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John Steinbeck was an American novelist and short-story writer of the early
100’s. His works were intriguing and very different for his time, making
room for criticism and ignorance. This essay will provide insights into
whether the works of Steinbeck can be classified as literature, including the
definition of Literature and my opinions and thoughts as a literature reader
and student. It will also look into criticisms, comparisons, feminism and a
bit about the theme and underlying story, written within Steinbecks 1
novel Cannery Row.
The question of ‘what is literature’ is one that will never able to be
responded to with a definite answer. There are still huge steps being taken
and new ones being put into place. The possibilities of literature are
endless, with each new technological find it advances. Thus it is very
difficult to pin down exactly what it is that ensures text fits into the category
of literature. In classifying works by John Steinbeck as literature in this way
I am defining a work of literature as containing a message on the nature of
humanity. Works of literature are works that comment on the human
experience, yet there are other factors that also contribute to the
classification of a text.
Literature may be classified to a variety of systems, including language,
national origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter. Works of
literature also act as cultural resources, speaking of the era and society out
of which they were created.
The worth of a text can be judged by its ability to capture the period of its
creation. A work if literature can also be seen to be one that acts as
symbolic resource. The relationship between it and the reader. Different
readers have different reactions to a text. Thus, different people and
groups of people value different texts for different reasons. One may refute
what might be highly valued by another.
The name is often applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose
distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the excellence of their
achievement. Sometimes referred to as ‘artistic licence’ by it’s author.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary says it is “ Writings whose value lies in the
beauty of form or emotional effect.” The 1th century critic Walter Pater
referred to “the matter of imaginative or artistic literature” as a “transcript,
not of mere fact in its infinitely varied forms.”
“The art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page, they are
there because of the craft of writing.” As an art, literature is the
organisation of words to give pleasure, through them it elevates and
transforms experiences, through them it functions in society as a continuing
symbolic criticism of values.
Though many would disagree, I do, mostly, classify John Steinbecks work as
literature. Many literary experts either ignore his work or write criticisms
exposing the defects of it.
Even though there were many things that could have been changed,
improved about his work, it was something unformal, more casual than
other stories of around that era. Making his books stand out having a new
age flare, which was obviously not a welcomed accomplishment at that
point in time.
Cannery Row brings together again, in the unchanging world of
literature(art), those qualities of life, rushed by the war, had passed never to
return, and for which Steinbeck is said to have felt a deep sentiment. In
this respect, the novel is firmly in the country life tradition.
The language used in Steinbecks work is simple and maybe his biggest
contribution as a writer, could turn out to be the exploration and
colonisation of the no-mans-land between intellectuals, non-intellectuals,
rational and the subrational. Critics also did not think he deserved the 16
Nobel Laureate in Literature. Which he won for his realistic and imaginative
writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social
Some critics even said that his work is only worth reading by
‘un-sophisticated readers’ or for ‘introductory courses in Literature’ to
prepare students to read more complex and mature works. But, how can it
possibly be unworthy of reading when millions read his work every year?
Movies and plays have even been made of his more famous books.
The central theme of most of Steinbeck’s work is the endless struggle of
people who depend for their livelihood upon the soil to sustain themselves.
He saw what others overlooked, dignity in the poor and the oppressed.
Although his characters were often trapped in a naturalistic world of unfair
social and economic forces, they are sympathetic and heroic human beings.
The story is told from an omniscient point of view. Steinbeck has managed
to not only capture one persons thoughts, but many leaving the reader all
knowing about the characters no matter which end of society they are at.
The book that was read by the year eleven English literature class was
Cannery Row, which I personally thought was a bit under our usual
standards, but was a good book for us to realise this and our potential. I felt
Cannery Row offers neither a detailed anatomy of society’s “mangled
craziness” nor a program for changing it. Rather, it brings into being a new
world to replace the one that is in the process of self destruction. I could
even classify it as just the introduction to another story. Something in
which not alot of readers enjoy.
The lingering effect of timelessness, achieved in part by the lack of
movement and the recurrence of specific descriptions and acts is also
something that may irritate some readers.
Steinbeck discovers that what normally might be called “thieves, rascals,
bums” may just as truly be described as “saints, angels, martyrs and holy
men.”(11) As for Doc, the central character, express it, the traits leading
to success in our society are frequently “greed, selfishness, meanness,”
whereas failure may be the result of “kindness, generosity, openness,
honesty, understanding and feeling.” Which in my opinion is very true.
Many readers do not realise messages writers are trying to get across, the
story beneath the story. One with a greater significance and meaning. The
obvious theme in Cannery Row, is one of Mac and the boys and their simple
saintly lives. The underlying theme consists of Doc and his realisation of, in
a way, two ‘sub-worlds’ of Cannery Row and the tide pool.
Steinbeck seems to have represented Doc to make a comparison between
our civilised lives to a miniature universe in the natural world of the pool.
Imitating the life and struggle there. Helping to represent Steinbecks
underlying theme, is a quote from the Bible, “Our Father who art in
Heaven”, only, he has manipulated it to fit in with his story, “Our Father who
art in Nature.”
In Greek plays, there always seems to be a god, who secretly resides among
ordinary mortals. Well, in Cannery Row, this Greek play has some what been
repeated, only a modernised version with the God-like figure being Doc. He
is someone who comes from the upper side of society, un-natural
side-cultured, noble, educated. For this reason the ordinary people seem to
in a way worship him, in return for his helpfulness and kindness. But in
reality, Doc is in search of truths, of his own God if you like?
In terms of feminism, Cannery Row is a typical male written novel. Not once
in the story does Steinbeck portray women and men as equals. Although,
this was very typical of novels based around this era. Women do not play a
significant part in Cannery Row, they are more like shadows or playing
supporting roles rather than actual characters. The images of women in this
novel also are few and far apart. Dora Flood, the Bear Flag Restaurant owner
is portrayed as the wise old woman. Someone who is like the Row’s social
glue. No-one really likes her but because of the contributions she makes to
society, she seems to be respected. Also Dora’s profession is undermining
to women, making out that exploiting women is a good thing would be
unheard of now-a-days.
In comparison to Shakespear, Steinbeck was not as advanced and
knowledgable towards the actual events that were taking place around him,
who people really were. He only gave the idealistic view to his readers.
Unlike Shakespear who was able to not only give the point of view from a
male perspective but compose women not only as an object but as their
own person, with their own feelings, thoughts and emotions, which amounts
to the complex creature that is woman.
In conclusion, this essay has discussed a few different aspects of the novel
Cannery Row and John Steinbeck as a writer. Exploring the definition of
Literature and my opinions and thoughts as a literature reader and student.
It also mentioned criticisms towards Steinbeck, comparisons, and
underlying theme of Cannery Row.
By Elise Wilson
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