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.