Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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Themes and Colors
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
Reality, Randomness, and Disorder Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Cannery Row, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Vice and Virtue

In Cannery Row, a novel documenting the lives of outcasts and eccentrics, Steinbeck challenges conventional notions of virtue, ultimately arguing that society often champions qualities that don’t necessarily lead to happiness or widespread goodwill. In fact, he suggests that vice and virtue sometimes have an inverse relationship, one in which supposedly negative or sinful attributes can actually lead to virtuousness. To illustrate this point, he presents a gang of happy-go-lucky men who refuse to…

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Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness

Melancholy and happiness are directly linked throughout Cannery Row. In fact, there is often a certain degree of joy embedded in moments of sadness and gloom, and many of the novel’s characters experience a poignant kind of loneliness that—as harrowing as it can be to feel alone—sometimes gives them an odd sense of “well-being.” Perhaps most strikingly, the reclusive painter Henri undergoes bouts of crushing loneliness and sadness, but he manages to simply experience…

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Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck examines the nature of kindness, eventually suggesting that Doc’s selflessness and empathy are rare. Indeed, everyone around him wants to demonstrate how much his goodwill means to them, but they often find themselves incapable of doing so. This is because they themselves are unable to embody the selflessness that they appreciate so much about Doc. Most notably, Mack and “the boys’” efforts to celebrate Doc are disastrous, since the…

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Reality, Randomness, and Disorder

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck is concerned first and foremost with capturing what it feels like to be alive in Monterey, California sometime before World War II. Rather than writing a completely cohesive narrative or adding complex literary embellishments, he simply presents readers with a series of linked vignettes that, when assembled, create an interconnected but abstract representation of life itself. In this way, he accentuates reality’s inherently disordered and random qualities, thereby encouraging readers…

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