John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, on its surface, is a very simplistic book in which its plot does not have any significant impact on its universe, let alone its characters. However, if one might delve deeper into Steinbeck’s clever subtext and rich overtones, a world of bliss and beauty can be found. Cannery Row, is a book where its characters are self-described as “Whores, Pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” and yet called “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” on the very same page (405).
The point of these contradictions is to comment on society’s view of Morality. This is specifically noted when one of the main Characters, Doc, says “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.” When referring a group of Former homeless men called Mack and the boys (505). Mack and the boys are a group of bums that live in the row, and often do nothing but drink alcohol. These men never do anything necessarily heroic, or daring, or even Courageous, but these men are the most moral individuals in the entirety of Cannery Row.
Through the Scenes following Mack and the Boys, John Steinbeck develops Idea that despite their lack of ambition, they are viewed as morally upstanding individuals, who have a positive impact on society. With their happy go lucky nature, and simple needs, these men can achieve the impossible. One might think that they are very unintelligent individuals due to their standard of living, but that couldn’t be farther than the truth. Time and time again they prove themselves to be people that are not only capable, but show extraordinary prowess in certain fields. One of these men, for instance was gay. When referring to his mechanical ability, Steinbeck narrates “Indeed there are men near Whom a car runs better. And such a one was gay.
His fingers on a timer or a carburetor adjustment screw were gentle and wise and sure.” The way he listens to the ills of automatons, it is of no impossibility he could have become a wealthy mechanic, fixing cars in a garage of his owning. Gay Instead enjoys his time at the flop house, drinking and talking the day away. All Gay really wants, is to have a good time, and for the others around him to do the same. This is a key component of why gay is a moral citizen of society. Gay is often able to do wrong, but never is willing. Gay lives with an abusive Wife, which constantly beats him. He never wants to, but occasionally he has to return the favor.
He used to get thrown into jail because of this, but that he liked the conditions in jail, so his wife beats him while he sleeps instead/ Gay, specifically, is an interesting case, because he has a life in which is deeper than one might believe. he is the only one to have a life of suburbia waiting for him. Gay lived a world in which he had a house and a loving wife. Through another lens, Gay was trapped in a cage with a woman that beats him so much that being put in jail is sweet relief. Despite this, Gay eventually always choses to go back to his wife.
He believes that he is wrong in the situation and returns to his wife trying to be a better man. That truly is the reason why he is an upstanding person. He’s a very humble and simple creature, who just wishes to enjoy life. Another Example of such ambition would the leader of the group, Mack. Mack is by far, is the flop house’s driving force. When leading the group, he is a moral center, and the speaker of wisdom; when alone, he is a very tragic man. Throughout the book, Mack and the boys only ambition was to throw a party for Doc, a local good Samaritan. When this ambition ends in failure, he proclaims:
It don’t do good to say I’m sorry. I’ve been sorry all my life…I had a wife…same thing. Ever’thing I done turn sour. She couldn’t stand it no more. If I done a good thing it got poisoned up some way…I don’t do nothin’ but clown no more. Try to make the boys laugh. (496) Mack seemingly is the only one who doesn’t lack ambition by choice. Whilst in with the other, Mack often is the one to set goals, albeit small ones. This is where the true tragedy of his character comes in. No matter what he does, or hard he works, all of his plans inevitably turn to failure. Mack is a man of good intentions, and made of good morals, but he is seemingly cursed with bad luck, and the world reacts as such. One of Mack’s greatest qualities is his way with words.
A lesser person might use his power of speech craft to control the populace, and shape the world in his image, but Mack just wants to have fun. Whenever he uses this sort of power, he is always talking about doing something for someone else. The adventures of Mack and the boys is filled with irony: Gay having a wife that beats him, Hazel likes conversation, but hates talking, or having a party for someone who doesn’t attend. Perhaps the most ironic of all is that despite their lack of ambition and lazy attitude, their actions Influence everyone around them. All throughout cannery row, people would look on to these men, and get inspired in some way.
One of the greatest examples of such inspiration is the aforementioned Doc. Even though Mack and the Boys destroyed his home by throwing a party for him, without him, he still holds them in high regard. “The sale of souls to gain the whole world is completely voluntary and almost unanimous—but not quite…You know how they tried to give me a party and it went wrong. But they wanted to give me a party. That was their impulse. “(505). What Doc is saying here, is that he respects the lifestyle that Mack and the Boys have chosen, and thinks of them as moral even though things don’t go their way. This is Implied in a number of ways. Initially, he denotes the idea of throwing the party was on a whim of theirs. This is a Reference to the continuing notion of their lack of aspiration. Mack and the Boys don’t do things for certain reasons, they just decide to act whence they get the inspiration.
Furthermore, he begins with a metaphor comparing the Consumerist system, a place where you have to work for a place you often hate, to selling your soul, giving away your humanly essence and personality. This metaphor works well contrasting with the boys, to those who seemingly suffer from working into monotony. Doc is implicating that their way of spontaneity is a way wherein they have the capability to do good. Steinbeck often uses these sections with Doc to illustrate the importance of the boy’s actions. Whenever Doc speaks of them, he outlines how “[business] men are sick men”, and how the boys are “healthy and strangely clean” (504).
Mack and the boys don’t have that thirst that humans often have. That hunger for Silver stitching and velvet bed sheets. Steinbeck uses a group of happy homeless men as a symbol for the importance of caring for one another, while living in the moment. Mack and the boys outline how to do well in life, without selling one’s soul for wealth and power. Morality is often a tricky subject to tackle – and often when it is tackled, it’s not done well—But Steinbeck has it pegged. One might think that things such as be considerate of one another and be humble would be simple Ideologies for a book to go behind, Steinbeck does it justice. Cannery Row Shows just how people react to good deeds, as misguided as they are. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, on its surface, is a very simplistic book, but it is so much more.
Courtney from Study Moose
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