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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Quotes


Cannery Row ... is a poem, a stink, a grating noise ... a nostalgia, a dream.

Narrator, Preface

Cannery Row is where Steinbeck grew up. As a part of his childhood, it is a place for which he has sentimental feelings. He uses sensory details throughout the novel to portray this unique place and its significance.


Its inhabitants are ... 'whores, pimps, gamblers ...' by which he meant Everybody.

Narrator, Preface

The narrator quotes an unnamed man who once called the inhabitants of Cannery Row a list of labels which others may use pejoratively, but he intends both humorously and allegorically to mean "Everybody." The novel is a story of real people from all walks of life.


Mack ... had ... no ambitions beyond ... contentment ... whereas most men ... destroy themselves and fall wearily short.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Mack is the leader of a group of bums who happily drift through life, exerting as little effort as necessary to fulfill their basic appetites, and finding contentment while other men work tirelessly, only to fail in fulfilling their ambitions.


Everyone who knew him ... thought ... 'I really must do something nice for Doc.'

Narrator, Chapter 5

Describing Doc, the narrator explains he is a pillar of the community, a fount of wisdom. Everyone seems to like him and feels indebted to him in some way, such that they all share the sentiment—originally expressed by Mack—of wanting to do something for Doc. This is the motivation for the parties Mack and the boys decide to throw. The whole city turns out to Doc's birthday party, gifts included. That they are largely unsuccessful is portrayed more as an accident of nature than as a result of their own inadequacies.


The smells of life and richness ... death and digestion ... decay and birth, burden the air.

Narrator, Chapter 6

The tide pool is a microcosm of life, not unlike Cannery Row itself. Doc observes the scents coming from the pool, representing both the beauty of living and the decay of death. The author portrays all aspects of life on Cannery Row, its various odd characters, events, and sad or touching stories. Like the organisms living in the tide pool, the people and happenings on Cannery Row are presented in all their variety and without judgment. They are merely described and they live, die, and interact.


Doc watched him go ... uneasily. Doc's dealings with Mack ... had ... rarely ... been profitable to Doc.

Narrator, Chapter 9

Doc has observed Mack for a long time, and he knows Mack's skills as a manipulator and the types of schemes he devises. Because Doc has been on the short end of past interactions with Mack, Doc is wary of Mack's plan to collect frogs to sell him. Doc suspects he may end up having to pay someone back as a result of this deal with Mack, and his worries prove true with the botched party at the lab. Ironically, the person he has to pay back is himself.


Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris ... [or] the solar system.

Narrator, Chapter 11

The narrator comments on how widespread knowledge of the Ford Model T was at the time. More people were familiar with the intricacies of the vehicle than with their own bodies or the world surrounding them.


I bet Mack could of been president of the U.S. if he wanted.

Hazel, Chapter 13

Hazel expresses admiration for Mack's skills at manipulating the captain, who first was angry with them for trespassing, but then invites them to capture frogs from his own pond. Hazel realizes Mack could turn this skill to any advantage he wished, perhaps even attaining the highest office in the land. He clearly does not see the two ironies in his statement: first, that Mack has no chance of being president, and second that the president probably uses some very similarly questionable tactics in national and international negotiations.


Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love.

Narrator, Chapter 17

Doc discovers people don't love truth the way he does. If truth is hard to understand or uncomfortable, people prefer a lie. Doc's greatest love of truth is recognizing the truth of humanity: that not all people are as committed to truth as he is. So he learns to offer the lies people prefer when others will benefit.


A girl's face looked up at him ... the clear water made it very beautiful.

Narrator, Chapter 18

While exploring the tidal flats, Doc discovers a dead body caught in a crevice of rocks. Although he is shocked and upset by the find, he is struck with the beauty of the body.


I been sorry all my life. This ain't ... new ... It's always like this.

Mack, Chapter 21

Mack apologizes to Doc for wrecking the lab when he really intended to throw a party for him. Mack explains he has always ruined things. It is a pattern in his life. He seems to feel he can't change, and that he shouldn't have to.


There are your true philosophers ... They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Doc, Chapter 23

Doc calls Mack and the boys "philosophers." He believes they have arrived at the most honest way of living because instead of chasing material gain, Mack and the boys live easily to satisfy only their simple needs. Doc admires the fact the boys feel no need to hide their desires or to make excuses for how they choose to live. He recognizes in this attitude toward life and themselves a kind of truth he can never attain.


Doc hoped to make this party as non-lethal as possible without making it dull.

Narrator, Chapter 29

Remembering the disaster of the last party, Doc prepares for the party he knows Mack and the boys are throwing for him. He puts his valuables and breakables away, and he thinks about how he can protect his home without putting too much of a damper on the celebration.


The party had ... the best qualities of a riot and a night on the barricades.

Narrator, Chapter 30

The surprise birthday party is a huge success, even though another fight breaks out. Everyone seems to appreciate the violent release. The party has just enough conflict to make it as satisfying as a riot or an act of protest, like barricading a street.


Even now, I know that I have savored the hot taste of life.

Doc, Chapter 32

Doc recites a poem to himself after the party. He reflects on his nihilistic enjoyment of life, refusing to judge himself or others for finding joy in satisfying natural urges and all the pleasures life has to offer.

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