Human Condition in Cannery Row Research Paper

June 22, 2021 by Essay Writer


Although all humans differ in their character, appearance, and perception of the world around them, several distinct characteristics that can be observed in all individuals exist. The novel Cannery Row by John Steinbeck portrays the various depictions of human life through the stories of its main characters – Doc, Mack, and others. In his work, Steinbeck represents his view of the human condition issue, which revolves around the unique and standard features of life that all people experience. Cannery Row presents a unique depiction of the human condition from a variety of perspectives using characters with different backgrounds and life journeys.

The Characters of Cannery Row

The people portrayed by Steinbeck differ significantly in their occupation and life attitudes. Thus, the town of Cannery Row is inhabited with people of different backgrounds, both wealth and poor. For instance, Mack and his friends struggle due to unemployment and live in a fish meal shack (Steinbeck 3). As opposed to them, Steinbeck introduces Doc, who is intelligent and fully occupied with his work in biology or Lee Chong who sells groceries to locals. Steinbeck himself describes his characters as everybody, which means that the novel aims to describe all kinds of individuals and their issues (1).

Despite these differences, the unity of experience and struggles is illustrated at the end of the novel when Doc recites a poem that makes everyone think about their past. This enables one to understand the human condition that is the center of this work from a variety of different perspectives.

Human Condition

Firstly, it is necessary to identify the specifics of the human condition concept that would help one determine its portrayal in Cannery Row. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “part of being a person” (par. 1). Thus, everything that characterizes one as a human being can be considered a characteristic of the human condition. This component is an essential part of literature because through its portrayal authors such as Steinbeck show the readers the variety of challenges and experiences that people have. Due to the fact that Cannery Row tells a story of different characters with a range of aspirations it can be argued that Steinbeck showcases various aspects of the human condition in his work by using examples of different people.

From one perspective, the human condition can be considered as a general feature of individuals, regardless of their gender, age, or occupation. Steinbeck describes the inhabitants in the following manner – “as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” (1). This characteristic provides an understanding that the novel focuses on ordinary people from different backgrounds. Thus, the events described in the novel are a representation of life that each individual can experience.

It can be argued that this novel illustrates how people choose to focus on things they cannot have. Additionally, the complex nature of human beings often leads to destructive consequences. Steinbeck writes that “men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them” (6). Despite this, Cannery Row depicts the contrast of the warm-hearted nature of the inhabitants and the challenging environment around them.

For instance, the boy who gets institutionalized after an attempt to steal a gift because of his learning difficulties and past criminal history (Steinbeck 50). On the one hand, he has good intentions and factors such as poverty and inability to study obstruct him from achieving success, while on the other his actions are against the law. Thus, the troubled character of the town’s inhabitants is a portrayal of human nature with a variety of different characteristics.

Additionally, the important element that illustrates the main idea of Steinbeck’s work is the final chapter that ends with a poem Black Marigolds by Glenn Vanderburg. This poem causes a disruption at the final party because everyone listens to it carefully. This is because each character can relate to the words. Cengage Learning Gale argues that this is because Cannery Row’s inhabitants are a combination of inner conflict due to troubles that they experience and social harmony (10). Thus, all the inhabitants can understand the words of the poem because it describes their lives and human nature.


The main plot of the story revolves around the desire of Mack and others to arrange a party for Doc as a way to thank him for his kindness. The appreciation and dedication shown by Mack’s character are impressive, considering the overall poverty and struggles that he experiences. In his article, Correll argues that despite the general approach of biographical analysis that is applied to the character of Doc it is more accurate to “connect the town’s celebrations for Doc with forms of worship” (Correll 2).

In this manner, the illustration of the efforts it took to create the first party and failure, that followed due to the fact that Doc was not able to attend, can be reviewed as a general depiction of human nature. In this regard, it can be argued that in Steinbeck’s work failure is depicted as part of life and common feature among all people.

In general, the novel portrays the different aspects of happiness in varying socio-economic conditions. Steinbeck states “what can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?” (2). In this manner, the author describes the life choices of Mack and his friends as despite the fact that they do not have jobs and can be considered outcasts they can find their moments of happiness. Thus, in spite of the failure described above and the overall difficulty of life depicted in Cannery Row, the nature of human condition encourages Mack and others to continue.

Even though Doc was not present at the first party due to unforeseen life events and was met by a trashed house, he and Mack become closer after these occurrences. After this, these characters experience some unfortunate events such as influenza and the death of their friend. Regardless of these issues and past failure, Mack arranges a second party for Doc, this time it is a success. This provides an understanding of the overall attitudes and human connections and their importance to people in this town. Thus, the warm-hatred nature of the main characters in this novel helps them overcome difficulties and failure.


The economic struggles that people experience throughout their lives are also part of the human condition depicted in Cannery Row. The entire community described in the novel and the timeframe of this work, which is the Great Depression, imply that the main characters experience issues with money. Despite these issues, people in this town continue living their lives throwing parties for their friends and perusing their ambition.

Lancaster explores this theme by arguing that Cannery Row is an example of the social exchange theory (55). It is due to the lack of money in the community, which results in the need to search for other means of acquiring goods. For instance, the grocer Chong, who appears to be more wealthy than others, allows purchasing food using credit (Steinbeck 10). This component illustrates both the struggles of the people as part of the human condition and the need to adapt to the community.

Another example of this issue is the character of Mack and his friends. All of them are unemployed; they are skillful and full of enthusiasm. This is reflected in their desire to arrange a party for another character – Doc. The underlying reason for this is a wish to do something good for a person that was kind to Mack and others, which is noble. An interesting aspect here is that neither Mack nor others have money to purchase supplies or food (Steinbeck 7). Thus, an interesting viewpoint of human nature portrayed in Cannery Row is the strive to achieve something despite the difficulties presented in the external environment.

Universal Message

Based on the Cannery Row’s analysis presented above it can be argued that the author aims to provide an illustration of life that ordinary people live by showing their feelings. Despite the fact that the plot is complicated due to the variety of characters described, it is evident that the author aims to portray human life from different perspectives. Thus, people go through different struggles when living their lives.

The fact that the author chooses to depict issues such as violence or suicide proves that Steinbeck was determined to illustrate the truth about life. Thus, despite the difficulties that Mack, his friends, Doc, and others encounter they continue living their lives.

The meaning of community and human interaction is an essential implication of Cannery Row. The ending of the novel is marked by the words from Black Marigolds poem – “I know that I have savored the hot taste of life” (qtd. in Steinbeck 190). This work tells the story of a man who nostalgically reflects on his life and remembers his loved one. This correlates with the events depicted in the novel because people in the town of Cannery Row coexist and help each other, which is an integral part of life. The unhappy tone of the books ending provides readers with implications for further reflection on the prospects of existence for Doc and others.


Overall, in his work Cannery Row, Steinbeck explores a variety of themes that depict human condition, such as poverty, failure, community life. Due to the fact that the author uses a large number of characters in his novel, it is possible to explore the different perceptions of the experiences that these people have. The specific timeframe as the setting of the events depicts poverty of the inhabitants and their approaches to overcoming it, which helps understand human nature. Despite this, people in the novel coexist, interact, help each other, which showcases the critical component of the human condition.

Works Cited

Cengage Learning Gale. A Study Guide for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Cengage Learning, 2017.

Correll, Michelle. “Scientist God Sacrifices Savior to the System: The Divine Implications of Failure in Cannery Row.” Department of English Capstone Abstracts. Web.

Lancaster, Billy Joe. “The Inverted Economy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row Ecology.” The Steinbeck Review, vol. 12, vo. 1, 2015, pp. 52-65.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., 1945.

“The Human Condition” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web.

Works Consulted

Jordison, Sam. “Cannery Row May Be Sentimental But It Is Far From Shallow.” The Guardian, 2017. Web.

Penn, Briony. “Book Review: Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska.” Hakari Magazine. Web.

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