Themes in Cannery Row
Cannery Row is filled with a cast of lonely characters, and Steinbeck impresses upon his audience that their loneliness has been caused either by some secret of their past, or because of social ostracism. Cannery Rowis ultimately a place filled with lonely, imperfect people who come together and create a community. It is only Doc, who even “[i]n a group […] seemed always alone” that is doesn’t fully escape the feeling on loneliness.
In Cannery Row, Steinbeck creates great respect for nature, specifically through the character of Doc, who spends many quiet days at the ocean collecting specimens for Western Biological and reveling in the raw beauty of creation. Steinbeck also plays on the traditional Lord’s Prayer, replacing the heaven with “Our Father who art in nature” (14), to show that nature is not something simple but all encompassing.
As Doc discovers early on in his life, truth “could be a very dangerous mistress” (96). Doc learns that people do not want to hear the truth, and that “[y]ou couldn’t say you wore a beard because you liked a beard. People didn’t like you for telling the truth. You had to say you had a scar so you couldn’t shave” (95). Through this observation, Steinbeck shows the ugly side of human nature: the side that would rather tell lies and believe lies than tell the truth and believe the truth.
In Cannery Row, Steinbeck shows that social ostracism can lead either to great strength, or great sadness. In the case of Mack and the boys, they overcame their time of being ostracized in the Row to become better people. For people like Frankie, who “drifted about like a small cloud.” (158) and William, the ill-fated former bouncer at the Bear Flag, their reaction to social ostracism lead to destruction. But the point that Steinbeck is trying to make is that people need each other; they need acceptance by their peers, to know that they are not completely alone in the world.
Abacus (6): A counting device that was used before the creation of calculators.
Belles-lettres (64): A type of literary work, one that is usually expressed in essays, poetry and deals with intellectual subject matter.
Beret (123): A soft hat that has no bill and no brim. Often worn in the military.
Billings, Josh (61): The pen name for Henry Wheeler Shaw, a respected humorist of the 20th century.
Black Marigolds (171): A poem written by E. Powys Mathers.
Bloomer League (140): A baseball league that was comprised primarily of women that started during the early 1900’s.
Carborundum (90): Another name for silicon carbide, which is the sole chemical compound of carbon and silicon.
Chalmers (154): A type of car that was created and sold during the early 1900’s.
Chorea (144): An illness that causes involuntary movement in various parts of the body.
Collier’s (magazine) ( 139): Founded by Peter Collier, Collier’s Once a Week debuted in 1888 and went on to become one of America’s most popular magazines.
Count Basie (114): A prominent figure during the swing period of jazz, as well as a good example of big band style.
Dadaist (122): An artist or a writer who practiced Dada, a movement that rejected traditional art and contemporary culture.
Daisy Air Rifle (104): A brand of rifle created by the historic Daisy company.
Distemper(134): An infection in dogs that can be diagnosed through symptoms of a runny nose, poor appetite, and coughing.
“Fighting Bob” (111): A reference to Robert M. La Follette Sr. fight against Washington and other politicians who choose to enter WWI.
Ford Model T (61, 106): A truck built by Ford Motor Company.
The Great Depression (16): A result of the 1929 stock market crash, which left many Americans without money or jobs.
Great Fugue (163): A musical work by Beethoven.
Goiter (97): The enlargement of the thyroid gland.
Influenza (89): An infection more commonly known as the “flu.” It was responsible for claiming the lives of millions worldwide before effective vaccines were created to treat and prevent it.
Knights of Columbus (130): A Catholic organization that seeks to aid family members within the organization who are in financial need.
Knights Templar (130): A group of knights who originated in Jerusalem during the year of 1119. Though shrouded in mystery, the Knights Templar are believed to have protected the Holy Grail.
Laudanum (107): A mixture of opium and derivatives of alcohol.
Masonic Lodge (104): A meeting place for Freemasons or former Freemasons.
Mastoids (89): The skull bones that house the ear.
Mastoiditis (90): Mastoiditis occurs when an infection in the middle ear spreads to the mastoids and then causes an infection that produces fevers and headaches.
Monteverdi’s Hor ch’ el Ciel e la Terra (119): A song by the Italian musician Claudio Monteverdi, who lived in the 16th and 17th century.
Novena (88): A prayer that is said over a nine-day period that requests a special favor from God.
“Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915” (111): The 1915 Worlds Fair that was held in San Francisco, California.
Petrarch (119): A famous writer of the 14th century who is credited with being the founding father of Humanism.
Point Lobos (64): A state reserve on the central coast of California in Monterey County.
Prohibition (72): A move by the United States government to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed in the United States through limiting individuals and businesses who sold alcohol.
Purse Seiners (67): Fishing boats equipped to fish with a purse seine, a kind of fishing net.
“Remember the Maine” (111): The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, which was the catalyst for the Spanish-American War.
Rimbaud (124): A 19th century French writer who is most remembered for his contribution to the symbolist movement.
Robert Louis Stevenson (61): A Scottish author who is most famous for works such as Treasure Island and The Black Arrow.
Saturnalia (112): The week of December 17th-23rd during which a feast was held by the Romans to celebrate their dedication Saturn’s temple.
Scarlatti (129): Last name of Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, an Italian harpsichordist born during the 17th century who later moved to Spain and continued to practice music there.
Sculpin (135): A kind of small fish.
St. Francis (of Assisi) (144): A saint in the Catholic church who is known for his great love for God, animals, and the sick.
Treasure Island (64): A book written by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Vaudeville (109): A form of American variety entertainment that marked the beginning of popular entertainment as a lucrative business.
“White Sale” (103): A sale either of household goods, or when a store drastically reduces their prices for a short period of time.
[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