Cannery Row

by: John Steinbeck

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

What is the symbolic importance of collecting in this novel? How do Doc's collecting activities inform the plot? How is collecting a metaphor for the act of writing?

Collecting involves taking a random sample and using it to make generalities about a larger population. This is what Doc does by selecting specimens for scientists to study; it is also what Steinbeck does by introducing random characters through brief sk etches inserted into the main plot. Collecting also implies taking what you find in front of you rather than trying to construct something original. Steinbeck seeks to describe a specific place and to capture some of its local specificity; he is less co ncerned with constructing a story that will be universally applicable. In this way, his creative technique has something in common with Doc's collecting activities.

How is success defined in this novel? Who is the most successful: Doc, Mack, Dora, or Lee Chong? Why? Try to argue the case for each of these characters.

Dora may be the most successful character in the novel. She is a successful businesswoman, and, although her business may seem to modern readers to involve the exploitation of others, we see throughout the novel how her brothel provides a needed outlet f or some of the sexual energies of the town. Dora also exemplifies a sense of community: She is constantly giving help to those who need it, and she uses her "girls" to help the people during the influenza epidemic. Mack is too self-centered, and his pl ans often go awry as a result. Lee Chong is mostly concerned with profits, and, again, he often faces disaster as a result of his neglect of the human side of situations. Doc is hampered by his melancholy and doesn't really form any strong bonds with ot hers. Overall, Dora is the character who best combines humanity and financial success. (Note: this is only a sample answer; Dora should not be considered as definitively the most successful character in the novel.)

How do the interspersed vignettes and anecdotes about the people of Cannery Row inform the main plot? Do they have anything to do with the main plot or are they there merely for atmosphere?

The interspersed sections let Steinbeck paint a broader picture of Cannery Row: They give him a chance to introduce more characters and show more of the Row without having to construct a convoluted or artificial plot to do so. Many of the anecdotes end on a note of violence, death, or cruelty, though, and, as such, they provide another perspective on the sometimes overly sunny portrait Steinbeck paints. By remaining outside the main plot, though, they provide a more subtle commentary, without forcing Ste inbeck to use heavy irony by having disaster befall his main characters.