The Use of Anecdote in Cannery Row
The vignettes and anecdotes interspersed throughout John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row may, at first sight, seem tangential. Yet they are fundamental to the novel, not least because the plot line–throwing a party for Doc–would be insufficient to sustain a short story, let alone a full-length novel. Yet the episodes also serve many purposes other than advancing the story line. They shed light upon the mores of Cannery Row, grant insight into the “war between the sexes,” and contribute to the novel’s dark, violent undercurrent. Steinbeck also uses these episodes to explain suicide, the lifestyle and arguments of married couples, and relationships.One of the first vignettes, for example, gives the story of William. His suicide occurs early in the book, almost immediately after the suicide of Horace Abbeville. William is a watchman at the Bear Flag Restaurant. An outcast of Cannery Row, he seems to be universally despised. Mack and the boys refuse to talk to him and rebuff his attempts to become closer with them. Indeed, “conversation stopped and an uneasy and hostile silence fell on the group” (18) when he entered the room. As his threats to kill himself are met with challenges to do exactly that, his suicide seems inevitable. In fact, Steinbeck writes, “as soon as he saw that in the Greek’s eyes, he knew he had to do it” (21). This short vignette poignantly reveals how people despised on Cannery Row are treated. William is shunned by Mack and the boys. His attempts to confide in Dora, Eve, and the Greek are met with a cold shoulder or outright disapproval. The violence of his suicide (plunging an ice pick into his chest) illustrates the underlying current of violence running through the novel. Without this underlying current, the story would be a two-dimensional tale of carefree, jobless individuals, not a mature piece. Similarly, the vignette about Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy does nothing to directly advance the plot line. Indeed, it is not until the end of the book that Steinbeck describes a single interaction between the Malloys and any main character in the book. However, the story of the Malloys is important; it provides both a counterpoint to the violent undercurrent of the novel, and gives an example of the war between the sexes. Their story also provides local color and comic relief, sandwiched as it is between stories of the aforementioned suicides and the impaired Frankie’s failure in serving the women at Doc’s. The reader laughs as the Malloys begin to put on airs after they acquire squatter’s rights to a large boiler. Steinbeck tells us that they become “landlords” and extract a fee from the bums who sleep in small sections of pipe found near their boiler. Living in a boiler seems comically similar to Peter’s wife living in a pumpkin shell and it seems amusing when Mrs. Malloy immediately begins to decorate the boiler with “a rug, then a washtub, then a lamp with a colored silk shade” (48). In an almost cartoon-like way, Mrs. Malloy displays a housewife’s frugal virtues as she tries to convince her husband of the value of curtains on sale at Holman’s. However, unlike many lesser characters, Steinbeck conveys the genuine compassion and tenderness that the Malloys have for each other. Steinbeck gives them particular dignity by calling them Mr. and Mrs. through the vignette. It is only after the husband refuses to buy curtains for the windowless hovel that we hear a first name mentioned; Steinbeck writes, “Sam lay beside her and rubbed her back for a long time before she went to sleep” (49). At the end of the book, the couple’s fetish for fancy goods continues. They make a brief appearance as Mrs. Malloy is seen “crocheting six doilies for Doc’s beer glasses” (171) and Mr. Malloy gives Doc an antique Chalmer’s 1916 piston and connecting rod. Unlike William and the Malloys, the interspersed episode in which Gay repairs the Model T does advance the plot line. In addition to moving the story forward, however, this vignette sheds light on gender divisions. Since Gay’s car repair is instrumental to the plot, his character is more firmly anchored among the other main characters than some of those in the other vignettes. Steinbeck goes to great lengths to describe Gay’s mechanical expertise. While all of the boys at the Palace were passing fair mechanics, only Gay is described as “inspired” (63). Steinbeck tells us that “there is no term comparable to green thumb to apply to such a mechanic, but there should be …For there are men who can look, listen, tap, make an adjustment and a machine works” (63). Likewise, his ingenuity in evaluating the gear bands and the brakes allowed the boys to drive the car in reverse up a hill that would have defeated the lower gears. These skills are essential to move the plot forward because without them, the boys frog-catching expedition would have never gotten off the ground. Gay’s relationship with his wife also provides a counter to the Malloy’s exercise of compassion in the face of the absurd. Gay and his wife are perpetually fighting. Unlike the bickering of the Malloy’s, battles between the Gay’s are particularly nasty. Mrs. Gay shows no compunction, for example, about calling the law on her reprobate husband. Only when she realizes that the modernized jail provides a degree of comfort not found at home does she change her strategy and catch him unawares by striking him in his sleep. Curiously, Mack and the boys see this behavior as almost natural. When Gay’s plan to get a new carburetor ends in disaster, the boys “didn’t see him again for one hundred and eight days” (69). However, the boys are not unduly alarmed at his disappearance because they assume he’s gone back to his wife. This disregard for the centrality of male-female relationships seems endemic among the denizens of Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s use of prostitutes and warring couples underscores the inability of many characters to form traditional relationships with the opposite sex. Gay does not appear again until the end of the story when “Mr. and Mrs. Gay came in” (183) to the party that Mack and the boys threw for Doc’s birthday. Thus, Steinbeck’s interspersed vignettes and anecdotes contribute enormously to the narrative. In addition to moving the plot forward (as shown by the vignette in which Gay repairs the car), they also contribute to the dark undercurrents running immediately beneath the storyline (as shown by he suicide of William). Moreover, they provide rich examples of relationships between the sexes. In this way, Steinbeck uses these vignettes and anecdotes to add richness and depth to a sparse plot line.