Cannery Row

Discover brief discussion techniques of plot, character development and theme employed by Steinbeck in his brief novella, Cannery Row.
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Teaching Strategies:
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Because this story is both simple and complex, it is important to help students understand its simple plotline and more complex character and theme development.

1. The Plot – The plot can roughly be divided into two parts: (a) Preparations for and the first party for Doc, and (b) preparation for and the second party for Doc.

However, within this major plotline are numerous subplots: Doc's own life as the owner and operator of Western Biological Laboratory; the activities within Lee Chong's grocery and dry goods (plus whatever else you might need) store; the tale of Mack, the boys, the Palace Flophouse, Darling the dog, the Model T truck and the frog hunt; the girls at Dora's and the quilt; and Sam and Mrs. Malloy who live in the boiler on the empty lot.

And, then, beyond these on-going stories are six or more embedded tales that provide more information about the character Cannery Row. These include: the story of the boy Frankie who "couldn't learn and there was something wrong with his coordination" but "he wasn't an idiot" and Doc; the odd tale of the death and embalming of humorist Josh Billings; Henri the painter who "was not French" and his boat; and "Mary Talbot, Mrs. Tom Talbot," the cat Kitty Randolph and their parties. Students can be prepared for these numerous plots and subplots and sub-subplots, by reading and discussing Steinbeck's introduction, "Cannery Row," as suggested below.

2. Characters - For a short book, there are almost more characters than can be digested. However, if students understand that there are only a few main characters and that most of the other characters serve a supporting role and help develop the most important character, Cannery Row herself, it is much easier to enjoy the morass. For, indeed, it is an enjoyable puzzle of people and predicaments.

The main characters to be aware of throughout the story are: Doc, that "fine fellow" who is the recipient of the two parties; Mack and his cast of characters referred to by Doc as "the boys" and by Steinbeck as "the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties," who give the parties to Doc; Lee Chong, the unwilling voice of reason, whose store is the gathering place for the people of the Row and the place at which the most important props, with the exception of the marine animals, are gathered. To some extent, we might also consider Dora Flood, the Madame of the Bear Flag Restaurant, and her girls as the counterpoint to Mack and the boys of the Palace Flophouse. And, finally, the most important character of all is Cannery Row. All of the other characters help develop her character. All the plots, subplots, and sub-subplots tell us more about this unique but common place.

3. Setting - Nothing, of course, is more important than the setting of this novella. It is the title of Steinbeck's' short book. And, it is the place that allows the stories and the characters to develop. In chapters throughout the book, from the opening introduction to the final chapter, Cannery Row is a place that takes on human importance-a place that allows all of the humans in it to be who they are, without fear. The centrality of the setting to his work allows Steinbeck to personify without creating a fairy story.

The characters could not come together in a different setting. The ocean, the biological lab with its marine animals, the shallows along the shore where Doc captures odd creatures, the empty lot with its flophouse and boiler residence, the grocery/dry goods store that provides the beer and party supplies and, finally, unwillingly the truck, the frog pool, the whore house, and the emptiness of the Row when the factories close for the night all contribute to the development of the characters and the plot.

4. Themes - Although this story can simply be read as an enjoyable, good tale, the art of Steinbeck is in the simplicity of his words and stories. Many possible themes can be explored. Students will uncover some on their own; others are more interesting when explored together.

Perhaps the most important theme is the one that Steinbeck introduces in the introduction and further spells out in chapter two: things and people are not always what they seem. In the final paragraph of the introduction Steinbeck writes: "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?"

In chapter two he writes: "Lee Chong is more than a Chinese grocer. He must be. Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good." Also in this chapter he first calls Mack and the boys, "the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties."

He says of Dora in the next chapter, "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."

The Palace Flophouse had been a bare room until Mack and the boys moved in. Then, "Mack, with a piece of chalk, drew five oblongs on the floor, each seven feet long and four feet wide, and in each square he wrote a name. These were the simulated beds. Each man had property rights..." It became a home, and, in their way, Mack, the boys, and Darling the dog, became family.

"Henri the painter was not French and his name was not Henri...About his painting there is some question." He had been living in and building his boat for ten years, but he never wanted to finish it. "It sat among the pine trees on a lot Henri rented for five dollars a year."

Mrs. Malloy buys "real lace curtains and edges of blue and pink" to decorate her windowless boiler home. In many ways, nothing in the story is quite what it seems, including Doc and Cannery Row, itself.

Another theme students might explore is the importance of family and relationships. Although the traditional families in Steinbeck's tale are few (one might think of Sam Malloy and Mrs. Malloy as traditional, except that they live in a boiler), there are numerous family relationships in the story: Mack and the boys take in Gay when he decides he can't get any rest because his wife hits him in his sleep and then he must wake up and beat her up. They also take in Darling the dog, and when she becomes ill the boys quit whatever jobs they have so they can sit by her side and nurse her back to health. Doc, too, has a family in his aloneness. He lets Frankie stay in the lab. All of Cannery Row is an extended family. Each of its residents looks out for the others.

Students might also explore the theme of humanity. Steinbeck creates characters who care about each other far more than they care about a steady job or material possessions. In spite of their poverty, lack of social graces, and outcast status, they attempt to help each other. Although their plans are frequently ill-conceived and poorly executed, their actions come from the heart, creating both the warmth and pathos of the story.

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