologist and the inspiration for the character Doc in Cannery Row—and his lab appear in the novel very much as they existed in real life, although when the canneries were not in operation the area was largely deserted. Steinbeck once wrote in a letter that the novel Cannery Row was "born out of homesickness." It was a place for which Steinbeck had enormous affection and nostalgia.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression refers to a period of difficult economic conditions in the United States and other western countries between 1929 and the beginning of World War II in 1939. Following a devastating stock market crash on October 29, 1929, when stocks lost an average of 10% of their value, unemployment skyrocketed, production fell by nearly half, and currencies deflated. With nearly a quarter of Americans out of work, and fierce competition for few jobs, some people were forced to stand in soup lines to avoid starvation. A series of droughts and poor farming practices led to the Dust Bowl, an ecological catastrophe that wiped out crops and livestock. The Dust Bowl became an emblem of the Depression in rural and agricultural America. Millions of unemployed migrated to California hoping to find agricultural jobs, only to be confronted with stiff competition and poor pay for migrant farm work.

It was during these difficult economic times that Steinbeck wrote his most famous works, including The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. The author focused not only on the suffering of the era, but also on the peculiar freedom it offered from social expectations and the competition required by capitalism. Some of his most famous characters are drifters who, like Mack and the boys in Cannery Row, are happy enough to get by with working as little as possible, content to lie about and scrounge and steal only when necessary.

The Great Depression led to sweeping changes in economic policy and the birth of national social programs. President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" hired the unemployed to build government improvement projects, and regulated labor and industry to stimulate growth and protect workers. In the wake of the Great Depression, Social Security (1935) and other federal social programs were created as social safety nets designed to prevent the level of human suffering the nation experienced with the economic collapse. Federal funding for the arts too began at this time, displaying a national recognition for the benefits of creativity to the well-being of the country. Many writers, including Steinbeck, used their craft to protest the dispossession of poor citizens by powerful banks, and to champion the efforts of the downtrodden to overcome adversity. Cannery Row is populated with characters who, in one way or another, are scraping their ways through tough times. Steinbeck celebrates the happiness of people like the Malloys who live in an old boiler in a derelict lot, but remain relatively content despite their poverty.

The Writing and Reception of the Novel

Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row after returning from overseas work as a war correspondent. He was living in New York and working at the Treasury Department when he made a bet with his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, pregnant at the time, that he could complete the novel before she gave birth. He finished the book in six weeks, winning the bet. It was a diversion for him. He described writing the novel as "sneaking a novel in." Part of his motivation for writing Cannery Row was "homesickness" for a time and place dear to him in California. He was disgusted by the war which he called "the most dishonest thing imaginable," and he wanted to give soldiers something enjoyable to read that didn't include war.

Steinbeck also wrote the novel as a poetic vehicle to explore the philosophical conclusions he reached with Ed Ricketts during their time in the Sea of Cortez. The novel is considered the fullest expression of Rickett's non-teleological philosophy in any of Steinbeck's writing. The philosophy asserts the primacy of the "is" of being rather than the "why." Observations of the natural world are taken on their own, rather than ascribed meaning. The novel format allowed Steinbeck to convey the philosophy through the appeal of Ricketts himself in the form of the character Doc.

Steinbeck once wrote that Cannery Row had four layers of meaning, but that "people can take what they can receive out of it." Although some critics found the novel enjoyable, others saw it as frivolous sentimentalism and socially irresponsible. Steinbeck was annoyed with critics who didn't understand the meaning of the novel's interchapters, relatively self-contained episodes that do not directly contribute to the plot. The technique was one the author had used previously in The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, but to some, its use in such a short book resulted in a thinness of plot. This continues to be a common criticism of the novel. Cannery Row was made into a film and released in 1982.


Naturalism is a movement that applies Darwinian ideas about the natural world to literature and art. Nineteenth-century British naturalist Charles Darwin observed that the strongest organisms in a particular environment tend to survive. This idea of the survival of the fittest ensures the genes of these organisms are passed on to succeeding generations. In naturalist literature, people are just another part of the natural world, subject to hereditary and environmental influences in the same way as other living things.

Naturalism was a popular movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Naturalist writers sought to expand realism to present their characters and settings not only in an objective fashion, but as an experiment, examining the results as if under a microscope. Authors were interested in portraying characters' motivations and experiences as part of the natural world, rather than their morality. Indeed, some naturalist authors portrayed characters as at the mercy of hereditary and environmental forces rather than acting of their own volition.

The first naturalist writings came from France, begun by historian and critic Hippolyte Taine in 1863, but the movement was explicitly advocated by novelist and playwright Emile Zola in an essay titled "The Experimental Novel" (1880). American naturalist writers include Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Steinbeck's intense study of both marine and human life in Cannery Row, as well as his philosophical leanings, place him in the naturalist movement of American literature. He simply presents his observations of the environment and the characters within it—much as Doc observes the actions of the tide pool and its inhabitants—without assigning meaning or judgment.

Picaresque Novels

Cannery Row is considered by some to be a modern version of a picaresque novel, a genre popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Picaro heroes are downtrodden social outcasts who survive by using cleverness and common sense. They are unconcerned with laws and morality, and do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals, including at times taking on the appearance of social conformity.

The first picaresque novel was Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), but picaro heroes show up in many classic pieces of literature, including Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and Moll Flanders (1722). In contrast to the knights and chivalry of medieval romances in preceding centuries, the picaresque novel provided more realism in its cynical, pragmatic heroes. Mack and the boys in Cannery Row fit the characteristics of picaros to some extent, but they lack the ambition and purpose of a typical picaro. Rather than manipulating and cheating their ways to better social or financial positions as one would expect from a picaresque novel, Mack and the boys drift indifferently.
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