“Cannery Row” is a novel written by the famous American author John Steinbeck and published in 1945. The novel became so successful that the area that Cannery Row was based on in Monterey California was later renamed Cannery Row in it honors. The novel was adapted into a film in 1982 starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger and a stage adaptation in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the book’s publishing.
It has been performed on stage many more times and recently as 2014.
In 1954, almost ten years after it’s publishing, Steinbeck wrote a sequel to Cannery Row titled, “Sweet Thursday” and the film of the first book incorporates many plot points from the second to finish off the story.
The novel is set during the Great Depression in Monterey, California. Cannery Row is a street in Monterey that gets its name from the lines of sardine canneries on either side of it. The novel does not have much of a plot, rather it was intended to capture the feeling and lives of the people of the street and tell a small story about them. Because of this, it often interrupts the narrative in order to offer short vignettes about other people in the town that have nothing to do with the main plot.
The tone of the book is often characterized by violence, suicides, and the cruelty of the world we live in. However, the main plot revolves around the idea of a group of young toughs to throw a party for a doctor that works in a research lab on the street. Doc, as he is called, is well loved by the community and the boys feel indebted to him for one reason or another as many in the town do. After many tribulations of their own making, the boys manage to throw the doctor a successful party that most of the street attends and the doctor is very pleased with his friends.
Since the focus of Cannery Row is more about the characters and the scene that Steinbeck is setting than the plot, the first chapter deals largely with setting up the mood of the novel. Cannery Row is set in Monterey, California. Steinbeck describes it as: “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”. Cannery Row he says, is: “the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses”. Steinbeck says that he intends to let the stories of this inauspicious place tell themselves and “open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves”.
After this opening, the novel begins properly with a description of Lee Chong’s grocery store, a small shop where you can buy anything except for female companionship, which can be found at the brothel across the street. Lee Chong runs the store, and it has become an important part of the community due to his cleverness and the way he sees to his customer’s needs. He is also known for being generous with credit and only cutting someone off when their debt becomes completely out of hand.
At one point, a customer named Horace Abbeville had racked up a large debt and offered to sign over a large fish-meal storage container he owned in order to cover it. Lee Chong agreed and after he was free of his debt, Horace went home and shot himself. This created a deep sense of guilt within Lee Chong, who now does his best to take care of the family that Abbeville left behind. However, the fish-meal shack was a problem for Mr. Chong as he did not know what to do with it. One day, Mack, the adult leader of a small teenage gang offered to pay to live in the shack with his friends. Mr. Chong agreed, although he doubts that he will ever see rent and knows that the boys will probably damage the shack. But the boys provide good protection for the store and stop stealing things from it out of gratitude. The shack has sarcastically become known around town as the Palace Flophouse and Grill.
Across the street, the Western Biological Laboratory is run by a man called Doc who the gang also likes. They begin to contemplate doing something nice for Doc. The brothel across a vacant lot is called “Dora’s brothel” and it is run by a large woman with orange hair and a taste that leans toward flamboyant clothes. She takes good care of her girls and makes lots of charitable contributions around town. She was a force for good in the town during the hard times of the Great Depression and fed many of the families around town.
The narrative interrupts itself for the first of many times to broadly sketch out the stories of two other people in town, the old bouncer at the brothel, who was called William. William stabbed himself to death in a fit of despair one day. The other person is a Chinese man whom no one in town knows personally. He walks through Cannery Row before dark every evening and then again at dawn to his work on the piers. The people of Cannery Row fear him as he is said to have once stared a boy down until the boy passed out.
Western Biological Laboratory is a supply house for animal studies. The laboratory can get their hands on almost any animal, living or dead and the building is full of equipment and strange smells. Doc is strange man, himself and a regular bundle of contradictions. He is a gentle man and yet a violet one. He enjoys the ocean but hates the rain. In one of the books more famous lines, it is said that Doc “has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another”. Doc is a lover of art and nature who has introduced the citizens of Cannery Row to classical music and literature. Doc loves talking to people and many of the citizens of the Row like him and feel indebted to him in one way or another. A young boy named Hazel helps Doc out in the lab. Hazel is somewhat of a troublemaker with a tendency toward rambling talk that irritates Doc but he is good at collecting specimens.
Back at the Palace Flophouse and Grill, the boys sit around and discuss doing something nice for Doc. The most popular boy who lives in the shack, a boy named Eddie, works at a local bar an brings back the remnants of leftover drinks that he collects in a jar. The boys drink from one of the jars while talking about Doc. It is decided that they want to have a party for Doc and that they will collect frogs for Doc at 5 cents a piece to pay for the provisions for the party. The boys tells Hazel about the idea for the party. Mack goes to talk Doc into paying them for frogs and, although he is suspicious, he agrees to the deal. Mack asks Doc for gas money to get to Carmel Valley, where the frogs are plentiful and decides that he will take Lee Chong’s truck.
At Western Biological, there is a mentally handicapped boy named Frankie who more or less lives in the building. He lived with his mother for long time, but her job as a prostitute meant that her clients did not like having Frankie around. Many of the men, whom Frankie refers to as his “uncles” either bribed or beat him to get him to go away. He eventually wandered to the lab where Doc took him in and gave him a haircut and clothes. He tried to teach Frankie to sort specimens or do chores, but the boys handicaps where too much for that type of work. However, Frankie loves Doc and is absolutely loyal to him. At a party in the lab he once accidentally spilled a tray of beers on a woman while trying to help out and the incident shamed him so much that he hid in the basement for a while afterward.
Back on the frog expedition, Mack, and the boys discover that Lee Chong’s truck is broken down and offer to fix it for him if they can take it to Carmel Valley. He agrees and one of the boys named Gay, who is a wiz with cars, fixes the truck and the boys take off to Carmel Valley. They decide that they are going to steal any food that they need from farms on the way.
Halfway to the valley, the truck breaks down again and Gay reveals that they don’t have the part to fix it. Eddie decides to steal the part from a local construction site and the boys fix the truck and set off again, finally making it to Carmel Valley. They camp in the valley and eat dinner together. While they are eating a man approaches with a dog. The man owns the land that they are camped on and is about to kick them off when Mack charms him and tells him that they are collecting frogs for cancer research. The man tells Mack about the dog and says that it has been recently lamed but just gave birth to a litter of puppies. Mack offers to care for the dog himself. The man tells them that he has a pond full of frogs and shows them up to his house.
Hazel, who tagged along for the trip, tells one of the boys that he is impressed by Mack’s charm and that the boy could be president if he wanted to. One of the boys remarks that being president probably wouldn’t be any fun.
Mack and the boys go up to the man’s farmhouse, and the man offers Mack one of the puppies to keep. Mack joyfully agrees. The man, who the boys begin calling, ‘The Captain’ offers them a drink before they go out to catch the frogs. The boys pretend reluctance but agree when the Captain brings out a barrel full of high-quality whiskey. The group gets very drunk, and the process of catching frogs becomes twice as difficult for them. However, they do manage to catch enough and return to the Captain’s house, victorious. The Captain passes out that night with his house trashed. Mack at the boys takes a puppy and one of the jugs of whiskey and leave.
Back at Cannery Row, Dora, and her brothel have been having a tough few weeks. A lot of her girls have been getting sick as a flu epidemic has hit the town. Doc has been treating many of the town’s sick and convinces Dora to let her girls work as nurse maids to needy families.
After the flu epidemic passes, Doc takes a trip to La Jolla to recover some baby octopi specimens. Unfortunately, he has to go alone, as the boys and Hazel are still off collecting frogs. Doc collects a number of specimens and has a good morning until he sees something white beneath the seaweed when the tide recedes. Moving the seaweed aside, he sees the dead body of a young woman. Badly shaken, Doc returns to the shore and asks a passer-by where the nearest police station is. However, he is so disturbed that he asks the man to report the dead girl for him and leaves.
Mack and his gang return from frog-catching and go to see Mr. Chong. Knowing that the grocer is indebted to Doc, they tell him that they will trade him frogs for party supplies. The puppy quickly becomes a treasured companion to the boys who call her Darling. Being the only one of the boys who can cook, Eddie decides that he will make the cake for the party. The boys decide to start the party before Doc returns so that it will be a surprise when he enters the lab. Unfortunately, the party quickly becomes out of hand and fights break out while the lab is completely trashed. One party-goer is pushed into the crate containing the frogs and accidentally sets them all free.
The next morning, Doc returns to find that his lab has been trashed. He confronts Mack who then tries to apologize. Doc strikes the boy, and Mack agrees that he deserved it. The men soon have a beer and talk, and Mack explains the intent of the party, causing Doc to forgive him. He tells him not to worry about the broken equipment.
The town, however, does not forgive the boys. The people of Cannery Row accuse them of stealing and breaking into the lab, and some of them even want to fight the boys for Doc. The boys begin feeling blue that their party idea went so wrong. They begin working toward becoming respectable and come closer than ever to being productive citizens.
Bad omens abound around Cannery Row. Dora’s bouncer accidentally breaks a man’s back while throwing him out. A storm rolls in and beaches fishing boats. A man loses his leg after falling asleep on the train tracks. Dora’s brothel is overwhelmed by campaigning women and shut down. Darling begins to get ill and waste away. With nowhere else to turn, the boys take Darling to Doc and he instructs them on how best to care for her. She soon becomes better and just like that things begin to improve all around the Row. Dora reopens her brothel, Lee Chong forgives the boys for their debt before the party, and Mack and the gang begin to feel better. They decide that they want to do something else for Doc that will end up better. Dora suggests another party but one that they actually invite Doc to. The boys agree to this and begin planning.
The narrative interrupts itself again to tell of another citizen of the town, Mary Talbot. Mary is a local woman who is descended from a woman that was burned for witchcraft hundreds of years earlier. Mary is very beautiful but not very intelligent and her husband is a unsuccessful writer. Mary throws many small parties in order to keep herself cheerful, including parties for the neighborhood cats. One day, while collecting cats for a party, Mary finds out of the neighbors cats has killed a mouse. Mary is horrified at this and calls for her husband who kills the mouse and chases the cat off. In order to calm her, her husband participates in her tea party. Later that year Mary discovers that she is pregnant and the town marvels at how much fun her child is going to have.
Back at Western Biological, Hazel reveals that Doc’s birthday is coming up and the gang agrees to throw him a birthday party. All around town people prepare for Doc’s party. The girls at the brothel make a quilt replace the old blanket that he takes with him on collecting trips. Lee Chong selects some flower bulbs and some firecrackers. Mack and the boys begin storing up liquor. Doc figures out that a party is being planned for him and decides to hide away the valuables and breakables in the lab and lay out some food and drink of his own.
Frankie hears about the party as well and wants to give Doc a beautiful onyx clock that he has seen at the local jewelers. Frankie cannot afford the clock and breaks into the jewelers to steal it. He is caught and Doc is called to the police station to bail him out. Doc argues that they release Frankie but the police chief thinks they should use the charge to put Frankie away since he has almost reached puberty and they worry that he will soon become sexually aggressive.
Doc asks Frankie why he tried to steal the clock and Frankie answers that he loves him. This overwhelms Doc who runs out of the station and down to the beach. The day of the party arrives and Doc waits in his lab for the guests to start arriving as well. Mack and his gang try to decide what time to go over to the lab. The bouncer at Dora’s, Alfred, is in a bad mood because Dora has told him that he is to work all night and thus, cannot attend the party. However, Dora sees his disappointment and agrees to let him go to the party later on in the night. Mack and the boys finally head over to the party and arrive first, closely followed by Dora and her girls. People begin trickling in and offering Doc gifts. Doc fries up steaks for the guests and begins playing opera for them which makes everyone sit still and listen in happiness.
After the opera ends, Doc reads a poem to them that is translated from Sanskrit, and everyone is overwhelmed by the beauty of the poem once again. But as they sit quietly a group of strangers sees Dora’s girls from outside and rushes in, thinking the lab is a whorehouse. A small scuffle ensues, and this gets the party started in earnest. The police arrive and join the party. Mack and his boys take the police car to get more wine and accidentally leave it on the beach where it is found the next day. Nearly everyone in town ends up attending the party, and it is a huge success.
The next morning, Doc awakes with a hangover and goes to Lee Chong’s to buy beer. The grocer talks with Doc and is happy that he enjoyed his party.
Doc begins to clean up after the party while listening to choir music. He picks up the book of Sanskrit poetry and reads aloud about savoring life from it’s pages. This verse brings tears to his eyes. The final image of the book is one of the rattlesnakes and white rats that the doctor locked away in their cages for their night so that they would be free of trouble from the party-goers.
Mack and the boys – Mack and the boys are almost one character in and of themselves. They around a group of down and out boys who live in the fish-meal shack behind Lee Chong’s grocery store which they sarcastically call the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack is a grown man and thus becomes the de facto leader of the group the rest of whom are teenagers.
Mack is a smart, charming man who is capable of talking his way out of any situation. One of the boys remarks that Mack is capable of being president of the United States if he wanted to but of course, Mack would never do anything that wasn’t fun. Mack often tries to do things the easy way, and this gets him into deep trouble.
One of the other boys, Eddie is a bartender at a local bar and often pours the leftover drinks into jars that he brings back to the shack for the other boys. Another of the boys, Gay, is married, but only lives in the shack because his wife beats him. He is often in the local jail because of a brawl with his wife. But he is an incredibly gifted mechanic who can fix any vehicle and proves this as he fixes Lee Chong’s truck twice on the way to Carmel Valley.
Doc – the head researcher of Western Biological Laboratory. Doc is a well of contradictions but is mainly portrayed as a kind, benevolent man who helps out so many people around town that they all feel indebted to him in some way. He takes it upon himself to introduce the less educated people of the town to the fine arts of opera, poetry and literature. When the young mentally handicapped boy, Frankie wanders up to his lab, Doc takes him in and cares for him, letting him live in the lab with him. He is also revealed to be somewhat of a womanizer, but is somehow always lonely. The people of the Row always feel that they need to do something to show Doc that he is appreciated.
Lee Chong – he is a grocer on the Row and a Chinese immigrant. Chong’s store stocks anything a customer could need and does great business considering he is able to allow many customers to rack up as much credit as they need. Chong is willing to engage in almost any business transaction as long as it is profitable for him. Occasionally, however this strategy misfires, as evidenced by his deal with Mack about the frogs. However shrewd of a businessman Chong is, he is still kind-hearted and does his best to care for the unfortunate around town. He does all he can to help with the party for Doc and it is revealed that he once arranged for his grandfather’s ashes to be returned to China at his own cost.
Frankie – a mentally handicapped boy who is poorly taken care of by his mother and later taken in by Doc. Frankie’s mother is a prostitute whose clients both pay and threaten Frankie into leaving his mother’s care. Frankie ends up wandering the streets after running away from home and is spotted outside the laboratory by Doc who takes him in and offers him a place to stay. Frankie’s mental handicap is so much that he is incapable of performing even light lab work and as a result he is often depressed. Frankie begins to love Doc very deeply as a father figure and is taken in by the police after breaking into a jewelry store to steal a present for Doc. He is then institutionalized by the police who fear that he will soon reach sexual maturity and become dangerous to the women of the town.
John Ernst Steinbeck Biography
John Ernst Steinbeck was an American novelist and short-story writer, who described in his work the unending struggle of people who depend on working in the soil for their livelihood. Steinbeck was born on February 27th, 1902 in Salinas, California and educated at Stanford University. As a young man, Steinbeck worked on a ranch as a fruit picker.
In 1925, when he was in his early twenties, Steinbeck moved to New York City and began trying to form a career as a writer. He was unsuccessful, and three years later moved back to California to work as a tour guide at Lake Tahoe. It was there that he met his first wife, Carol Henning and the two married two years later in 1930. He soon moved into a cottage owned by his father and began writing with the gift of paper from older family members.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Steinbeck later claimed that he and his wife survived off of fish that he caught himself and vegetables from his garden. In 1929, Steinbeck’s first novel “Cup of Gold” was published. It is a novel based on the life of privateer Henry Morgan. In the early 1930’s, Steinbeck produced several shorter novels, and in 1935 he produced his first successful novel called, “Tortilla Flat.” The novel won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal, and in 1942 the book was adapted into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr.
It was also during this time that Steinbeck began writing a series of so-called “California novels” and Dust Bowl fiction that were set among normal, salt of the earth people during the time of the Great Depression. These included, “In Dubious Battle” (1936), “Of Mice and Men” (1937) and, Steinbeck’s most famous work, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939). “The Grapes of Wrath” became the best-selling novel of 1939 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among other esteemed awards. Both “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” were also adapted into Academy-Award winning films.
Throughout the 1940’s, Steinbeck continued to write while also serving as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and working with the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Steinbeck befriended many soldiers and commanders during World War II and was present for many actual battles in Italy and Germany. After the war, Steinbeck returned with some psychological trauma and shrapnel wounds and began writing again. By this point, Steinbeck had divorced Carol Henning and his second wife, Gwyn Conger with whom he had two sons, and married Elaine Scott, his third and final wife.
In 1952 “East of Eden,” Steinbeck’s longest novel was published it was also made into a movie which became the famous actor James Dean’s film debut. In 1961, Steinbeck published his last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent” which was not a success as the public felt that the tone differed too much from his earlier work.
However, the next year, 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. John Steinbeck died on December 20th, 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66 years old. He was cremated and interred near his parents and grandparents graves in Salinas, California. To this day he remains a literary icon, and many of his books are still considered classic literature.