Cannery Row, like many of Steinbeck's other works, has something in common with so-called "local color," or regional, writing. It seeks to capture the spirit of one of the rougher areas of Monterey, California, a port town south of San Francisco on the California coast. Like other local color writing, this novel wants to preserve what it sees as a unique way of life distinct from the kind of "everyman" existence that most realist novels try to capture. Steinbeck is more idealistic and more sentimental about this than many of his fellow regionalist writers, though. Although it lacks the heavy-handedness of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row still romanticizes its cast of misfits and ne'er-do-wells to a significant degree.

In its way, this is a utopian novel, which idealizes the values of the lower classes and insists that good fellowship and warm-heartedness are all that are needed to create a paradise anywhere on earth, even here on run-down Cannery Row. The characters in the novel are accordingly stereotyped at times: the gruff madam with the heart of gold, the grocer who is a tough and even extortionary businessman but who nevertheless keeps the Row going and is capable of extreme generosity, the shiftless man who can't hold a job but will tenderly nurse a puppy back to health.

This novel is disrupted by subtle (and, sometimes, not-so-subtle) instances of violence and cruelty, though: Doc finds a dead girl on the beach, several men commit suicide, and a gentle retarded boy is sent away to an institution because he tried to steal a gift for the person he loves most in the world. In this way, the utopian fantasy of Cannery Row is quietly but persistently questioned. The weight of current events sometimes breaks through: This novel is set immediately following the Depression and World War II, and for many on Cannery Row, the war did little to end the Depression. In all these ways, the "real world" intrudes, to produce a strange hybrid of fantasy and reality. Cannery Row can perhaps be best characterized by what seems a contradiction in terms: It is a realistic utopian novel.

Steinbeck typically uses interspersed anecdotes and vignettes to introduce these instances of darkness. These often take the form of separate chapters that have little to do with the main plot and that often introduce new characters who will not reappear. This structure has several effects. First, it allows Steinbeck to keep his anti-utopian commentary subtle; the book will still be able to end reasonably optimistically. Second, it provides him with a way to capture more of Cannery Row, to paint a broad portrait without being forced to construct an artificially enormous plot; he is able to use the "collecting" technique that Doc's work suggests as a model. Finally, it is an extension of Steinbeck's overall writing style, which depends on small moments of aesthetic brilliance and occasional off-topic riffs. This style owes something to the modernists of the 1920s, particularly Fitzgerald and Faulkner; it also has something in common with techniques used by the Beat writers of the 1950s, like Kerouac. Despite his commitment to provide a realistic description of a particular place, Steinbeck still allows himself moments of linguistic free-wheeling and cosmic speculation (the second chapter of the book is a good example of this). Perhaps it is this connection with the aesthetic that allows Cannery Row to maintain its optimistic outlook and to conclude on a positive note despite the undeniable presence of sorrow and misfortune in the world.