“The Word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories,” Steinbeck writes. “Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern.” In this manner, “the Word” “digests” Cannery Row and “spews it out” with a “shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas.” With this in mind, the author turns his attention to Lee Chong, who he asserts must be “more than a Chinese grocer,” suggesting that perhaps he is “evil balanced and held suspended by good.”
Steinbeck’s consideration of “the Word” is nothing less than an examination of the power of language and writing to capture reality—while also a riff on the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Bible. “The Word,” Steinbeck upholds, absorbs real life, but it also “warp[s]” the very things it’s trying to represent. By saying this, Steinbeck comments on his attempt to represent what it’s like to live in Cannery Row. What’s more, when he says that Lee must be “more than a Chinese grocer,” he calls attention to the fact that writing novels often forces an author to reduce people into one-dimensional characters. In reality, people are complex, containing an entire range of emotional qualities. In keeping with this, Steinbeck says that Lee is “evil balanced and held suspended by good,” thus articulating the idea that a person is never just one thing, but rather a fluctuating continuum of vice and virtue.
Still contemplating the nature of his characters, Steinbeck considers “Mack and the boys,” saying that they are “the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties.” He upholds that they prosper in this world, which is “ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, [and] scavenged by blind jackals.” Indeed, in this rough world, Mack and his friends do well, “din[ing] delicately with the tigers.” “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?” Steinbeck asks. “Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums.” Going on, the author posits that “our Father who art in nature” must have an “overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums.”
In this section, Steinbeck again expresses his belief that sometimes the most virtuous people are actually those who society believes are evil and wicked. When he suggests that most men sacrifice their overall well-being in order to “gain the world,” he implies that the desire to succeed in life often harms people more than it helps them. Whereas their contemporaries are “trussed-up” and “poisoned” by their toxic lives, Mack and his friends are thriving. Indeed, Steinbeck even likens them to “the Graces,” who are Greek goddesses associated with love and fertility. In this way, he frames Mack and “the boys” as pure and healthy, and this is why he believes that God—who he says is “in nature”—has such “love” for them, for they aren’t wasting their lives chasing money or trying to do anything but find “contentment,” which is the most natural way to live. Unfortunately, though, many of their contemporaries are unable to recognize this.