“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?” (Steinbeck, 5). Cannery Row is full of meaningful, poetic, and outright confusing anecdotes like this one. In this book, Steinbeck is capable of maintaining complexity and simplicity at the same time. It is a plot of plots, a story of stories, and a lesson of lessons. I would recommend this book to anyone who hopes to gain insight from its complex characters and impactful allegories.
One of these allegories is the entire second paragraph. This paragraph is full of profound language and imagery. It begins with, “The word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern”. (Steinbeck, 5) His use of big ideas like the “Word” shows us his biblical influence and fascination. In this quote Steinbeck is sharing with the reader the idea that words are most basically just words. The thing that they represent is absorbed by a word and every person can impose their own variant definition of the word, while in nature the thing stays constant in all eyes. He begins naming these random things displaying that they all are unified by the fact that they are words. They are all created to identify and conceptualize objects. An understanding of the word can prevent issues of miscommunication in all lives, and we should realize that the words we use do not always mean the things that we intend for them to represent. This is only one of the many lessons that we can benefit from in Cannery Row.
He goes on in the second chapter, “Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them.” (Steinbeck, 6). He poetically lays out the corruption of desire, as to aesthetically please and challenge his audience. He describes how people become consumed with their desires and, in a sense, lose sight of the present and lose sight of who they are. If we are aware of the corruption that desire can cause, we can avoid it. This second paragraph seems random and out of place, but in my opinion, Steinbeck includes it this early in the novel to show the reader his perspective on the world and to get them on the same mental wavelength as he is before they continue to read on his story of Cannery Row.
One element that makes Steinbeck’s readers so invested in Cannery Row is its complex characters and different perspectives on them. One of these characters is Mack. He is eloquently introduced, “Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment” (Steinbeck, 4). Our first perspective of Mack is through the combined eyes of the Narrator, and the market owner Lee Chong. Steinbeck writes about a conversation between Mack and Lee Chong in which Mack convinces Lee to allow his gang to live in Lee’s unused building (Steinbeck, 4). Through Lee’s eyes we see Mack’s sneaky, opportunistic nature when he, while talking about living in Lee’s building says, “Wouldn’t let anybody break in or hurt anything. Kids might knock out the windows, you know—” (Steinbeck, 5). Was this a threat, or an offer of gratuity? The ambiguity of this statement is part of how Mack gets what he wants. Later we get a second omniscient view of Mack. Prophetically, Steinbeck wrights, “In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row.” (Steinbeck, 6) He defends Mack’s unorthodox behavior metaphorically inferring that he lives just as the rest of the animals of society do, seeking his prey in his distinct delicate way. He avoids the corruptions of material gain order to live a simple life surviving with only enough money to keep him fed, which he gains through miscellaneous jobs like catching frogs for Doc. Steinbeck goes on explaining that “our Father, who art in nature” who created all of the fowl creatures in the world must have great love for the marginalized people of society like Mack (Steinbeck, 6). Although the religious influence is clearly apparent in this passage, I also see a glimpse of Darwinist views. For survival, people all create their own niche in society just like how in evolution, organisms find their niche in an environment. One Niche is no greater or lesser than the next, how we see these niches is the root of our judgments. The Narrator is showing us that Mack’s methods are justified and even admirable, for he only seeks to feed amongst the tigers in the easiest way possible.
Another complex character that we can learn much from is Doc. A marine biologist who is constantly helping others and is loved by all, Doc is truly a great guy. When speaking of Mack he says, “There are your true philosophers. I think” (Steinbeck, 59). He goes on speaking about how they can honestly follow their desires and do as they please without succumbing to anyone else’s will (Steinbeck, 59). Interestingly, Doc, someone who has worked very hard for all that he has, looks upon Mack in admiration, while many others look upon him with disgust. Doc has the ability to withhold immediate judgment and view all of the qualities that a person has. Later in this chapter Doc speaks of something that puzzles him about people; it seemed to him that all of the virtues we admire about people like kindness and understanding are deleterious to growth in our society, while traits we loathe like meanness and self-centeredness are what produces what we see as success (Steinbeck, 60). Although inconvenient this is nevertheless true in order to achieve society’s standards of success people go against what is naturally seen as right. This was not only true in Steinbeck’s time but it is even truer in society today. Today we idolize a man with a cut-throat attitude and outrageous income, while we ostracize a man who preaches free love and simplicity. Doc is very wise and what Steinbeck speaks of, through him, so many years ago, is still relevant today.
Steinbeck created Cannery Row to share his point of view on the world as opposed to just telling a story. There is so much we can learn from this book, and its relevance in modern lives is impressive. It is a critique on both human nature and society at large. The essential, most important thing that I have taken from this book is not to worry too much about all of my desires in the world and that sometimes it’s okay to be like Mack and the boys, because sometimes if you just tirelessly seek success, you might find that all you have to show for it is a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals.
Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. New York: Viking, 1945. Print.