Cannery Row

Cannery Row Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in California only two years after the turn of the 20th century. He attended Stanford University in 1919, though he left without earning a degree six years later, at which point he worked as a journalist and manual laborer in New York City. During this time he tried his hand at a career in writing, but had trouble getting his work published and so returned to California to work a series of labor jobs. In 1935, Steinbeck first found literary success with Tortilla Flat, which follows the exploits of a group of Mexican-Americans in Monterey, California. In the following years, Steinbeck wrote several novels that focus on farm life and its discontents. The most famous of these is 1937’s Of Mice and Men. In 1939, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, which garnered him significant critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Following his success with The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went on to publish other notable works, including Cannery Row in 1945 and East of Eden in 1952. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Steinbeck died in New York City in 1968, at age 66.
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Historical Context of Cannery Row

Although Steinbeck never indicates the exact year in which Cannery Row takes place, it is rather evident that the novel is set during the Great Depression, an excruciating economic downturn that lasted for most of the 1930s in the United States (and abroad). The depression itself was precipitated by a plummet in stock prices in September of 1929, which eventually led to the stock market crash the following month. Throughout the ensuing decade, the unemployment rate in the United States went as high as 25%. This is worth considering in relation to Cannery Row, since Mack and his crew of happy-go-lucky friends are jobless (and even homeless until Lee Chong allows them to move into his empty storehouse). However, Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Depression in Cannery Row is remarkably lighthearted, as Mack and the gang actively enjoy the freedom of not having to work. But this lightheartedness is a very purposeful approach to a subject Steinbeck knows is deathly serious, as made evident by the devastating portrayal of the Great Depression that he delivers in The Grapes of Wrath. Indeed, Steinbeck makes an effort in Cannery Row to maintain a sense of optimism, though there’s no denying that the joyful stories he tells are set against a backdrop of poverty and economic struggle.

Other Books Related to Cannery Row

Nearly ten years after Steinbeck published Cannery Row, he put out Sweet Thursday, a sequel that follows Doc, Mack, and many of the novel’s other characters. Whereas Cannery Row takes place sometime before World War II, Sweet Thursday is set in the aftermath of the war, from which Doc has recently returned. What’s more, it’s worth considering Steinbeck’s revered novel The Grapes of Wrath in relation to Cannery Row, since both texts deal with problems of economic hardship. However, while The Grapes of Wrath deals explicitly with poverty, Cannery Row’s treatment of such matters is oblique and fleeting, as Steinbeck focuses on small moments of joy rather than on the horrors of living without enough food or general resources.
Key Facts about Cannery Row
  • Full Title: Cannery Row
  • When Published: 1945
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Realism
  • Setting: Cannery Row in Monterey, California
  • Climax: Angry because his home has been trashed by a party he didn’t even attend, Doc punches Mack in the mouth.
  • Antagonist: Failures of kindness or empathy
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for Cannery Row

Namesake. In 1958, the street in Monterey, California that Steinbeck writes about in Cannery Row was officially named after the novel.

The Big Screen. In 1982, Cannery Row was adapted as a film featuring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger.