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Cannery Row | Themes

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Ambition

Ambition takes on various forms in the novel, including desires for social status, materialism, and career success. However, ambition often leads not to the desired end but to despair, dissatisfaction, and failure. An absence of ambition proves to be the most desirable character trait.

Many characters in the novel fall prey to the trap of ambition, often in humorous ways. There are the Malloys who live in a defunct boiler in an empty lot. When Mr. Malloy becomes slightly less destitute by renting out spare pipes in the lot, his wife suddenly wants curtains, even though they have no windows. Mary Talbot throws parties for cats when she doesn't have the means to pay for real parties. She is confident her husband will be a famous writer. The gopher aspires to have the perfect gopher hole, and imagines it filled with progeny, even though he doesn't have a mate.

Unfortunately, ambition doesn't pan out, and it makes the dreamers all the more unhappy for having worked so hard for it. Mrs. Malloy cries when her husband fails to see the point of the curtains. She feels deprived, as if he begrudges her such a simple request. Tom Talbot is overwhelmed by depression because of his lack of success as a writer. The poor gopher gets beat up trying to lure a female to his beautiful hole and is forced to abandon it for a more dangerous, less suitable home. Poor Francis Almones works hard, but "no matter how hard Francis worked ... his money grew less until he just dried up." It doesn't pay to be ambitious. Doc claims "people tear themselves to pieces with ambition." After all, success is only attained through "greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest," all of which are negative traits.

At the opposite spectrum are those who eschew ambition in favor of contentment and relaxation. Doc admires Mack and the boys as true geniuses who have discovered the secret of real happiness as bums. Their lack of money cannot make them bitter, for they "did not measure their joy in goods sold ... nor their loves in what they cost." They are content to "satisfy their appetites without calling them something else." As long as they have food in their stomachs, alcohol nearby, and somewhere to sleep, Mack and the boys are perfectly satisfied. They avoid the snare of ambition and its destructiveness. Doc himself embodies this trait, most particularly in his road trip when he pursues his own immediate needs: a hamburger and a beer, the innovation of a beer milkshake, the beauty of the ocean, and the variety of the specimens he collects.

Isolation

Unlike many writers who treat isolation as anathema to the human condition, Steinbeck finds isolation sometimes beneficial and even necessary. His conception of isolation appears to be rooted in nature: some species require periodic cycles of isolation and commingling. There are a number of isolated characters in the novel, although some characters are temporarily isolated, while others seem to exist permanently outside of the community. The most obvious example in the novel is the Chinaman whom everyone sees walking to the ocean each day, but whom no one seems to know. They don't even know where he lives, what his name is, or what he does every day at the beach. When Andy speaks to the Chinaman, he gets a vision of a world completely devoid of human life. This example of extreme loneliness terrifies him.

Doc is another character who seems to be permanently isolated. Although he is surrounded by people, "in spite of his friendliness and his friends Doc was a lonely ... man." Mack notices that in a group, Doc always seemed to be alone. Even when Doc is entertaining a female guest, a sense of loneliness can be perceived coming from the lab. Doc is different from the other characters in Cannery Row both in his education and tastes, as well as his lifestyle. There is no one else like him, making his isolation inevitable.

But social isolation can also be temporary, as in the case of Mack and the boys after the failed party. Some people think Mack and the boys intentionally wrecked Doc's lab, and are angry that anyone would treat Doc, who is universally liked, in such a bad way. The resulting social stigma turns them into "social outcasts." People stop talking to them. Even Sam Malloy won't greet them when they pass his boiler. Because they are naturally social creatures, they can't handle the forced isolation and must pursue a form of amends.

Isolation can yield different results. It can make people "determined to be better, purer, and kindlier," or it can cause a person to do "even worse things." Mack and the boys "know the pain and self-destructive criticism" of being relegated to the status of temporary outsiders. Isolation can also lead to despair. For example, the heartbreak of being rejected by Mack and the boys causes William to kill himself. But both the Chinaman and Doc appear content in their solitude.

Truth

Truth is a trait society supposedly values, but in reality, often dislikes. When Doc decides to walk from Chicago to Florida to see the country, he finds people are alarmed when he tells them his real motivation. They become suspicious of him. He understands "people didn't like you for telling the truth." If a truth is odd or inconvenient, people would rather hear a lie. When Doc tells them he is walking the whole country on a dare, people are delighted. They welcome him in. In the same way, Doc doesn't tell the waitress the true reason he wants to try a beer milkshake, because he knows she will be suspicious. She is happy to make it for him when he lies by telling her it is for a bladder condition. "Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love" held by most people.

It seems Doc is subject to his own criticism, however. When Frankie tells Doc the reason he broke into the jewelry store and stole the clock was out of love for him, Doc runs away. It seems he would rather have been told a lie than this uncomfortable truth. If Frankie had lied, perhaps there would have been a way out for him. The truth gets Frankie institutionalized. Doc is right when he says the truth can "be a very dangerous mistress."

This is doubly ironic given that Doc is a scientist. Scientists are supposedly engaged in the ultimate search for truth, the quest to discover what lies at the heart of the universe. Without an absolute love for the truth, that quest is in vain. Thus, this theme calls into question the validity of the entire human pursuit, suggesting that human relations are perhaps more valuable than any calling, no matter how noble.

Community

Cannery Row is a tight-knit, albeit idiosyncratic, community. It is made up of all sorts of people—from business owners, to prostitutes, to bums. Nevertheless, people depend on one another. Everyone gets groceries from Lee Chong and assistance from Doc. When the flu spreads through the city, Doc, Dora, and the girls pitch in to care for the sick. Everyone shows up to Doc's birthday party to show their respect for him. The deepest pain people in Cannery Row feel is being excluded or isolated from the community, as when William is rejected by Mack and the boys, or when Mack and the boys are shunned after the failed party.

The larger community of Cannery Row is made up of a set of smaller communities who care for each other. Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant is one such small community. Dora is the madam and matriarch who cares for her girls and runs the business. Alfred is a sort of patriarchal figure, protecting members of the household, which include the cook and all the girls who cover for each other when needed. The Palace Flophouse and Grill is another small community. Mack is the leader, but each member has a specific role. There is a measure of security in being a part of a community. Those outside of it are subject to loneliness and isolation.

Questions for Themes

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