Study Questions for Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1945)

As usual, I give you lots of questions and discussion topics; choose the ones most useful to you as a study guide and discussion-starter for Steinbeck.

For interested group members whose computer can play podcasts (mp3's), I recommend both Alex Bell's and Ruth Schultz's fine reading and commentary on key scenes and themes in Fante’s novel, done for my class English 52A, "U.S. Fiction 1900-1950," in spring 2007.  Go to:

to find the 2 pairs of Fante podcasts:  a 5 minute reading of a scene, then a 5-minute discussion. Students listened to these before class and we used them to start up our own class discussion.  


Written and published at the close of World War II, Cannery Row is far more that just a loose collection of stories about some colorful characters.  Steinbeck was profoundly angered by fears of vagrants and “bums” as threats to the American way of life voiced by social reformers and others since the Depression in the 1930s (as those of you who have read The Grapes of Wrath know).  He felt that in many cases people in such vilified groups, for all their personal failings, represented American individualism, generosity, and other democratic values at their best.  Would you agree?  What examples would you cite?  Or do you feel that Steinbeck was too romantic and sentimental about the characters in the novel and the kind of world they live in?

The novel gives us many fascinating examples of how people re-create even the barest of spaces to mark their individuality; outsiders may think of these folks as “homeless” but the book shows us many different kinds of living spaces, each matched to its “owner’s” personality.  Discuss examples of this.  Note also how this community works out a complicated balance between private spaces and shared public or semi-public areas—discuss this too.  A really interesting example of the latter (if I remember correctly) is how in the open space inside the “Palace Flophouse” was originally divided by chalk outlines or borders into separate, private “property” for each inhabitant.  But soon these spaces become highly decorated and “furnished” in ways that perfectly express the foibles and virtues of “Mack and the boys,” and other areas in the flophouse and right outside it evolve into shared public spaces that are very important for sustaining the “boys’ ” community.

The world of Cannery Row is not part of more “respectable” Monterey, but it too has distinct hierarchies and boundary-lines within it.  Not everyone can be part of Mac and the boys, for instance.  What boundaries do you notice?  Discuss how these are marked and maintained, what role they play, and how and why these sometimes realign themselves.

The novel’s also a fascinating laboratory describing mid-century American capitalism in action.  On the one hand, there are the immense mass-production factory buildings, which are comically described early on as a kind of dis-assembly rather than assembly-line, where workers working at low wages for long hours do the repetitive jobs of taking fish apart and canning them so that the product can be shipped and sold throughout the nation.  On the other hand, many of the actions of the book focus on the opposite sort of economy, one centered on gift-giving, recycling, sharing, stealing (though they don’t call it that!), and other activities.  In between these two extremes, we also have entrepreneurial, small-scale work by figures like the Doc, Lee Chong, Mac, and others—where they must balance profit-making with an understanding that sometimes it’s economically wise to forgive a loan, accept or give a gift, etc.  Look at Lee Chong and Doc’s roles here in particular, or Dora’s (who heads the Bear Flag whorehouse):  in what ways might they been seen as modeling a wise economics?  (Of course, this is not the only way to consider them; their character virtues can be understood in other ways too.)  Readers sometimes underestimate Steinbeck’s interest in finding ways in which profit-making could be central to community-making, not destructive of it—a passion of his that arose because of his experience of the Depression.

The novel has some famous episodes that involve Doc’s knowledge of marine ecology—his appreciation of nature for its own sake and his collecting expedition to gather specimens to sale to laboratories.  In what ways can the book’s portrait of marine tidal ecosystems provide us with a model for understanding the human ecology of Cannery Row? 

Doc was modeled on a good friend of Steinbeck’s who was a marine biologist who had very eclectic expertise in music and literature as well as science.  But in many ways he’s also the closest Steinbeck gets to giving us a self-portrait until Travels with Charley.  Consider Doc’s importance to Cannery Row—what aspects of his character are most important and why?  What’s most mysterious about him for you?  He’s rather a loner; he’s a skeptic about people in general, sometimes even rather misanthropic; and he’s highly educated in a community where others are hardly educated at all.  Given all this, why do you think others feel such a bond with him and believe he’s so important for the Cannery Row community?  For another approach to Doc, see the “close reading” question below.

Speaking of ecology, animals are also a frequent motif in the book: what are some examples.  What roles do they play in the novel?  I’d particularly draw your attention to the “gopher” chapter (#31) right near the novel’s end. Why do you think Steinbeck placed it as the penultimate chapter?  What’s the significance of this chapter?  Loneliness is a repeated theme in this novel about how community sustains us:  think of “Frankie” (whom Doc adopts), or Henri, or many other examples.

“Mac and the boys” are quite a crew—my students recognize them immediately as “slackers.”  They have immense potential for destructive violence and selfishness, and many carry deep inner wounds and a sense of failure and worthlessness, as we see in the tragic-comic “frog expedition” scene and, in an especially moving way, in Mac’s confession to Doc after the first party they sponsor for Doc goes awry.  Yet in other ways, the eccentrics of this novel are amazingly generous and resourceful and, when inspired, can have an intense, if brief, work ethic.  Steinbeck even (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) calls Mac’s boys Knights, the Virtues, etc. etc.  What scenes stand out for you as portraits of this group?  What’s their group dynamic?  What kind of leader is Mac?

So where are the women in this novel?  All are distinctly secondary characters—but look closely at the few women who appear.  What role do they play?  How are they portrayed?

Close reading exercise #1: Steinbeck, Cannery Row, the ending (pp. 194-96 in my edition), beginning with Doc’s exchange with Lee Chong (“Good time?” “Good time!”) until the novel’s last line.  Explain how this final portrait of Doc brings together much that we know about his personality and his role in the Cannery Row world.  But consider too ways in which this passage is not just a portrait of Doc but a synthesis of key themes in the novel.

Close reading exercise #2:  after you’ve finished the novel, re-read the preface “Cannery Row in California, is a poem, a stink….”  What do you notice and understand differently the second time around?


Some critics have said that this book is not really a novel but a loose, shambling collection of tales.  Would you agree?  It’s silly to argue over terms, so don’t.  But asking such a question raises a more interesting issue:  what does connect the different stories?  Some of the stories feature figures or events that no one else knows about; they seem almost separate from the main narrative action involving Mac and the boys’ and Doc’s adventures. (One example is chapter 26, an inset story about 2 boys that as far as I can figure out do not appear at any other time in the book.  We can read this little story for its “own sake”—as Steinbeck would surely want us to do.  But inset tales always have some sort of connection to the larger stories in which they appear:  how is what happens in this story relevant for the rest of the novel?)  In general, do you feel that the “loose” organization of the novel fits the material?

“The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied,” the narrator says (with comic sententiousness) at the start of chapter 30.  Two legendary parties are highlights of Cannery Row—one that definitely has a “pathology,” as the narrator calls it, and another that, while imperfect, goes pretty well and may act to cure, not to wound.  What role do these parties play in the novel?   What shapes a party’s dynamic?  How well do you think Steinbeck’s prose captures the energy of a party in motion?  Regarding this topic, I also love Steinbeck’s attention to the “morning after”—the solitary scenes of Doc cleaning up after the fetes given in his honor.  Check out close reading #1 for a closer look at this motif.

C.P. Snow in 1959 gave a famous lecture lamenting that the educated world was dividing into two cultures that didn’t know how to talk to each other—the world of science and the world of art and the humanities.  Steinbeck’s 1945 portrait of Doc in many ways refutes Snow’s future claims.  (Or does it?—Doc is pretty exceptional.)  In what ways should we think about this novel and its portrait of Doc as balancing the different “ways of knowing” defined by science, spirituality, and art?  You might want to seek out recordings of the two Monteverdi pieces referenced in the novel.  Also, what’s the meaning of the magnificent Sanskrit poem highlighted at the end?

Those of you who know some of Steinbeck’s other work—particularly The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men—might want to comment on your sense of what connects and what distinguishes those works and this one.

The Cannery Row area today in Monterey is a far different place from the world Steinbeck describes, or even what the area was like in the 1970s:  it’s expensive and yuppified and the Flophouse would be impossible due to economics as well as zoning policies.  Steinbeck would no doubt be disgusted at it all and would ask us what will happen to our nation if territories like Cannery Row cease to exist.  Are there any such places left in the U.S., in your opinion?  Not all poor areas can sustain a community like Cannery Row—what’s necessary?  There’s a museum honoring Steinbeck and his fiction right at the heart of the Monterey waterfront—plus a “walking tour,” a wax museum (!), and other stuff.  If you’d like, go online to learn more about the Steinbeckiana and what Monterey’s currently like.