The True Message of Cannery Row

        In society, people value morality as a human quality.  People learn their values from when they are young from various sources.  However, who is to say what is necessarily right and wrong?  Values and morality can have different meanings, especially if placed in the context of a distorted materialistic society. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck reminds people about this important theme and how it applies on a bigger scale.  The setting of the story is Cannery Row, located in Monterey, California.  Steinbeck's choice of setting is significant in that it fully captures the breadth of humanity.  On the one hand, it is an area that represents the thriving sardine industry.  On the other, it is also an area where the lower classes, including bums and whores could live.  In actuality, the story is not really about the sardine industry at all, but is rather a collection of short stories that are all unified about the same theme, the quality and meaning of life.  The main plot of this novel is centered on Doc, a marine biologist.  It begins when Mack and the boys, Lee Chong, and Dora throw a surprise party for him to show their appreciation and great reverence towards him.  By writing about the warm relationships between Doc and the inhabitants of Cannery Row, Steinbeck uses these short stories as his way of talking about life on a bigger scale.  In essence, Cannery Row is John Steinbeck's personal philosophy on human importance, his take on what humans should be like, and his criticism of society.

    In general, bums like Mack and the boys can be viewed as failures of society.  However, Steinbeck perceives these kinds of people as true successes in humanity and life itself.  While society labels them as "sons of bitches," Steinbeck labels them as "the Virtues, the Graces, and the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey" (18).  Instead of judging them from what they do, Steinbeck judges them by who they truly are.  He contrasts Mack and the boys, who live according to their own full freedom without intentionally offending against morality, to other people who struggle in the madness of a world to build up their success using foul deeds and excessive effort.  Steinbeck is trying to say that when people lose human freedom and human virtue, there is only absurdity left in society.

    He continues that successful men in the world have both bad health and bad souls because they "tear themselves to pieces with ambition, nervousness, and covetousness" (133).  On the other hand, Mack and the boys are opposites and pure because of their natural life behavior.  Steinbeck admires people who live naturally because it is an essence of humanity that is forgotten by the poisoned society.  Whatever the cause, people who behave naturally can accept things without bitterness and they can be who they are as humans should be.  In short, when Steinbeck compares Mack and the boys with successful men, he is criticizing the material world and the hypocritical morality of society.

    Similarly, the episode about Dora follows the same philosophy.  Dora has been a madam and girl for fifty years at the whorehouse called Bear Flag Restaurant.  She is a great lady who has true human qualities in Steinbeck's eyes because she does various things without considering virtue or vice.  For example, she takes care of her girls and never fires them because of age or infirmities without considering their full worth.  Also, she helps feed the poor even though it almost makes her bankrupt.  When Cannery Row is stricken by influenza, she provides food and sends her girls to keep invalids company.  Steinbeck writes of all these examples to demonstrate her generosity and philanthropic mind.  She does not expect reward. Unfortunately, while some people who know her for her true kindness respect her, others hate her because of what she does.  The irony is that while society does not want to accept her and her business, they also need her money to run it.  In fact, whenever there are charities in Monterey, people expect and accept that she contributes more than others.  Another one of Steinbeck's points is that if people hate her business so much, they should not ignore where the money is coming from; instead, they should not accept it.  In sum, Cannery Row shows that even whorehouses, which are considered outcasts of society, can be places of benevolence and real human importance even more so than others.  Steinbeck points out the contradiction between poisoned mercenary society and insincere moral obligation.

    In conclusion, just as the critic Malcolm Cowley commented, Cannery Row can be thought of as a "poisoned cream puff" (qtd. in Lisca 198).  While it looks like a simple entertainment novel, it is really a deep commentary on human society.  In response to this comment, Steinbeck said if he had read the book again, "he would have found out how very poisoned it was (198).  Just as Steinbeck himself admitted, he admires the people who live naturally and tilt caustically against civilized society at the same time.  Steinbeck's true message is a reminder of the importance of natural beauty, the quality of humanity.