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 these feelings as part of his life. By accepting these emotional hardships, he opens himself up to the full breadth of human experience. What’s more, it’s worth noting that his loneliness is alleviated to a certain degree by the fact that he belongs to an entire community of people living on the margins of society—people who, like him, don’t necessarily fit in. In turn, Steinbeck intimates that as long as a person has at least some kind of community, they can and should approach loneliness not as a debilitating sorrow, but as something that might unexpectedly reinvigorate their capacity to enjoy life.
Henri the painter is well-acquainted with loneliness and melancholy because he lives in a half-built, land-ridden boat that none of his lovers want to stay in for more than a short period of time. Because of this, the women he becomes romantically involved with always leave him before too long. Of course, he is quite sad each time this happens, but that sadness quickly turns into an appreciation of his independence. “Each time he was left alone, he mourned formally for a while but actually he felt a sense of relief,” Steinbeck writes. “He could stretch out in his cabin. He could eat what he wanted.” Because he’s so used to this kind of heartbreak, he develops a routine, one that he begins to relish despite his melancholy circumstances. “It had become his custom, each time he was deserted, to buy a gallon of wine, to stretch out on the comfortably hard bunk and get drunk,” Steinbeck writes. “Sometimes he cried a little all by himself but it was luxurious stuff and he usually had a wonderful feeling of well-being from it.” By calling Henri’s crying “luxurious stuff,” Steinbeck shows that loneliness and melancholy are not as divorced from happiness as people tend to think. In this regard, Henri relishes his solitude and heartbreak because such sadness gives him a feeling of catharsis, ultimately offering him a chance to get in touch with his emotions and thus granting him a “wonderful feeling of well-being.”
Regrettably, not everyone in Cannery Row is capable of turning melancholy and loneliness into a cathartic form of happiness. For example, when William—the bouncer at Dora Flood’s whorehouse, the Bear Flag—tries to befriend Mack and his friends, he finds himself unable to assimilate into their group. “He walked out one day and sat on the pipe,” Steinbeck writes. “Conversation stopped and an uneasy and hostile silence fell on the group. After a while William went disconsolately back to the Bear Flag and through the window he saw the conversation spring up again and it saddened him.” In this moment, William is rejected by a group of men who are normally kind and accommodating. Unfortunately, this rejection pairs with William’s tendency to be “introspective and self-accusing,” ultimately creating an insurmountable feeling of loneliness and despair that eventually leads him to commit suicide. Whereas Henri sees his loneliness as an opportunity to cathartically experience the full reach of human emotion, then, William’s loneliness only exacerbates his “self-accusing” nature. The difference, of course, is that Henri isn’t truly isolated from other people. Indeed, it is his own choice to live alone on a boat, and he knows he could have healthy romantic relationships if only he decided to live elsewhere. William, on the other hand, can’t even join the community in which he exists, and this makes his depressing isolation unbearable. In this manner, Steinbeck suggests that camaraderie and human connection (or even just the availability of these two things) are integral to a person’s ability to subvert their own unhappiness.
Having established the idea that complete social isolation makes it impossible to gain a sense of “well-being” from loneliness, Steinbeck showcases a certain kind of communal melancholy. During his surprise birthday party, Doc starts playing records that give the entire atmosphere a mournful feeling into which everyone relaxes, finding pleasure in the half-drunk gloominess of sitting in a room with friends and listening to sad songs. “Doc was feeling a golden pleasant sadness,” Steinbeck writes. This is an important phrase, as it draws attention to the fact that Doc enjoys the combination of “golden pleasant[ness] and “sadness,” two things that aren’t often correlated with one another. Then, when the music ends, Doc stands up and reads a sad, wistful poem that causes everyone to think nostalgically about lost lovers. “The party was slipping away in sweet sadness,” Steinbeck notes, underlining the notion that, although the characters have plunged into “sadness,” there is a “sweet[ness]” to this feeling. Indeed, they are all sitting together, “luxuri[ating]” in a shared yet distinct experience. As such, Steinbeck demonstrates not only that it’s possible for loneliness and melancholy to create happiness, but that this emotional inversion most often takes place when a person is connected to others. By using the party as an example of how melancholy can be cathartic, he essentially spotlights the importance of community and camaraderie, allowing the closeness of his characters to stand for a certain emotional resilience and optimism in the face of unhappiness and loneliness.
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness ThemeTracker
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Quotes in Cannery Row
Lee Chong stood in back of the cigar counter and his nice brown eyes were turned inward on a calm and eternal Chinese sorrow. He knew he could not have helped it, but he wished he might have known and perhaps tried to help. It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary. Lee had already underwritten the funeral and sent a wash basket of groceries to the stricken families.
Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment. But whereas most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently.
Mack and the boys, too, spinning in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them. Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row. 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? 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.
Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.
William thought dark and broody thoughts. No one loved him. No one cared about him. They might call him a watchman but he was a pimp—a dirty pimp, the lowest thing in the world. And then he thought how he had a right to live and be happy just like anyone else, by God he had. He walked back angrily but his anger went away when he came to the Bear Flag and climbed the steps. It was evening and the juke box was playing Harvest Moon and William remembered that the first hooker who ever gaffed for him used to like that song before she ran away and got married and disappeared. The song made him awfully sad. Dora was in the back parlor having a cup of tea when William came in. She said, “What’s the matter, you sick?”
“No,” said William. “But what’s the percentage? I feel lousy. I think I’ll bump myself off.”
Dora had handled plenty of neurotics in her time. Kid ’em out of it was her motto. “Well, do it on your own time and don’t mess up the rugs,” she said.
And William saw the change, saw first how the Greek knew he could do it and then the Greek knew he would do it. As soon as he saw that in the Greek’s eyes William knew he had to do it. He was sad because now it seemed silly. His hand rose and the ice pick snapped into his heart. It was amazing how easily it went in. William was the watchman before Alfred came. Everyone liked Alfred. He could sit on the pipes with Mack and the boys any time. He could even visit up at the Palace Flophouse.
The old man stopped and turned. Andy stopped. The deep-brown eyes looked at Andy and the thin corded lips moved. What happened then Andy was never able either to explain or to forget. For the eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye—one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like cows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms. There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound. And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness—the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn’t anybody at all in the world and he was left. Andy shut his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see it any more and when he opened them, he was in Cannery Row and the old Chinaman was just flap-flapping between Western Biological and the Hediondo Cannery. Andy was the only boy who ever did that and he never did it again.
In spite of his friendliness and his friends Doc was a lonely and a set-apart man. Mack probably noticed it more than anybody. In a group, Doc seemed always alone. When the lights were on and the curtains drawn, and the Gregorian music played on the great phonograph, Mack used to look down on the laboratory from the Palace Flophouse. He knew Doc had a girl in there, but Mack used to get a dreadful feeling of loneliness out of it. Even in the dear close contact with a girl Mack felt that Doc would be lonely.
Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.
He sat down on the beach in the coarse dry sand and pulled off his boots. In the jar the little octopi were huddled up each keeping as far as possible from the others. Music sounded in Doc’s ears, a high thin piercingly sweet flute carrying a melody he could never remember, and against this, a pounding surf-like wood-wind section. The flute went up into regions beyond the hearing range and even there it carried its unbelievable melody. Goose pimples came out on Doc’s arms. He shivered and his eyes were wet the way they get in the focus of great beauty.
Each time he was left alone, he mourned formally for a while but actually he felt a sense of relief. He could stretch out in his little cabin. He could eat what he wanted. He was glad to be free of the endless female biologic functions for a while.
It had become his custom, each time he was deserted, to buy a gallon of wine, to stretch out on the comfortably hard bunk and get drunk. Sometimes he cried a little all by himself but it was luxurious stuff and he usually had a wonderful feeling of well-being from it.
Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think […] that Mack and the boys know every thing that has ever happened in the world and possibly every thing that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.
“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
Hazel was so taken by the sound of the words that he had not listened to their meaning. But a little world sadness had slipped over all of them. Every one was remembering a lost love, everyone a call.
Mack said, “Jesus, that’s pretty. Reminds me of a dame—” and he let it pass. They filled the wine glasses and became quiet. The party was slipping away in sweet sadness.