"Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck, Chapter 2 (Annotated)


  This is one of the most difficult chapters to understand in that it draws so heavily on allusion. A lack of a broad educational background or an unwillingness to dig into reference books to seek meaning, leaves the reader scanning quickly over the words in order to get to the next chapter. This is a pity, because the understanding of this chapter, in conjunction with the prologue, gives the key to the understanding of the novel.
   The notes given here are a mixture of personal observations and critical commentary. Since this is not a formal treatise, no attribution has been given.
   I first prepared this as a teaching tool for my high school students who were candidates for the Scottish Higher English Examination.  It was not just to tell them what the chapter meant... I was trying to illustrate to them how much could be discovered through research to make the unintelligible, intelligible.  They were amazed by the fact that the notes on the chapter were far longer than the chapter itself.
   I welcome corrections or additions to this...

   The word is a symbol1 and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese.2 Then the Thing becomes the Word3 and back to Thing again, but warped and woven4 into a fantastic pattern. The Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas. Lee Chong is more than a Chinese grocer.5 He must be. Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good6­an Asiatic planet held to its orbit by the pull of Lao Tze and held away from Lao Tze by the centrifugality7 of abacus8 and cash register9­Lee Chong suspended, spinning, whirling among groceries and ghosts.10 A hard man with a can of beans­a soft man with the bones of his grandfather.11 For Lee Chong dug into the grave on China Point and found the yellow bones, the skull with grey ropy hair still sticking to it. And Lee carefully packed the bones, femurs, and tibias really straight, skull in the middle, with pelvis and clavicle surrounding it and ribs curving on either side. Then Lee Chong sent his boxed and brittle12 grandfather over the western sea13 to lie at last in ground made holy by his ancestors.

  Mack and the boys, too, spinning in their orbits. They are the Virtues,14 the Graces,15 the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic16 Monterey where men in fear and hunger17 destroy their stomachs18 in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable19 about them. Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers,20 rutted21 by strictured bulls,22 scavenged by blind jackals,23 Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers,24 and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea-gulls of Cannery Row. What can it profit a man25 to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate,26 and bifocals? 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. Our Father who art in nature27, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house-fly and the moth,28 must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest.29 Our Father who art in nature.

1. A symbol in that it is not the thing itself, but only represents the thing in an imperfect way.
2. A person from the Chinese city of Peking. (now transliterated as Beijing)
3. In the New Testament of the Bible, the book of John starts with these words:"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
This adds a new and greater dimension to the nature of "word" which is shown by the use of a capital letter.
4. Alliteration. This is also an interesting play on words: "Warped" can mean twisted out of shape, but when used as "warp and woof (or weft)" it becomes the names for the vertical and horizontal threads in weaving, which, in turn, comes back to the word "woven".
5. This introduces the use of dualism in Steinbeck's attempt to define the nature of Cannery Row. Dualism is a system of thought that recognises two and only two principles or substances, which are sometimes complementary but usually in conflict. Metaphysical dualisms deal with principles such as good and evil as a means of explaining the nature of reality. Plato's being and becoming, Aristotle's form and matter, Chinese philosophy's yin and yang and the traditional issues of God and man, space and time, and nature and nurture are famous dualisms.
6. Lao Tze (604 - 531 B.C.) composed the Tao-te Ching (The Way and Its Power) from which the philosophy called Taoism was derived. The essential teaching is that the Tao, or Way, to ultimate reality is through a knowledge of the hidden principle of the universe and a reliance upon it. This principle is that the way of the universe is exemplified in nature. A study of nature should lead to the observation that the harmony of opposites (T'ai Ch'ai) is achieved through a blend of the yin (feminine force) and the yang (masculine force). This harmony can be cultivated through creative quietude (wu wei) which is an effortless action whose power (te) maintains equanimity and balance.
7. The force of an object spinning around a centre point. The object pulls away from the centre. Imagine a conker on a string, spinning rapidly. The string restrains the conker from flying off in a straight line. But, cut the string and...
Planets stay in position due to a balance of forces: gravity pulling the planet toward the sun (the string) and the centrifugal force. This balance of forces defines the planet's orbit.
8. An abacus is an ancient form of calculator consisting of movable beads that slide on rods. A skilled user can equal the speed of a modern pocket calculator on simple calculations.
9. A far more modern calculating device. The point is, Lee Chong has both and can use both.
10. Another alliterative pair.
11. Chinese burial customs dictated that the earth of the homeland was sacred and that true rest for the spirit depended upon suitable burial. Although Lee Chong is "westernised", he is sensitive enough to the beliefs of his grandfather to undertake the unpleasant and expensive exhumation. Another duality in that Lee Chong is observing and respecting both cultures.
12. Another alliterative pair.
13. Pacific Ocean.
14. The Seven Cardinal Virtues are by tradition: Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance. These are balanced by the Seven Deadly Sins which are: Pride, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice and Sloth.
15. In Greek mythology there were three goddesses who were referred to as the Graces. Their names were Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia and they were the daughters of Zeus and Hera. The three sisters were considered to be the personification of grace and beauty, thus they could also be the Beauties. They were the inspirers of the arts and the sciences.
16. The word "cosmos" denotes the universe as an orderly and systematic whole, as opposed to chaos. Steinbeck asks the reader to see Monterey on a universal scale.
17. Strong motivating urges, but negative in nature. They are not noble urges as noted before under the Cardinal Virtues.
18. An example of irony. A clear reference to ulcers which are commonly considered to be a businessman's ailment. Steinbeck mentions ulcers twice in the lines that follow.
19. A continuation of the irony.
20. Thus not free to eat what they might choose.
21. Judging by the context, it would be appropriate to assume that the sexual meaning, that of intercourse, is intended.
22. An observation, of a sexual nature, on the way that bulls are restricted in their access to sexual partners.
23. Another limitation illustrating that those in control... who have the "power" are not really free to do as they please.
24. A young cow. In this context it seems to suggest an animal which has reached sexual maturity but is still a virgin.
25. In the New Testament of the Bible, the book of Mark contains these words:
"And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, 'Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?'"
26. A male gland that is associated with sexual activity.
27. An obvious echo of the King James Version of the Lord's Prayer as given in Matthew 6:9:
After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
Amen.

Steinbeck's slight changes are significant: "which" becomes "who", thus making God more personal; "heaven" becomes "nature" and thus reflects the Taoist philosophy from earlier in the chapter. The book is, essentially, multicultural.
28. A listing of five creatures which, although they seem to be of little value, survive and thrive.
29. A return to the dualities.


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