“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”.
This is something I’ve often pondered on, just like Doc in Cannery Row. Often society tends to think comparatively low of those good than those successful. I can vouch for that also through my personal experience. The present status of the world is a direct product of our way of thinking. And if we find the world cold, uncaring, and unfeeling, there is no one to blame for it but ourselves.
In Cannery Row, Steinbeck brings us a set of characters who the world at large considers as “failures”. Doc who runs the biological shop, Mack and the boys, who are unemployed, Lee Chong who runs a grocery, Dora who runs a whorehouse and her girls, and various other inhabitants of the Cannery Row, are worlds apart from those “respectable and successful” who live “on the other side of the hill”. They are not those who command “social interest”, and are even considered as “social outcasts”. But the generosity, kindness, honesty, and camaraderie displayed by them demand respect and admiration. Steinbeck brings these somewhat ostracized individuals to life and thrusts them towards us demanding our attention to them. He seems to say that even though they may not be your preferred everyday associates, their human qualities should equally be acknowledged, admired, and respected. This deeply human touch by this deeply humane author is what truly drew me to the story.
Cannery Row doesn’t have a proper plot. It is rather character-driven. Yet, you’ll not find anything remiss there. Once you get to know the characters, they draw you into their lives. There is, however, an underlying forlorn feeling throughout that makes you painfully emotional. Yet, this strong emotion firmly binds you to the story and its characters. There is also the subtle irony that makes us rethink our own values, principles, and morals.
John Steinbeck is a naturally gifted author. His writing is simple, beautiful, and undemanding. But at the same time, there is subtle power that forces your attention, chokes you with emotion, and demands your notice of the obscurities of life. My repertoire of American classics is not wide. I’ve read only but few authors. Yet I’m convinced that Steinbeck is one of its greatest products.