Mulling Monterey: Steinbeck, Class and ‘Big Little Lies’

Do you know the way to Monterey? Reflecting on different perspectives of a familiar place.


“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” begins the eponymous John Steinbeck novel. And so, we might say, is the Monterey-set HBO show Big Little Lies, now in the middle of its second season.

Big Little Lies, which first aired in 2017, is an adaptation of an eponymous Liane Moriarty novel. It takes place in a seaside Australian town — transferred to California’s Central Coast for the screen, among other changes. Both versions of Big Little Lies follow a group of women in a small, tight-knit community through marital problems and violence.

I grew up a couple hours’ drive north of Monterey, on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I remember childhood trips to the aquarium there, staring at the glass tanks of jellyfish and otters and other sea creatures. I remember my dad pointing out the metal buildings of Cannery Row, then filled with tourist shops and trinkets, many in homage to Steinbeck’s work.

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At first blush, the commonalities between Steinbeck’s Monterey and that of Big Little Lies would seem to end at their shared location. On the show, an oft-frequented coffee shop is located on Fisherman’s Wharf, a short distance from where some of the buildings in Cannery Row still stand. Shailene Woodley’s character, Jane, works at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, practically right across the street. The Monterey “quality of light” pervades both works: we often see Celeste (Nicole Kidman) shivering against the grey background of a coastal sky, or Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) contemplating a glass of wine in her spacious backyard. Big Little Lies concerns itself only with the most tony Monterey inhabitants, wealthy mothers at a well-to-do public school, Otter Bay. They drive Teslas, they cover magazines, they attend meticulously planned children’s parties.

By contrast, Cannery Row is populated with the salt of the earth. Steinbeck writes that its

…inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.

Published in 1945, the novel explores the lives of the street’s residents, a sort of slice-of-life with Monterey as the star. We follow Lee Chong, a local grocer; Doc, a boozy marine biologist; Dora Flood, a madam for sex workers; and the tenants of the Palace Flophouse and Grill, “a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.”

Cannery Row and Big Little Lies are obsessed with the economy of Monterey in opposition to each other. Eddie, a bartender in Cannery Row, supplies his housemates with leftover alcohol siphoned from his customers. Steinbeck focuses on the underbelly, on the working women and out-of-work men, on how the community comes together around its assets, or lack thereof. Big Little Lies focuses on the opposite.

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Monterey’s Cannery Row today. Photo: Tasofotonl/Shutterstock.

Both works represent Monterey’s demographics as overwhelmingly white. Steinbeck’s novel has two characters of color: the grocer, Lee Chong, and a person called “The Chinaman” who walks from the harbor through town. Big Little Lies features a few Monterey residents of color as background characters, but mostly concerns Bonnie, played by Zoe Kravitz, a key figure in the climactic Season 1 finale, now a central character in Season 2. Bonnie, like Steinbeck’s “Chinaman,” is a bit of a mystery, moodily wandering the coastline without explanation.

Both works revolve around party-throwing. On a recent Big Little Lies episode, Renata Klein, played by Laura Dern, organizes a disco birthday party for her daughter, Amabella. The ethos of this seems clear to Renata, if no one else: broke and bankrupt, this party will be one of the last things she can give to her daughter by which to remember their wealth. There’s also the ill-fated Elvis Presley/Audrey Hepburn-themed trivia night in the Season 1 finale, ending with a climactic moment of violence and mutual recognition that bonds the Monterey Five.

Cannery Row‘s major engine is an attempt to throw Doc a surprise party through elaborate means. Before Doc arrives at his fete, Flophouse residents manage to ruin his home and biology lab through enthusiastic debauchery. Though 74 years have passed since Cannery Row’s publication, mainstream narratives set in Monterey have a perennial focal point: class, be it upper- or lower-, is often litigated through party-throwing. In both Cannery Row and Big Little Lies, Monterey parties have the ability to shed light on a situation, to bring out the truth. “A party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended,” Steinbeck writes in Cannery Row; he was on to something.

I went back to Monterey in late 2017, after Big Little Lies had aired but before its new season started. I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium in all its glory, saw the way the fish “ran in silvery billions,” as Steinbeck would have it. I walked by his old haunts along Cannery Row. The city was cleaner, more Disneyfied than I remembered, but the quality of light was still the same. Let’s party.