Cannery Row

John Steinbeck is a writer who experienced the pain of the Second World War and though it is true that many who have read his work have negatively criticized his writing, many have also embraced his work in acceptance and appreciation. Yet, showing his true colours, Steinbeck writes about his childhood in Monterey in a classical book called Cannery Row. This is perhaps the most humorous of all which he has written, especially since it was written during the war when most people believed authors should have been writing about the hellfire around them. The opening line of Cannery Row sums up his intent of the entire novel in a sentence, the style of his writing deceptively simple. Steinbeck writes with purpose about the loneliness that never leaves and the values of common man, and in his book significant insights about life are presented to the reader.

In the first line of the Cannery Row, Steinbeck spells out what he would be telling in his tale of life, mapping out his artistic terrain. “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” (5) The second and third nouns, “…a stink, a grating noise…” acknowledge the physical attributes of Monterey. When the Monterey plants were in operation, the fumes were so noxious that in 1936 the mayor of Pacific Grove told the city attorney to sue Monterey (5): “…a poem…a nostalgia, a dream.” Susan Shillinglaw, in an introduction to a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, states an interpretation of the meaning of the book, summarized to combine the real and the imagined:

In this first sentence seven nouns flow from art to life to art, just as the rest of that introductory chapter enumerates[1] the locations, activities, and persons of the Row and then subsides into the metaphor that contains them, the tide pool; just as the early chapters lean in to peer closely at inhabitants of the Row and the later ones draw back to capture the shimmering whole in the parties, and in the last chapter, in the art of poetry. (vii-xxvii)

Steinbeck invites “an expansion of the physical events” with his first sentence, the line a key that opens the door to his novel. (Swisher, The Parable of the Pearl 100)

John Steinbeck’s style of writing is illusively simple yet so deeply intricate. Each simile and each metaphor is so vividly weaved with imagery it is difficult to not picture it. A hilarious image of a simile is Steinbeck’s description of Lee Chong as he takes his post behind the cigar counter in his grocery store. “His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages.” (10) Another simile describes Doc the morning after his second successful party. “Doc awakened very slowly and clumsily like a fat man getting out of a swimming pool.” (184) Being a scientist, specifically a marine biologist, Steinbeck brings out his love for life in Cannery Row with imagery. The descriptive and realistic narrative of Steinbeck’s text appeals to the reader, bringing them out of their world and into Steinbeck’s world. (31):

Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding animals. Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly life with incredible power until the prey is broken form the rock. And then the starfish stomach comes out and envelops its food. Orange and black speckled and fluted nudibrancs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers.

Proving his simply complicated writing, Steinbeck includes metaphors like the one at the beginning of his second chapter that summarizes the meaning of his book in metaphorical terms. “The Thing becomes the Word and