Community, Camaraderie, and Conflicts in Cannery Row Essay Example



Cannery Row by John Steinbeck is a beautifully-written novel that evokes profound thoughts in the mind of the reader. With its diverse conglomeration of characters and captivating events, the book is based on the setting and lifestyle of the contrasting characters rather than the plot of the novel. This style of writing allows the reader to understand that Cannery Row and the events taking place there are not meant to be the main focus of the novel, but rather the inhabitants of Cannery Row and their interactions with each other is what Steinbeck wants to place importance upon. John Steinbeck conveys various themes in the novel Cannery Row including the function of community, dependability, and internal conflicts amongst individuals. 

To start, one of the themes found in Cannery Row is the function of a community. As aforementioned, the residents of Cannery Row are all very different when juxtaposed to one another. Cannery Row’s “inhabitants are…’ whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody” (1). When pondering the fact that all these different congregations live in the same small town, one may presume that the groups would clash and that the different perspectives and lifestyles of the various groups would be scrutinized by one another. When Hazel, a member of Mack’s gang, is aiding Doc by collecting starfish from the tidepools, he begins to talk about Henri’s obsession with constructing a boat that never seems to be finished. Hazel proceeds to label Henri as “nuts”. Amused, Doc responds with “‘Nuts?...  Nuts about the same amount we are, only in a different way’.

Such a thing had never occurred to Hazel” (33). This is an accurate depiction of how the distinct groups can be compared. Doc’s perspective could be viewed as educated and wise because out of all the residents of his town, he seems to be the one that is most trusted with difficult tasks. Instead of looking at all the residents and assuming they are crazy or peculiar as Hazel implied, Doc took a different approach and essentially united all the groups by viewing them in a different light. Moreover, one of the major plot points is how Mack has the desire to throw Doc a surprise party to express his gratitude to Doc’s everlasting kindness. He believes that the majority of the Cannery Row residents are beholden to Doc in some way. “Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon-- and his sympathy had to warp...Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc’” (26).

Mack goes around to peoples’ houses and reminds them about the support and favors that Doc has given to them during a personal time of need. All the people relent to Mack’s eloquence and Mack proceeds to ask them all to contribute gifts for Doc’s surprise birthday party. After Mack persuades Dora’s girls or the girls from the Bear Flag Restaurant which is a prostitution house, they decide to make a silk blanket for Doc with different patches. When describing this process Steinbeck writes, “Under the community of effort, those fights and ill feelings that always are present in a whorehouse completely disappeared” (153). In the midst of this quote, the whorehouse is utilized as a symbol of a society or community. Although bickering and disagreements are inevitable in any group of people, the prospect of achieving a goal together is successful in uniting people and ceasing the usual disputes. 

Furthermore, Steinbeck also implies the theme of dependability. All the main characters in the novel possess crucial roles that change the dynamics and outcomes of certain events. One of the characters is Lee Chong. Lee holds his role in the novel as a grocery store clerk. His grocery store is very important and visited by many people because “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...you could work out combinations to fit almost any mood” (1). This portrays that his grocery store is well-stocked throughout any time during the year. “There was one other unorthodoxy in Lee’s way of doing business. He never had a sale, never reduced a price and never remaindered.

An article that cost thirty cents in 1912 still was thirty cents although mice and moths might seem to have reduced its value. But there was no question about it” (112). This grocery store is utilized as a symbol of dependability and stability. No matter the season, one can still find something in the store to satisfy one’s demands. Although this might seem strict or even aggravating to some, Lee Chong and his methods are meant to be seen as a source of unwavering support and resources during any time of need. In addition to the grocery store, Steinbeck also conveys the theme of dependability through Doc.

When Cannery Row was overtaken with the influenza virus, all the residents were scrambling around to seek medical attention for themselves or their victimized relatives. “Now Doc of the Western Biological Laboratory had no right to practice medicine. It was not his fault that everyone in the Row came to him for medical advice...When a case got really out of hand he phoned a local doctor and sometimes one came if it seemed to be an emergency. But to the families it was all emergency. Doc didn’t get much sleep” (90). Even though Doc had to deal with his own sacrifices like lack of sleep, he still went out to assist other families and friends during challenging times. Due to Doc’s amiable and helpful attitude, the residents of Cannery Row all revered him. 

Lastly, John Steinbeck also conveys the theme of internal conflicts or struggles that the main characters possess. One of the most impactful characters in the novel is Mack. Although Mack isn’t as admired in the community contrasting to Doc, he is still respected and holds a crucial role. Throughout the novel, Mack appears to always be a stable and carefree individual that blocks out any scrutiny from outsiders. He does things out of his and his group’s best interest rather than to please others.

This whole image crashes down when his surprise party for Doc goes haywire and Doc is livid at the damage Mack caused to Doc’s laboratory. After Doc releases his anger towards Mack by repeatedly striking him on the head, all of Mack’s concealed emotions and thoughts about himself pour out with his sincere apology. “It doesn't do any good to say I’m sorry. I've been sorry all my life. This ain’t no new thing. It’s always like this...If I did a good thing it got poisoned up some way...same thing ever’ place ‘till I just got clowning. I don’t do nothin’ but clown no more” (120). This heartfelt apology comes flooding out of Mack like a deluge which causes Doc to listen attentively. Though everyone in the community viewed Mack as carefree and reckless, the way he expresses his hidden thoughts renders the message that even the individuals that seem the most composed hold insecurity and regret within themselves. 

To conclude, John Steinbeck utilizes the dynamic characters in Cannery Row to convey various important themes. The characters, settings, and plot are all used to display the copious themes while writing the book in an intriguing method. Concealed in the midst of the meaningful lines of the novel are the themes of community, reliability, and personal regrets of individuals.