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Overview of Cannery Row: A Beloved Comedy about a Place and its People

Cannery Row book cover

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) opens with the following declaration: “Cannery Row in Monterey California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream” (1). Set in a fictionalized version of Cannery Row in Monterey, California, Steinbeck uses his cast of homeless people, drunks and prostitutes to express profound truths about humanity. From Doc, the backbone of Cannery Row, to Mack and the boys, who are described as “the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey,” (14) Steinbeck reveals the one thing that each individual needs: acceptance. The underlying motivations of every character in Cannery Row are somehow directed by their desire to love, or be loved.

Ironically, Steinbeck contrasts the superficial cheeriness of those inhabiting Cannery Row with the dark reality of their situation. Whether it is pretending to be someone they are not, as in the case of Henri the painter, or being forced to the brink of insanity like Mrs. Talbot, Steinbeck shows a world of lonely, wounded individuals. And as Steinbeck notes, “there are two possible reactions to social ostracism - either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things” (128). Some characters in Cannery Row are able to successfully rise above the “wall of evil” while others fall through the cracks (135). Despite the veiled negativity and surprising crassness of the novel, however, Steinbeck manages to create an endearing and lovable cast of characters that has remained very popular with the reading public for over 60 years.

Cannery Row was first published by The Viking Press in 1945. Cannery Row was also released as a film in 1982.