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A pearl is created when a tiny speck of intruding dust enters and irritates an oyster shell. The reaction of the oyster is to make a beautiful pearl out of the particle of dust. Some pearls are perfect and others are imperfect, but all are a unique and wondrous creation of nature. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck imitates nature’s process with Cannery Row as the oyster and Mack as the speck of dust. Steinbeck shows Mack as the irritant which causes Cannery Row to veer from a precarious course and make a change for the better. In the end Mack creates a wonderful “pearl” for Cannery Row — the quality of unity — and the reader learns that sometimes the best results come from seemingly meaningless occurrences.
Mack is in the least a large source of irritation and at the most worthless to the residents of Cannery Row. Steinbeck introduces him as “... the elder, leader, mentor and to a small extent, the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money and no ambitions beyond food, drink and contentment” (9). His effect upon the town, while often anonymous, is clearly sensed: “A hardware store supplied a can of red paint not reluctantly because it never knew about it...” (12). Mack appears when he needs something and disappears when pay-up time comes around. To Cannery Row, “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” (15). Because Mack does not fit society’s traditional standards of living, the town also assumes that his character does not measure up either. He isn’t seen for what he really is — a man with a sweet soul who simply is not driven by worldly desires — instead, people judge him against others and by their own expectations of a man.
Mack lacks ambition but not a good heart. His only intentions are for survival, never for the purpose of inflicting pain or problem on others: “In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack [and the boys] dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row” (15).
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We see the cultivation of the pearl taking place with the events leading up to the botched first party and with the disaster itself. Mack first stirs up the town in his campaign to acquire money and materials for the party. Everything is smooth until the irritation begins: Mack makes the mistake of saying “just a few sips won’t hurt” too many times: with the captain “Maybe a short one . . . wouldn’t it be easier to pour out some in a pitcher?” (92), in waiting for Doc: “They [Mack and the boys] had a couple more drinks, just to savor the plan” (121) and while decorating: “They [Mack and the boys] had finished the whiskey by now and they really felt in a party mood” (124). Just as the speck of dust causes a domino effect when the oyster feels the irritation, Mack’s mistake causes a domino effect as well — for the party itself and for Cannery Row. The deterioration of the plan starts with the alcohol, and then selfishness takes over when Mack and the boys become quickly addicted to trading frogs for goods at Lee Chong’s: “The poison of greed was already creeping into the innocent and laudable mercantile agreement” (119). This leads to an overabundance of decorations and unbridled merriment at Doc’s party. Doc, finding himself left to pick up the pieces of the disaster, uncharacteristically loses control and flies into a rage: “Doc hit him [Mack] again, a cold calculating punch in the mouth” (130). While the aftermath directly affects the guilty: “Mack and the boys were under a cloud and they knew it and they knew they deserved it. They had become social outcasts. All their good intentions were forgotten now” (140), the negative repercussions are not limited to them. Around Cannery Row, the effect continues and a time of unhappy restlessness follows — Dora must close the Bear Flag for longer than usual, Henri the painter is traumatized by a terrible vision, the Malloys fight, a storm attacks the coast and Darling, the heart and soul of the Palace Flophouse, gets sick. Not until Darling gets well, after Mack and the boys have strived to help her, does the town have the ability to break the depression.
The final touches — the beautiful and strong outer shells of the pearl — are created when Mack and the boys once again introduce the concept of a party for Doc to the town: “They [Mack and the boys] sat in the Palace Flophouse and they were the stone dropped in the pool, the impulse which sent ripples to all of Cannery Row and beyond ...” (166). Mack makes use of the lesson he learned from the earlier fiasco and really concentrates on the party, forgetting about what brief benefits could be attained on the way. This time around, the entire town gets involved: “Now a gladness began to penetrate into the Row and spread out from there” (157), and immediately feels the positive effects. Everyone benefits from their involvement in the conspiracy: Dora and the girls of the bordello have a project in creating the blanket; the Malloys concentrate on finding gifts for Doc and no longer fight; Lee Chong gets in the spirit by helping with decorations; and Mack and the boys once again have a goal.
The pearl — the unity of Cannery Row — is revealed with the presentation of the party. For once, the citizens of Cannery Row have worked together towards a common goal and are successful: “You could hear the roar of the party from end to end on Cannery Row” (189). While every night and day thereafter cannot be as unified as the night of the party, Cannery Row has been changed for the better: “Certainly all of Cannery Row and probably all of Monterey felt that a change had come” (156). Strong bonds have been formed and happy memories have been created among the townspeople. A new level of understanding exists — work acquaintances and neighbors have become more significant — they have become friends.
Mack never intended to be the speck of dust in the oyster. He innocently followed his heart, which is what lead him to be the irritant and the changing factor for Cannery Row. Directly and indirectly, from his actions, the pearl is created. No one could have speculated that Mack, the seemingly invaluable transient, would bring unity and happiness to Cannery Row. Steinbeck clearly shows the reader a parallel: just as nature transforms tiny specks of dust into pearls, insignificant matters and people are cultivated into miracles.
Steinbeck. John. Cannery Row. New York: Penguin Books, 1992