Cannery Row

The Pearl of Cannery Row

A pearl is created when a tiny speck of intruding dust enters and irritates an oyster shell. The reaction of the oyster is to make a beautiful pearl out of the particle of dust. Some pearls are perfect and others are imperfect, but all are a unique and wondrous creation of nature. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck imitates nature’s process with Cannery Row as the oyster and Mack as the speck of dust. Steinbeck shows Mack as the irritant which causes Cannery Row to veer from a precarious course and make a change for the better. In the end Mack creates a wonderful “pearl” for Cannery Row — the quality of unity — and the reader learns that sometimes the best results come from seemingly meaningless occurrences.
Mack is in the least a large source of irritation and at the most worthless to the residents of Cannery Row. Steinbeck introduces him as “... the elder, leader, mentor and to a small extent, the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money and no ambitions beyond food, drink and contentment” (9). His effect upon the town, while often anonymous, is clearly sensed: “A hardware store supplied a can of red paint not reluctantly because it never knew about it...” (12). Mack appears when he needs something and disappears when pay-up time comes around. To Cannery Row, “Mack [and the boys] avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums” (15). Because Mack does not fit society’s traditional standards of living, the town also assumes that his character does not measure up either. He isn’t seen for what he really is — a man with a sweet soul who simply is not driven by worldly desires — instead, people judge him against others and by their own expectations of a man.
Mack lacks ambition but not a good heart. His only intentions are for survival, never for the purpose of inflicting pain or problem on others: “In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack [and the boys] dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row” (15). He calmly accepts what his life presents him with, making palaces out of shacks instead of trying to attain a higher position. Mack’s good-natured side can be seen in his desire to do something nice for the friendly and dependable marine biologist Doc. For Cannery Row, the effect is for Mack to actually develop a goal — throwing a party for Doc. As soon as this goal is realized, Mack goes to work. He manipulates everyone, including Doc himself, so his goal can be attained; from Lee Chong, the grocery store owner: “Will you let us take your old truck up to Carmel Valley for frogs for Doc—for good old Doc?” (55) to the trusting captain who ends up willingly helping Mack: “You know, I’ve got a pond up by the house that’s so full of frogs, I can’t sleep nights . . . I’d be glad to get rid of them” (83), and back to Lee Chong again. Ironically, Mack could just as easily use his persuasive powers strictly for personal gain, but the thought never enters his mind.
We see the cultivation of the pearl taking place with the events leading up to the botched first party and with the disaster itself. Mack first stirs up the town in his campaign to acquire money and materials for the party. Everything is smooth until the irritation begins: Mack makes the mistake of saying “just a few sips won’t hurt” too many times: with the captain “Maybe a short one . . . wouldn’t it be easier to pour out some in a pitcher?” (92), in waiting for Doc: “They [Mack and the boys] had a couple more drinks, just to savor the plan” (121) and while decorating: “They [Mack and the boys] had finished the whiskey by now and they really felt in a party mood”