“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and 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 let the stories crawl in by themselves.”
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Cannery Row feels less like a single narrative and more like a collective of interwoven narratives that somehow combine to make a whole. You feel as though you had just walked into the middle of Cannery Row and sat down in the middle of the road, and now you’re watching all the goings on and happenings in the community. The main characters in the novel are Doc, Lee Chong, and Mack and the boys, and the very simple plotline involves Mack and the boys deciding to throw a party for the scientist Doc, in order to give back to him some of the joy and help that he brings to the community… but a lot of struggles ensue in this plan.
Because of the lack of major plot in this novel, the story becomes more of an exercise in characterisation than anything else. The characters are so vibrantly and comprehensively drawn that they become not just lifelike, but larger than life.
With frogs, hamburgers, a puppy who needs to housetrain herself, beer milkshakes, a man who has been building a boat for ten years but never finished it, and a mysterious chinaman who appears twice a day with out a word said or an explanation. This book will give you no shortage of quirky events, and characters who tie them together beautifully.
SPOILER FREE SUMMARY
“It has always seemed strange to me…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.”
“I think that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything 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.”
“For there are two possible reactions to social ostracism – either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things. The last is by far the commonest reaction to stigma.”
“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, blot-on-the town-thieves, rascals, bums.”
Steinbeck starts with a quote about the best way to collect delicate sea creatures and implies that that same method must be applied to writing this book. How is the metaphor of collecting developed in Cannery Row and what does it contribute to the idea of writing?
Considering the metaphor of ‘richness’ in this book, who would you consider to be the most ‘rich’ or ‘successful’ of all the characters in Cannery Row? And why?
What do you think is implied in the final two chapters? Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?