This novel takes place in the eponymous Cannery Row, a place made up of 'junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses' (1). Although there is a narrative trajectory--the desire of Mack and the other boys living at the Palace Flophouse to throw a party for their friend and benefactor, Doc--the plot of this novel is really that plot of land Steinbeck describes so well.


John Steinbeck's novel might initially seem folksy and sentimental, a series of capers (some madcap and some tragic) starring a ragtag bunch of bums, outcasts and social detritus collecting in the slums of Cannery Row. But this would be to ignore the rich vein of bitterness and sadness running through the novel: there are two suicides in the first four chapters and a third described later; Doc is horrified--we'd say traumatized now--to discover a corpse under the seaweed when he is searching for octopi; intoxication and mendacity mark the friendships as much as companionship and camaraderie; and Steinbeck's vicious sense of humour snaps at the heels of each chapter.

Although Steinbeck relishes the eccentricities of the characters of Cannery Row, they are transitory inhabitants of a place that is greater than them: the penultimate chapter is a stunningly disheartening description of a gopher who tries to create a burrow in Cannery Row and is violently chased away by another gopher, a vicious paean to nature and a reminder that sense of place is ephemeral.

The book is a masterpiece of carefully measured improvisation, like the characters themselves, who seem spontaneous but are firmly stuck in the rut at the bottom of the social ladder. Mack and the boys and the other residents of Cannery Row tell each other stories that smack of impromptu recitation but are old and oft-repeated. The characters seem to have everything they need, because they make do with what they have--and if they don't have it, they get it however they can.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when they require medical help, especially when the influenza epidemic breaks out: because the 'medical profession was very busy, and besides, Cannery Row was not considered a very good financial risk' (97), the local marine biologist steps up to become their doctor and Dora and 'the girls' of the "Bear Flag" (the local brothel and bar) become the nurses.

Although Steinbeck is by no means always the optimist, the novel suggests that if Doc is going to be their doctor, and Dora and her girls the nurses, that can't be all bad.


First published: 1945



Place Published

New York



Page Count