Cannery Row - Glossary of Key Terms and Concepts

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. 

Social Ostracism

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.