Cannery Row has a simple premise: Mack and his friends are trying to do something nice for their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. Mack hits on the idea that they should throw a thank-you party, and the entire community quickly becomes involved. Unfortunately, the party rages out of control, and Doc's lab and home are ruined—and so is Doc's mood. In an effort to return to Doc's good graces, Mack and the boys decide to throw another party—but make it work this time. A procession of linked vignettes describes the denizens' lives on Cannery Row. These constitute subplots that unfold concurrently with the main plot.
Steinbeck revisited these characters and this milieu nine years later in his novel Sweet Thursday.
Lee Chong is the shrewd Chinese owner and operator of the neighborhood grocery store known as "Lee Chong's Heavenly Flower Grocery". "The grocery opened at dawn and did not close until the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent or retired for the night. Not that Lee Chong was avaricious. He wasn't, but if one wanted to spend money, he was available." "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.
Doc is a marine biologist who studies and collects sea creatures from all along the California coast. Most of these creatures are preserved in some way and are sent all over the country to universities, laboratories, and museums. "You can order anything living from Western Biological, and sooner or later you will get it." Doc is described as "deceptively small" with great strength and the potential for passionate anger. He wears a beard, very strange and unpopular at the time, and has great charisma. "Doc tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him." Doc is also the smartest man in Cannery Row, interested in knowing something about everything. "Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon," Steinbeck wrote. "Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, 'I really must do something nice for Doc.'"
The character of Doc is based on Steinbeck's friend Ed Ricketts, to whom he also dedicated the novel. Ricketts was a noted marine biologist and the one who got Steinbeck interested in the subject. Doc's Western Biological Laboratory is a reference to Ricketts' real Pacific Biological Laboratories, which stood at 800 Cannery Row from 1928 to 1948.
Owner and operator of the Bear Flag Restaurant, Dora possesses a keen business mind as well as a strong spirit. Despite the fact that she runs a whorehouse, she has certain standards - selling no hard liquor, keeping an honest price on the services of the house, and allowing no vulgarity to be spoken on the premises. Dora is also kind to those who have helped her, never turning out a girl too old or infirm to work: "Some of them don't turn three tricks a month, but they go right on eating three meals a day." Being an illegal operation, Dora has to be "twice as law abiding" and "twice as philanthropic" as anyone else in Cannery Row. When the general donation for a policeman's ball is a dollar, Dora is asked for and gives 50. "With everything else it is the same, Red Cross, Community Chest, Boy Scouts, Dora's unsung, unpublicized dirty wages of sin lead the list of donations." During the darkest days of the Great Depression, Dora paid people's grocery bills and fed their children, very nearly going broke in the process. Dora runs a business that plays an important role in Cannery Row's society. Dora is debatably the most successful character in the book.
Mack, a 48-year-old man, described as "the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment. But where as most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently." Mack has few compunctions about lying, stealing, or swindling, but his intentions are generally good, so he is able to justify his actions and those of his friends as means to an end. It is said he is highly intelligent and "could be President if he wanted to be". He and his group of friends are known to all as "Mack and the boys" and spend a great deal of their time in an abandoned storage shed they christen "The Palace Flophouse and Grill".
Hazel is a dim but good, strong and loyal young man living with Mack and the boys in the Palace Flophouse. His name is feminine because his mother was tired when he was born (the eighth child in seven years) and named the baby after an aunt who was rumored to have life insurance. When she realized that Hazel was a boy she had already gotten used to the name and never changed it. Hazel "did four years of grammar school, four years of reform school, and didn't learn anything in either place." Hazel loves to listen to people's conversations and remembers everything he is told but can hardly make sense of any of it.
Another resident of the Palace, Eddie is a part-time bartender who supplies the boys with "hooch" poured off from whatever patrons leave in their glasses at Ida's Bar. "He kept a gallon jug under the bar and in the mouth of the jar was a funnel. Anything left in the glasses Eddie poured into the funnel before he washed the glasses... The resulting punch he took back to the Palace was always interesting and sometimes surprising. The mixture of rye beer, bourbon, scotch, wine, rum and gin was fairly constant, but now and then some effete customer would order a stinger or an anisette or a curaçao and these little touches gave a distinct character to the punch."
The enigmatic figure of "The Chinaman" appears in the story several times. He walks quietly through the town, usually while the narrator is himself on the way down to the ocean. The Chinaman's association with the eternal sea reminds one that the fast-paced and hilarious adventures of the Cannery Row characters are merely ripples in the vast sweep of human experience.
Cannery Row is the living backdrop for the book. As described in the opening paragraph:
"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. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing."
Lee Chong's is the first location we are introduced to in the novel, the hub of commerce in Cannery Row. Lee Chong's store is truly a "general store" in which you could buy, "clothes, food both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops. You could buy at Lee Chong's a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter pint of whiskey and a cigar. You could work out combinations to fit almost any mood." Almost everyone in the area owes money to Lee Chong, but he is generous with his debtors because he has found they will usually pay him back rather than make the long trek to the next nearest store over in New Monterey.
Home to Mack and the boys, the house was originally a storage shed for fish meal and was given to Lee Chong to clear a debt. Mack convinces Lee Chong that letting him and boys move in will keep it safe from vandals and arsonists (an implicit threat). To save face, Lee asks Mack for five dollars a week in rent (all the while knowing he will never see a dime of it). Lee figures that if Mack and the boys ever had any money they would spend it at his place and would have very little reason to steal from him, as he had the right to evict them at any time. "The saving to Lee Chong in cans of beans and tomatoes and milk and watermelons more than paid the rent. And if there was a sudden and increased leakage among the groceries in New Monterey that was none of Lee Chong's affair." As the weeks go on furniture and paint and other niceties begin appearing in the Palace, and, piece by piece, it becomes a home to Mack and the boys and their adopted pointer dog, Darling.
The Bear Flag is the local whorehouse, owned and operated by Dora Flood. It is described as, "A decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house where a man can take a glass of beer among friends... a sturdy, virtuous club," where profanity and hard liquor are not allowed. The Bear Flag is respected (if not liked) by the residents of Cannery Row because many of them depend on it. When a sickness spreads through Cannery Row, it is the girls of the Bear Flag who go delivering soup and company to the sick while they recuperate, and on the list of generous donors to local charities or events, the Bear Flag is always at the top.
Doc's home and office, the lab is a place where all kinds of living things are kept and preserved (e.g., live octopi, rattlesnakes, starfish). Doc makes frequent trips up and down the California coast to collect specimens from the ocean and sells them for dissection or observation at labs, museums, and universities all across the country. Doc also has a library's worth of books and records and an old phonograph player. Scattered around the walls are reproductions of great works of art, ".....pinned here and there at eye level so you could look at them if you want to." Doc loves his records; each song evokes a different emotion in him. Doc is also known to bring a girl home from time to time, though these flings never seem to last.
Doc goes on a trip to collect octopuses from the tide pools in La Jolla, California.
The residents of Cannery Row work together to hold a party for Doc. Eventually their endeavors pay off and exemplify the vastly different skills and resources of the residents to make a culminating goal for the book.
Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse need little and appreciate much, and whatever they do need they acquire by cunning and often times stealing. Doc is happy with his station in life and in the community (but many worry about his being lonely without a companion). Lee Chong could very easily go after the people in Cannery Row and collect on the debts he is owed, but he chooses instead to let the money come back to him gradually. "Henri the painter" is happy building his ever-changing boat and will continually dismantle it and start again so that he can continue building it. Cannery Row is content because its denizens are not ambitious to be anything other than who they are: their sole ambition is to better befriend Doc.
Steinbeck expresses a certain respect for prostitution for its honesty of motives, while reserving moral judgment for the reader. In Of Mice and Men (1937), George has a small monologue in which he states that a man can go into a whorehouse and get a beer and sex for a price agreed upon up front - unlike less professional relationships, you know what you're going to get and what you will have to pay for it. The same theme of respect is expressed in Cannery Row in Steinbeck's descriptions of the Bear Flag: prostitution is a business that provides a service in demand, it is run cleanly and honestly, and it benefits the community.
Throughout the story characters such as Dora Flood, Mack, and Doc are all expanded upon, and they reveal that they are much more complicated than they at first appear to be. For example, Dora Flood owns the brothel and is disliked by the townswomen because of her business, but she is very generous and for two years donates groceries to hungry people. Doc, who is a loved and respected member of society, is, deep down, a very sad and lonely person who, until the end of the story, never opens up to other people.
The novel opens with the words: "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." Author John Steinbeck spent some of the happiest years of his life in a house in Pacific Grove near "Cannery Row" and the laboratory of his friend, Ed Ricketts. This began in 1930 and lasted to 1941, when Steinbeck's marriage failed, and he fled eastward to marry again (eventually). After a traumatic time documenting the war in the Mediterranean campaign in 1943, Steinbeck returned home to find that his second marriage was also in difficulties. He wrote Cannery Row in 1944 in an attempt to recover a Depression era world in Monterey which was, by then, already inaccessible to Steinbeck. Major influences for this change included the war's effect on both Steinbeck and Monterey, the breakup of Steinbeck's first marriage, and the insulation caused by Steinbeck's new wealth arising from his increasing fame and success as a writer. Steinbeck was already beginning to suspect that he would never again be able to go back to living in this, his favorite part of California. Indeed, after a failed attempt to live in California in the late 1940s, he left to spend the rest of his life in New York.
Steinbeck later wrote a sequel released in 1954 called Sweet Thursday, in which several new characters are introduced and Doc finds love, with the active help of his friends. The film version of Cannery Row incorporates elements from both books.
A film version was released in 1982, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. The screenplay was written by David S. Ward, whose other screenplay credits include The Sting and Major League.
In 1994, the Western Stage at Hartnell College in Salinas, California, commissioned J.R. Hall to do a stage adaptation the novel to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its publication. A year later, it was produced as part of the National Steinbeck Festival. Subsequently, it was revived by the Western Stage in 2005, by the Community College of Allegheny County, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2007, and by The City Theatre of Sacramento, CA in 2014.The titles of the 1950 Tweety Bird cartoon Canary Row and the 1967 Tom and Jerry cartoon short Cannery Rodent are plays on words of this book's name.
In the South Park episode, "Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?", the two-year-old Ike Broflovski is reading Cannery Row with his parents, who then compliment him on reading two of Steinbeck's books in one day.
The 2016 novel, "Monterey Bay" by Lindsay Hatton returns to Cannery Row, with John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts as central characters in a fictionalized origin story of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.