Material Enrichment

Setting | Character Census and Descriptions | Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception


 Setting

Cannery Row/Ocean View Avenue

Monterey, California

Cannery Row is set on what was at the time called Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California during the height of pilchard canning in the 1940s.  Cannery Row was vibrant and profitable prior to WWII before the pilchard population was decimated and the canneries were forced to close.  Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in 1953 in celebration of the novel which made it famous and sparked a new tourism industry in the area.

One of the unique aspects of Cannery Row is the intricate manner in which the setting influences the characters and their relationships.  Steinbeck sets Cannery Row against the Great Tide Pool, where Doc often goes to collect specimens.  As Doc observes, the species in the tide pool live in symbiotic relationships with one another and the health of the total environment is intricately affected by the proper functioning of those individual relationships among the species.

Steinbeck transposes the model of the tide pool onto Cannery Row, thus we are supposed to understand the functioning of the characters and their relationships to each other and the environment as whole in much the same manner.  Each of the characters from Mack and the boys, to Lee Chong, to Dora and the Girls to Doc greatly rely upon one another for survival.  There are many instances in the novel where individuals act altruistically to serve both one another and the community at large—which makes this odd collection of shanties, boilers, storefronts, bars, a whorehouse and a lab a home.

While settings in many novels may serve as a mere backdrop for the action, the characters in Cannery Row cannot be understood apart from their environment;  nor can the environment be understood without observation of the unique and colorful characters that inhabit it.back to top


Character Census and Descriptions

Major Characters

Doc

Based loosely on Steinbeck’s real life friend, Ed Ricketts, Doc is the primary figure of importance on Cannery Row.   He is essential for grounding the other characters’ actions.  A lover of the sciences, nature, art, music and the shortcomings of humanity, Doc is both the empathizer and the sage on Cannery Row.  Steinbeck describes him in these terms: “Doc is rather small, deceptively small, for he is wiry and very strong and when passionate anger comes on him he can be very fierce. He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth” (25). Steinbeck goes on to write that “Doc has the hands of a brain surgeon, and a cool warm mind” (25). While Doc is well-liked by everyone, he is also “a lonely and a set-apart man” (92). Doc serves as the conscience of the story, as nearly all of the plot’s events, whether directly or indirectly, are processed through his viewpoint. Though Doc’s official position in Cannery Row is that of a scientist who runs Western Biological Laboratories, Steinbeck often uses Doc to spout profound observations or truths. Doc also helps the residents of Cannery Row when they need medicine or medical advice.  His friends desire to make him feel appreciated and loved spurs much of the novel’s action.

Dora Flood

The madam and owner of the Bear Flag, Steinbeck describes Dora as “a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses” (15).  Though ostentatious in her appearance, Dora is a bit refined in her character.  Steinbeck explains that “through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, [she] made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind” (15). Though she is a strict madam, she treats all of the prostitutes who work for her fairly and is one of the largest charitable contributors in all of Monterey.

Lee Chong

The owner of a successful grocery in Cannery Row, Lee Chong is described as “round-faced and courteous” (5) and speaks “English without ever using the letter R” (6). He is the owner of the Flophouse where Mack and the boys live, but he never receives and kind of rent payment from them. While he is known for the expensive prices in his grocery store, “[w]hat he did with his money, no one ever knew. Perhaps he didn’t get it. Maybe his wealth was entirely in unpaid bills. But he lived well and he had the respect of all his neighbors” (6). While Lee Chong always tries to come out on top financially, there are many instances in Cannery Row where he puts people’s needs before a profit.

Mack

Mack is the true philosopher on the Row.  Described as “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,” Mack is known, and mostly loved, by everyone on Cannery Row. While people are wary of his true intentions, Mack is good at heart and a hard worker when he wants to be.  He is instrumental in planning the celebrations to honor Doc.

Minor Characters

Ancient Chinaman

He makes his appearance “in the dawn, during that time when the street light has been turned off and the daylight has not come, the old Chinaman crept out from among the piles, crossed the beach and the street” (20). He is a mythical character who embodies many of the mysteries of Cannery Row.  Steinbeck notes, “Some people thought he was God and very old people thought he was Death” (21).

Alfred

Also called Alfy, Alfred is the watchman for the Bear Flag. Steinbeck describes him as a man who “knows what men should be there and what men shouldn’t be there [in the Bear Flag]. He knows more about the home life of Monterey citizens than anyone else in town” (16). Unlike his predecessor William, Alfred is readily accepted Mack and the boys.

Andy

Andy is the only brave boy of Cannery Row whoever “crossed the old Chinaman” (21). Steinbeck writes that after their meeting, Andy “was never able either to explain or to forget”  his encounter.  Any remembers looking into the old man’s eyes that “[that] spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye - one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely country, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains” (21).

“Captain”

The real name of the man that Mack refers to as “Captain” is never revealed in the story. Described as a man who is both “dark and large” (74), the “Captain” discovers Mack and the boys trespassing on his land in an attempt to catch frogs for Doc and asks them to leave. Instead of getting Mack and the boys to leave, the “Captain” ends up feeling indebted to Mack after Mack helps treat an infected tick bite on his dog’s shoulder. The “Captain” not only allows Mack and the boys to catch frogs on his land, but he also gives Mack a pup and provides Mack and the boys with a great deal of whiskey.

Captain’s” Wife

While the “Captain’s” Wife never actually appears in the story, the “Captain” says that his wife “got elected to the Assembly […] and when the Legislature isn’t in session, she’s off making speeches. And when she’s home she’s studying all the time and writing bills” (81-82).  She represents a conventional and repressive lifestyle, which the “Captain” rebels against by getting drunk with Mack and the boys.

Darling

Given to Mack by the “Captain,” Darling is a puppy described as having “a liver-colored nose and a find dark yellow eye” (86). Darling becomes beloved by all of the residents of the Flophouse Grill and is a catalyst in helping Mack and the boys get over the depression of their first failed attempt to give Doc a party.

Dora’s Girls

As prostitutes at the Bear Flag, “Dora’s girls are well trained and pleasant. They never speak to a man on the street although he may have been in the night before” (17). Unlike many other novels about prostitutes, Steinbeck portrays the life of the girls who work in the Bear Flag as being pleasant and good-humored. All of the women seem to be kind-hearted, going so far as to stay “with the sleeping children [until they] dropped to sleep in their chairs” (91) during the outbreak of Influenza in Cannery Row.

Eddie

One of Mack’s “boys,” Eddie holds the esteemed position of substitute bartender at La Ida’s.  He collects “anything left in the glasses” from customers at the bar and pours the contents into “the winning jug,” a pleasant source of refreshment for members of the Palace Flophouse (38).  

Frankie

A prime example of social ostracism in Cannery Row, Steinbeck writes that Frankie “drifted about like a small cloud. He was always at the edges of groups. No one noticed him or paid any attention to him” (158). Accepted only by Doc, “Frankie began coming to Western Biological when he was eleven years old” (51). Despite his outward appearance - “[h]e had very large eyes and his hair was a dark wiry dirty shock” (51) - Steinbeck describes him as “a nice, good, kind boy” (53). However, Frankie’s home life is unstable and abusive, which leads him to have what could be considered an unhealthy love for Doc.

Gay

Known for a “wife who hits him pretty bad” (31), and described as “the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode” (59), Gay becomes a resident of the Flophouse Grill for a short amount of time until he is arrested for being rowdy after a drunken party.

Hazel

Another of the primary inhabitants of the Palace Flophouse, Steinbeck describes Hazel as “twenty-six - dark-haired and pleasant, strong, willing, and loyal” (29).  He may also be a little “touched.” Steinbeck writes that Hazel “did four years in grammar school, four years in reform school, and didn’t learn anything in either place […] [h]e came out of reform school as innocent of viciousness as he was of fractions and long division” (29). The unique thing about Hazel is that he “loved to hear conversation but he didn’t listen to words-just to the tone of conversation” (29). Hazel often helps Doc collect specimens for Western Biological.  

Henri

Described as “swarthy and morose” (123) Henri claims to be a French painter despite the fact that he is “not French” and “not really a painter” (122). He lives on a boat that he never wants to finish because “he’s afraid of the ocean” (33). He is considered one of Mack’s boys due to his flippant nature.  He lives in the Flophouse for brief periods of time.back to top


 Plot Synopsis

Cannery Row opens at daybreak on the Row when “all over the town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work” (1-2). Immediately showing the class distinction that exists within the Row, Steinbeck also notes that “shining cars bring the upper classes down: superintendants, accountants, owners who disappear into offices” (2).

Shortly after the opening of the novel, Steinbeck describes Lee Chong, the owner of Lee Chong’s Grocery. Steinbeck writes, though Lee Chong’s Grocery was “not a model of neatness, [it was] a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and to be happy” (5). Though Lee Chong puts on an external front of being profit-driven, his actions show that he ultimately places more value on people than money. Through Lee Chong, Steinbeck illustrates that people are not always what they appear to be.

After Lee Chong, Steinbeck introduces Mack and the boys, “a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment” (9). Mack and the boys are known throughout the Row as being good-hearted but willing to take advantage of people and situations for their benefit.  Steinbeck uses Mack and the boys to critique conventional society.  While conventionality seeks to “destroy everything loveable about them,” the boys refuse to live according to the dictates of polite society to become what the world considers successful (14). As Doc observes later in the story, “[a]ll of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean” (129).  Mack and the boys, who strangely exist on the fringe, serve to demonstrate that what is considered normal or desirable by society’s standards is not always right or good.

After introducing Dora Flood, the Madame of the Bear Flag who is “a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses” (15), Steinbeck introduces Doc, the backbone of Cannery Row and a character based loosely off of his close friend, Ed Ricketts. Doc is, as Steinbeck describes, a “lonely and set-apart man” (92) who is held in the highest regard by those around him. The owner and proprietor of Western Biological, a laboratory where “[y]ou can order anything living […] and sooner or later you will get it” (23), Doc is one of the few individuals living in Cannery Row who is educated and cultured. But Doc is loved by all and looks down on no one, no matter who they are, what they may have done, or where they may have come from. He is always there to help, whether it is through giving advice or through providing medicine or other medical services. Doc’s seemingly selfless nature inspires Mack and the boys to try and give Doc a party as a thank you for everything that he has done for the inhabitants of Cannery Row. Mack and the boys’ attempt to throw Doc a party inspires much of the hilarious action of the plot.

Before Mack and the boys are able to give Doc what they consider a proper party, they need money. Even though some of Mack’s boys will take up odd jobs, none are quick to commit to a long-term job to provide funding for Doc’s party. As an alternative, Mack and the boys offer to capture frogs for Western Biological, which are always in short supply, in an effort to raise funds. While Doc agrees to pay them if they do manage to capture some frogs, he refuses to let them use his car or give them money upfront, not only because he was leaving for La Jolla that night, but also because “Doc’s dealings with Mack and the boys had always been interesting but rarely had they been profitable” (48). Undaunted in their quest to provide Doc with the party that they feel he deserves, Mack and the boys go to Lee Chong asking if they can borrow his Ford Model T. While Lee Chong initially refuses, he eventually agrees to let them use the truck if they fix it for him. One of Mack’s boys, Gay, “was an inspired mechanic” (57) and was able to get the Ford Model T running.

Mack and the boys leave to find frogs the next day, just as Doc leaves to go to La Jolla to capture some octopi. Both experience trips much unlike what they had anticipated. While Mack and the boys are able to capture some frogs on private property after Mack helps a man that he calls “Captain” take care of his sick dog, “Nola” (76), Doc has quite a different experience. While Doc captures the octopi that he travelled to collect, he finds something startling in the ocean. Floating in the water beneath the algae “[a] girl’s face looked up at [Doc], a pretty pale girl with dark hair. The eyes were open and clean and the face was firm and the hair washed gently about her head” (101). The deceased young girl floating in the water is just one of the punctuations of life and death that Steinbeck interjects into the underlying narrative of Cannery Row. Through these interjections, Steinbeck shows the fragility of life and the finality of death.

Despite capturing the frogs, Mack and the boys never collected payment for them. Before Mack and the boys were able to turn the frogs into Doc for reimbursement, they attempt to throw Doc’s party as a surprise for when he returns home from La Jolla. While Mack and the boys wait for Doc to return, they end up becoming so drunk that they allow all of the frogs to escape by accident. Through one end of the packing case in which the frogs were being held, “a frog hopped and sat feeling the air for danger and then another joined him” (115) and for “quite a while Cannery Row crawled with frogs - was overrun with frogs” (116). After the attempted party, Doc’s home and the laboratory part of Western Biological was left in shambles and “the lights blazed in the laboratory. The front door hung sideways by one hinge. The floor was littered with broken glass. Phonograph records, some broken, some only nicked, were strewn about” (115).  

When Doc, a usually level-headed individual, comes home to find the wreckage that was once his home, his “eyes shone with a red animal rage” and his “small hard fist whipped out and splashed against Mack’s mouth” (118). After collecting himself, Doc apologizes to Mack; but as Mack tells Doc from beneath his broken lip, “I got it coming” (119). It is in the stillness of this moment that Steinbeck reveals another layer of Mack to his readers; a side that is both serious and full of regrets. Mack tells Doc honestly, “[i]t don’t do no good to say I’m sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain’t no new thing. It’s always like this” (120). Mack then goes on to tell Doc how he once had a wife, but she left because “[s]he couldn’t stand it anymore” and how he never brought her any good, only hurt (120). He then goes on to promise Doc that he and the boys will pay for the damage that they caused to Western Biological. Before Mack is able to go too deeply into his apology speech, Doc stops him abruptly and says, “[n]o you won’t, Mack. […] You’ll think about it and it’ll worry you for quite a long time, but you won’t pay for it.” He continues, “Don’t say you’ll pay for it. That will just keep you uneasy. It might be two or three years before you forgot about it and felt entirely easy again. And you wouldn’t pay for it anyways” (121). After realizing that Doc is right, Mack quietly exits the laboratory.

After the failed party, circumstances for Mack, the boys, and the other citizens inhabiting Cannery Row start to sour. The citizens become listless, as if under a cloud. But it is when Darling, the beloved pup and unofficial mascot of the Flophouse Grill has a close brush with death, that Mack and the boys are forced to change. Shortly after Mack and the boys begin to change, “all of Cannery Row and probably all of Monterey felt that a change had come” (143). Steinbeck goes on to write that “a kind of gladness began to penetrate into the Row and to spread out from there” (143). With the new joy that began to take over Cannery Row, the plan to throw Doc another party, a proper party, began to grow steadily. According to Steinbeck, people knew about the party but “let it grow gradually like a pupa in the cocoons of their imaginations” (45).

Throwing Doc a party becomes a community effort for the people of Cannery Row, and each person makes the effort to give Doc a gift. Mack and the boys decide to give Doc the gift of twenty-one cats, always in short supply for Western Biological, and Dora’ girls decide to make Doc “a patchwork quilt, a beautiful thing of silk” comprised of pieces from “underclothing and evening dresses” (153). Through the common goal of Doc’s party, Steinbeck shows the true nature of the people inhabiting Cannery Row. This ties into what Steinbeck writes at the beginning of the book when describing what an outsider might have to say about those inhabiting Cannery Row: “[i]t’s inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing” (1). Doc’s party reinforces the deep goodness that resides within each person who is a part of the Cannery Row community.

Despite the community’s best efforts to keep the party secret, Doc inevitably finds out. Instead of calling the party off, Doc prepares himself, and the laboratory, for the oncoming party. In an attempt to protect his most prized possessions, Doc carries his best records into his back room and then moves “every bit of equipment that was breakable back there too” (156). Knowing that his guests would also be hungry, Doc  orders “fifteen pounds of steaks, ten pounds of tomatoes, twelve heads of lettuce, six loaves of bread, a big jar of peanut butter and one of strawberry jam, five gallons of wine and four quarts of a good substantial but not distinguished whiskey” (156). 

When the night of the party finally arrives, it starts out in a mellow way with Mack and the boys making a small speech about how they collected twenty-one tom cats as a gift for Doc. Other guests from the Row begin to trickle in slowly, also accompanied with gifts that they have brought for Doc. Henri the painter brings Doc a pincushion, and Lee Chong comes bearing gifts of China lily bulbs and firecrackers. While “[s]omeone ate the lily bulbs by eleven o’clock […] the firecrackers lasted longer” (169). The party was filled with life, from Eddie - one of Mack’s boys - who “went into the office and did a tap dance” to Mack, who “was personally taking care of the phonograph” (170). Even Doc was “feeling better and better” as the night wore on (170).

When the party finally comes to a close, Doc reads a mournful poem that causes all of the guests to remember bittersweet memories. The party begins to slip away “in sweet sadness” until “a tramp of feet on the stairs” belonging to a group of men looking for a “whore house” interrupts the melancholy (173). After the fight, the partygoers feel joyful and content. The next morning, “[i]t was very quiet in the street. No one went by at all. Doc heard music in his head - violas and cellos” (179). While Doc begins to clean up the mess from the party, he pauses to read the same poem that had evoked such emotion from his guests the night before. After he reads it, Doc is overcome with emotion, and Steinbeck ends the book with Doc in a blissful state of being--living in a perfect moment where time has stopped and the storm is at bay. In this moment, Steinbeck once again shows his readers the precious, but fragile nature of life and how the good would not be so valuable if not surrounded by the inevitable conflict that accompanies everyday life.back to top


 Critical Reception

First published in 1945 by Viking Press Inc., Cannery Row is one of John Steinbeck’s most beloved works. While Cannery Row is classified as a work of fiction, it is loosely based off of Ocean View Avenue, a street of canneries located near Steinbeck’s childhood home in Monterey, California. After the stellar success of Cannery Row, “Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in 1953” and has grown into a successful commercial district, due largely to the fame that Cannery Row brought to the area (Blake 8).

To create the characters in Cannery Row Steinbeck also drew heavy inspiration from individuals that he encountered in Ocean View Avenue. The most notable character, and the one to most closely resemble the real life individual they were based off of is Doc, the “kind, bohemian hero” of Cannery Row (Levy 2). Doc is based off of Steinbeck’s close, real life friend Ed Ricketts, a notable marine biologist during his life and whose work is still widely respected today. According to NPR’s Renee Montagne, “[s]ome of the most vivid fodder for the novel came from Ed Ricketts and his biology lab” (12).  According to American Scientist Magazine, “Ricketts's lab on Cannery Row [what was then Ocean View Avenue] was a magnet for scientists, writers, prostitutes, musicians, artists, academics and bums” (Robinson 4). Other characters such as Lee Chong, Dora Flood, and Mack were based off of the real life Ocean View Avenue residents “Won Yee, Flora Woods, […] and Grant McLean, respectfully” (Blake 5).

Cannery Row was met with overwhelming enthusiasm from both critics and the public. In fact, “[s]ome readers found the book so compelling that they searched out Ricketts’ commercial laboratory on the Monterey, California, waterfront […] hoping to walk into the sweet fable Steinbeck had built around his closest friend” (Levy 2). Literary critic Edmund Wilson, who was often hard on Steinbeck, wrote, “I believe that it is the one [Steinbeck book] I have most enjoyed reading" (Stephan 1). Unlike Wilson, some critics felt that Cannery Row did not match the importance of The Grapes of Wrath. However, Cannery Row was still seen as an important work to add to the canon of American literature because it marked an important transition into what is now known as environmental literature. According to an interview with Dr. Brian Railsback - a scholar from Western South Carolina University - in Cannery Row “Steinbeck highlights the importance of keying into everything. From quantum theory to universal cosmology, he stresses the integration of all.” Railsback also claims that “[i]n Cannery Row, he [Steinbeck] uses this overarching metaphor of life as a tidepool…it’s one of the earliest literary themes based on a holistic environmental perspective. Ecocriticism needs to catch up with Steinbeck” (Masters 8).

It is also important to note that Cannery Row is the first novel that Steinbeck completed that did not include a heavy mark of agrarianism, something that was associated closely with Steinbeck’s most highly favored work, The Grapes of Wrath. According to Richard Astro, “Despite the intensity with which Steinbeck chanted his agrarian idealism in The Grapes of Wrath, the harsh reality of World War II apparently convinced him of the inefficacy of agrarianism as a solution to any serious social and economic problems” (109). Astro goes further, claiming that  “[t]he absence of the agrarian motif in Steinbeck's fiction continues in his first three post-war works, Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and The Wayward Bus (1947), and while each of these works has individual merits, none attains the overall impressiveness of The Grapes of Wrath”  (109).

Despite the critical favoring of The Grapes of Wrath over works such as Cannery Row, there is no question that Cannery Row marked a new kind of writing style not only within the scope of Steinbeck’s works, but in American literature. Cannery Row, like Of Mice and Men is a good example of slice of life literature, defined as “literature [that] is realistic writing that offers a realistic portrayal of life” (Flanagan 1). Even more so than the characters found in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, the characters found in Cannery Row strike readers with a startling realness. Like Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row is about connections. Both books are “evocative, beautifully rendered portraits of ‘outsiders’ struggling to understand their own unique places in the world” (Stephan 1). But unlike Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row shows a community dynamic verses the dynamic of select individuals or a small group. In Cannery Row, the environment of the Row is shaped just as much by the characters inhabiting it as the characters are shaped by the Row.

Just a significant as the impact that Cannery Row has had on the literary landscape is the impact that it has had on the landscape of present day Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Cannery Row is one of the few American novels that can be legitimately credited with shaping a portion of the American landscape. As the City of Monterey said in an official statement in 2004, “[t]he City has determined that its Cannery Row area has both historical and literary significance. While many of its historic structures have decayed or been destroyed, many survive, and Cannery Row remains a destination for people interested in both the actual history of the area and the fictionalized setting of John Steinbeck’s novels” (Huelga 1). There is no question that with such dedicated readers and preservationists that Cannery Row the novel and Cannery Row the place will continue to enrich lives in the years to come.back to top


[Enrichment]:     Setting | Character Census | Plot Synopsis | Reception
[Glossary]:            Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts
[Supplements]:   Activities | Short Answer Questions | Essay Questions| Interactive Quiz
[References]:       Suggestions for Further Reading | Works Cited