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 to simply experience the book—and existence in general—for what it is. As such, he advocates for a certain kind of surrender to chaos, one that a number of characters in Cannery Row also learn to embrace. Because of this abstract commitment to disorder, the novel is sometimes difficult to analyze, since it’s challenging to draw broader meaning from a text that is primarily interested in exploring meaninglessness and the plain facts of everyday life. However, that Cannery Row often evades interpretation is itself a meditation on the nature of reality—a meditation that encourages readers to simply let the randomness and disorder of life wash over them.
In order to recreate the random disorder that is so much a part of being alive, Steinbeck often showcases his characters’ eccentricities. More specifically, he looks at the ways in which people contradict their own beliefs, thus demonstrating that even things people think they control—such as their own convictions—are just as chaotic and unpredictable as everything else in life. “Doc was a pure scientist and incapable of superstition and yet when he came in late one night and found a line of white flowers across the doorsill he had a bad time of it,” Steinbeck writes. “But most people in Cannery Row simply do not believe in such things and then live by them.” When Steinbeck says that “most people in Cannery Row” don’t “believe in such things,” he means that they think of themselves as too practical and levelheaded to believe in “superstition.” And yet, they still end up allowing these superstitions to dictate the way they live, proving that even their own internal lives, which seem so rational and controllable, are subject to contradiction and unpredictability. What’s more, Steinbeck offers no reason as to why, exactly, people can’t depend upon their own convictions. He presents readers with a strange discrepancy that sits at the heart of human existence, ultimately offering up an example of life’s inherent disorderliness without explaining it away. In this way, he encourages readers to embrace reality’s inscrutability, which frequently brings itself to bear on a person’s internal world.
Steinbeck’s representation of internal disorder mirrors the randomness of the outside world. Indeed, he explicitly calls attention to life’s messy disorganization as early as the first chapter of Cannery Row, in which he establishes his desire to present an unadorned portrait of reality. Because he is interested in capturing what it feels like to be alive, he decides to create a portrait of Cannery Row that has no agenda other than to reveal the nuances and complexities of reality. Having described Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” he wonders how he might accurately portray all this on the page. “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” By asking this question, he makes it clear that he wants to communicate what it’s like to live in Cannery Row without losing a sense of immediacy. In other words, he wants to make sure his writing is just as “alive” as the experience itself.
“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole,” Steinbeck writes, “for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.” In this moment, Steinbeck states that he is going to “let the stories crawl in by themselves,” thereby implying that he doesn’t want to finesse anything that makes its way into Cannery Row. This, he believes, will enable him to preserve the authenticity of these stories, thereby allowing him to properly “set down” the experience of being “alive.” If these stories are going to simply “crawl in by themselves,” then it’s obvious they won’t necessarily adhere to structural or narrative formalities, instead creating an amalgamation of lived experience that—above all—honors the uncompromised and often incomprehensible feeling of reality itself.
Reality, Randomness, and Disorder ThemeTracker
Reality, Randomness, and Disorder Quotes in Cannery Row
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row 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. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.
The Word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern. The Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas.
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.
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.
Doc swung his heavy sack of starfish to the ground and stood panting a little. “Nuts?” he asked. “Oh, yes, I guess so. Nuts about the same amount we are, only in a different way.”
Such a thing had never occurred to Hazel. He looked upon himself as a crystal pool of clarity and on his life as a troubled glass of misunderstood virtue. Doc’s last statement had outraged him a little.
“The remarkable thing,” said Doc, “isn’t that they put their tails up in the air—the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying—so maybe they’re praying.”
Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.
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.
It’s all right not to believe in luck and omens. Nobody believes in them. But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them and no one takes chances. Cannery Row, like every place else, is not superstitious but will not walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house. Doc was a pure scientist and incapable of superstition and yet when he came in late one night and found a line of white flowers across the doorsill he had a bad time of it. But most people in Cannery Row simply do not believe in such things and then live by them.