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Order vs Chaos in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

The theme of Cannery Row, in short, is no less than a poetic statement of

human order surrounded by a chaotic and essentially indifferent universe, and

this is one reason why the structure of the book does seem so “loose” – why

Steinbeckian digressions and interchapters so often interrupt the flow of


A wandering and mysterious Oriental threads his way through the story

with no “purpose” but to remind us of the emptiness and pathos and loneliness

we all share, things which render our cruelty or ambition futile. The face of

a drowned girl appears like a paradoxical vision of “immortal death”; a chaos

of sea-life-and-feeding is given order and shape by an obscure scientist –

observer, who realizes the he is himself part of the processes which he

catalogues; a serio-comic painter devotes himself to work which inevitably

comes to nothing – and we recognize an allegory of our own labors; there is

suicide, loneliness, joy, love, and isolation jumbled together in a peculiar

and haphazard fashion which somehow results in emotion neither peculiar nor

haphazard; the recognition of ourselves.

The symbolism of chaos-and-order is basic to Cannery Row; various

characters, each in his own fashion, try to arrange and observe what cannot,

in any essential aspect, be changed. As Steinbeck says in one of his

“inter-chapters” or digressions, it is the function of The World-of human

communication-to create by means of faith and art an Order of love which is

mankind’s only answer to that fate which all men, and indeed all life, must

ultimately share. And if John Steinbeck turns to the “outcasts” from society

as symbols for this vision, it may be that only the outcasts of machine

Human Action vs Human Intent in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row Cannery Row Essays

Human Action Vs Human Intent in Cannery Row For the characters in Cannery Row may be more than they appear to be-more than obscure storekeepers or drifters-but they, like the humanity which they represent, are far less than perfect. Neither their happiness nor their means of achieving it is simply the “good” way compared to the “bad” way of the rest of the money-grubbing world. Mack and the boys, like the rest of us, often break when they wish to build, hurt when they want to love; and, like the rest of us, their immediate appetites often distract them from their deeper need to give of themselves. The people of Cannery Row, representing humanity, are “consistent only in their inconsistency” – in short, they contain the admixture of good and evil which renders self-righteous human judgment both irrelevant and absurd. Lee Chong, for example, the Chinese grocer, is-as Steinbeck himself tells us- “more” than a Chinese grocer. He must be. Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good – an Asiatic planet held to its orbit by the pull of Lao Tze and held away from Lao Tze by the centrifugality of abacus and cash register-Lee Chong suspended, spinning, whirling among groceries and ghosts.” And what is true of Lee Chong is true of Cannery Row: a community of human souls often erring, often fumbling, often absurd, but somehow noble and touching even in the fact of their own lack of “importance.” For given the vast forces at work in the chaos which is life – and death – human effort is both fragile and ludicrous, and this is precisely what creates the tragedy, the pride, the humility, the sadness, the comedy, and the nobility of our mortal condition.

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