The Theme of Poverty in Cannery Row Essay
The Theme of Poverty in Cannery Row
Poverty is an important theme in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Set in the 1920s during the Great Depression, poverty is an overarching aspect of life in the down-and-out community of Cannery Row. A backdrop for the book, Cannery Row is a place where poverty affects everyone and everything. In spite of ever-present poverty, the people of Cannery Row make do with what little they have. This brief essay will discuss the role that poverty plays in Cannery Row and conclude with important lessons John Steinbeck offers regarding poverty and human nature.
Cannery Row is a rundown coastal community in California, beset by poverty and decay. Accordingly “its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches’, by which he meant Everybody.” (Steinbeck 1) Described as a foul-smelling strip of land opposite the sardine fishery, the inhabitants of Cannery Row make do with what little they have and work together, despite their impoverished existence.
Although the characters of Cannery Row may not have material possessions, they work together and live in relative harmony. The neighborhood grocer, Lee Chong, is relatively wealthy when compared to the other characters in Cannery Row, and he extends credit to the people of this rundown community, understanding that they do not always have the means to always pay for their purchases.
Although not obvious at first sight, Lee Chong is a generous man and “over the course of the years everyone…owed him money. He never pressed his clients.” (Steinbeck 3) Despite the poverty of Cannery Row, Lee extends credit to all. Accordingly, “”No one is really sure whether Lee ever receives any of the money he is owed or if his wealth consisted entirely of unpaid debts, but he lives comfortably and does legitimate business in the Row” (Steinbeck 43). He doesn’t hassle his debtors and is content to sit back and wait for payment. His generosity even extends to helping Mack and the boys fund a home.
Mack and the boys are “bums”: homeless men without wives, families or jobs. Despite their position as outcasts and social undesirables, Mack and his boys are content with their social situation and are not angry about their impoverished lives. In fact, their total lack of financial resources does not inhibit their ability to plan something nice for their friend Doc or enthusiastically set up shop in Lee Chong’s storage shed, ironically renamed “The Palace Flophouse and Grill.”
Mack is a good man at heart and his intentions are generally good but he also prone to lying, stealing and deceiving. An important example of this is when Mack and the boys discover that their new car does not have a proper license plate, they “hung a rag permanently and accidentally on the rear plate to hide its vintage” and also “dabbed the front plate with good, thick mud” in an effort to deceive the unsuspecting police (J.C.R. 526)
Vice and poverty also seem to go hand-in-hand in Cannery Row. Prostitution is presented in the novel as being situated around the Bear Flag, the neighborhood brothel where prostitution reigns supreme. Dora’s girls, as they are affectionately called, work in a business which is universally described as sinful and where they would generally be perceived as social outcasts. Despite their current position in life, they, along with Dora, are important members of the Cannery Row community and step into to act as nursemaids and feed members of the neighborhood when sickness strikes. The people of Cannery Row work together when the going gets tough, as shown when Phyllis Mae and Dora’s other prostitutes band together during the influenza epidemic.
Steinbeck leaves us with some important lessons, particularly with regards to wealth and human nature. Despite the fact that the characters are unrefined, perceived of as outcasts and they exist in desperate poverty, the people of Cannery Row work to help one another.
Camaraderie is an important theme established by Steinbeck. Even if their plans do not actually materialize and they do not have all the money in the world to carry out their grandiose projects, the people of Cannery Row try to help each other and are motivated by goodness and not greed. They may not have a lot but they make do with what they have. Although materially quite poor, the residents of Cannery Row share a common humanity and a richness which cannot be bought.
Camp, C. L. “Reviewed work: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck”. California Folklore Quarterly. 4: 2 (Apr., 1945): 203-204.
- C. R. “Review.” The Kenyon Review. 7:3 (Summer, 1945): 526-527.
Levant, Howard. “Tortilla Flat: The Shape of John Steinbeck’s Career”. PMLA, 85:5 (Oct., 1970): 1087-1095.
Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. New York: Penguin, 1993.