Cannery Row

by

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 Theme Icon

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 concern themselves with pursuing the kind of lives society pressures most people to lead. As a result, they are immune to the greed and materialism of their contemporaries, and though they frequently fail to successfully do the right thing, their motivations are always pure. In turn, Steinbeck sets forth an interpretation of virtuousness that has to do with a prevailing, fundamental sense of goodness—one that doesn’t necessarily align with what society values.

Steinbeck quickly solidifies the idea that Mack and his friends are different than their contemporaries, who work difficult jobs and obsess about money. Whereas these people spend their entire lives thinking about wealth and stability—two things society insists are intrinsically good or worthwhile—Mack “and the boys” lounge in the sun, drink heavily, work intermittently, and simply enjoy life. “Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces,” Steinbeck writes, referring to three groups of Greek goddesses who represent splendor and brilliance, mirth and joy, and abundance. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that Steinbeck wants to imbue Mack and his friends with a natural kind of virtue that is beautiful and life-giving. What’s more, he contrasts this free-flowing goodness with an image of the surrounding society as full of repressed, ferocious people bent on adhering to societally-prescribed notions of financial productivity as virtue. Indeed, Steinbeck sees the people around Mack as “tigers with ulcers,” likening them to “strictured bulls,” or bulls that have been neutered or are otherwise unable to mate. Whereas Steinbeck likens Mack and the boys to goddesses of fertility, then, he portrays their fellow citizens as incapable of enjoying life.

The main reason Mack’s repressed contemporaries are so unhappy, Steinbeck suggests, is because they fixate on trivial matters like money. “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?” he writes (riffing on the Bible verse “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”). “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.” Although Mack and his friends are happy—or perhaps because they are happy—their society thinks of them as “no-goods” and “blots-on-the-town.” In turn, Steinbeck demonstrates how unwilling people are to accept the intrinsic goodness of simply living life without succumbing to greed.

Not only does Steinbeck uphold that society’s conventional notions of vice are mixed up, he also suggests that many supposedly more virtuous people in Cannery Row are hypocrites. Indeed, many of Monterey’s citizens condemn certain practices while simultaneously depending upon the people they’re criticizing. For instance, Dora Flood’s brothel often comes under fire for being a place of sin. Steinbeck, for his part, goes out of his way to clarify his belief that Dora and her establishment are not examples of vice, stating, “This is no fly-by-night cheap clip-joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who, madam and girl for fifty years, has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind.” It’s worth taking special note of the words Steinbeck associates with Dora and her brothel: “virtuous,” “tact,” “honesty,” and “charity.” By doing this, he frames prostitution not as something that is categorically evil, but something that can still embody elements of goodness.

Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to acknowledge Dora’s virtuousness, which is why she is “hated by [a] twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters.” Because of this, Dora is forced to redouble her efforts to be “honest” and “charit[able].” “Being against the law, […] she must be twice as law abiding as anyone else,” Steinbeck notes, explaining that she’s forced to be “especially philanthropic” by donating large amounts of money to public institutions. As such, the entire community ends up thriving on Dora’s supposedly “shameless dirty wages of sin.”

This kind of hypocrisy regarding vice and virtue lies at the heart of modern society. Doc, for one, recognizes this while observing Mack and the boys one afternoon. “It has always seemed strange to me,” he says. “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.” In this passage, Doc articulates the fact that his society claims to “admire” traits that it ultimately fails to encourage; “kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, [and] understanding” all lead to “failure” in the money-minded “system” in which Doc and his contemporaries exist. This is why Mack and the boys are disenfranchised (though they don’t mind their poverty).

Indeed, Steinbeck posits that Mack and his friends are virtuous because of the fact that they refuse to exhibit the “sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest” that would enable them to lead “success[ful]” lives. In turn, he sets forth a theory of virtue that eschews and destabilizes conventional notions of what it means to be good—notions that only lead people into vice and avarice.

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Vice and Virtue Quotes in Cannery Row

Below you will find the important quotes in Cannery Row related to the theme of Vice and Virtue.
Prologue Quotes

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.

Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lee Chong, Horace Abbeville
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Mack
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In Mack’s eyes there was good will and good fellowship and a desire to make everyone happy. Why then did Lee Chong feel slightly surrounded? Why did his mind pick its way as delicately as a cat through cactus? It had been sweetly done, almost in a spirit of philanthropy. Lee’s mind leaped ahead at the possibilities—no, they were probabilities, and his finger tapping slowed still further. He saw himself refusing Mack’s request and he saw the broken glass from the windows. Then Mack would offer a second time to watch over and preserve Lee’s property— and at the second refusal, Lee could smell the smoke, could see the little flames creeping up the walls. Mack and his friends would try to help to put it out. Lee’s finger came to a gentle rest on the change mat. He was beaten. He knew that. There was left to him only the possibility of saving face and Mack was likely to be very generous about that. Lee said, “You like pay lent my place? You like live there same hotel?”

Related Characters: Lee Chong (speaker), Mack
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mack
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Mack
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

But on the left-hand boundary of the lot is the stern and stately whore house of Dora Flood; a decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house where a man can take a glass of beer among friends. This is no fly-by-night cheap clip-joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who, madam and girl for fifty years, has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind. And by the same token she is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don’t like it very much.

Related Characters: Dora Flood
Related Symbols: The Bear Flag Restaurant
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Doc (speaker), Hazel, Henri
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Doc
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Doc (speaker), Mack
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

“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.”

Related Characters: Doc (speaker), Mack
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis: