Cannery Row by John Steinbeck http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/canneryrow/
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SparkNote by Melissa Martin
Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live "up the hill" in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.
The "story" of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row. Mack and the boys want to do something nice for Doc, the proprietor of a biological supply house on the Row who is a gentle and intellectual man and a friend and caretaker to all but who always seems haunted by a certain melancholy. They plan to give Doc a party and spend a good deal of energy acquiring provisions for the party in the process alternately enriching and enraging Lee Chong, the local grocer.
They set up in Doc's lab (which doubles as his living quarters) one night while he is gone on a specimen-collecting trip, and the party begins while they wait for him to return. Doc is late in getting back, though, and when he drives up at dawn the party is over and his place is completely trashed. A bad feeling pervades the Row for a long time after the party, and an influenza epidemic and several other unfortunate events occur. Finally the tide of luck changes, and the inhabitants of the Row start faring a little better. Grateful to Doc for curing their sick puppy, Mack and the boys again decide to do something nice for him. Following the advice of Dora, the local madam, they fix on another party, this time a party that Doc can actually attend. Chastened by their first failure, the boys are much more careful with the planning and execution this time around. The party is a great success. The novel ends the morning after the party with Doc cleaning up his home and reflecting on life.
John Steinbeck was born in 1902 and spent most of his life in the region of California where Cannery Row is set. He studied science briefly at Stanford University and worked at a variety of odd jobs as a young man. Finally, in the early 1930s, he began to write seriously. Tortilla Flat, a novel about Mexican-American farm workers in the Salinas Valley, was his first successful novel. Most of Steinbeck's novels, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, are concerned with working-class and lower-class people, whose values Steinbeck found more authentic, if not always morally preferable, to those of the upper classes and intellectuals. Both his politics and his choice of material are colored by the Second World War and, even more significantly, the Great Depression.
One of Steinbeck's great strengths is his ability to capture dialect and a sense of place in his writing. This aligns him with many of the other regionalist writers of the early twentieth century. His ear for language and his fondness for landscape are derived from modernism. His work, though, particularly as he grew older, is often hampered by a political heavy-handedness and an excess of sentimentality and pathos. Cannery Row, which appeared in 1945, is unique among his writings for its ambiguity of message and emotion; in this work, Steinbeck seems to battle his own literary demons. Although Cannery Row was published at the end of the war, at a time when prosperity had returned to America, it depicts a group of people still trapped in Depression-era conditions and ways of thinking. They are nevertheless good people whose noble intentions and feelings for one another get them through the bad times. Their circumstances become almost an allegorical representation of the evil that inevitably disrupts all lives.
Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1963. He died in 1968.
Mack and the boys - A group of down-and-out but always scheming men who live together in the run-down fish-meal shack, owned by Lee Chong, which they call the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack is their ringleader, a smart, charismatic man who can charm anyone into anything; as one of the boys says, Mack could be president of the United States if he wanted to be, but he wouldn't want to do anything like that that wasn't fun. Mack's attempts to do things the easy way and to his advantage often get him into trouble. Eddie, another of the boys, is a substitute bartender at La Ida, the local bar. He brings home stolen bottles and a jug filled with remnants from customers' drinks; this makes him immensely popular all around. Hazel is perhaps the hardest-working of the boys: He often accompanies Doc on collecting trips. Ironically, though, the narrative claims he was too lazy to pick up real criminal habits as a boy. He got his name because his overworked mother didn't notice what his gender was when he was born. Gay lives with the boys because his wife beats him. He is often at the local bar or in jail as a result of brawls with his wife. Gay is a gifted mechanic who can make any vehicle run.
Doc - The proprietor of Western Biological Laboratory, a specimen supply house. Doc is a gentle, melancholy man who is a source of culture, benevolence, and aid for all on the Row. He introduces Dora's girls and the boys to opera, classical music, and literature, and he takes Frankie in and cares for him. He is also a bit of a womanizer. Somehow, though, Doc always seems lonely, and everyone on the Row is constantly wanting to do something to show him how much he is loved.
Dora Flood - The local madam; proprietor of the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel. Dora is a huge woman with bright orange hair and flamboyant clothes. She runs a tight ship - her girls aren't allowed to drink or talk to men on the street - but she is kindhearted and generous. She paid the grocery bills for many local families during the Depression, and she organizes an aid effort during the influenza epidemic. She is always in danger of being shut down by the authorities, so she must watch her step and do twice as much charitable giving as anyone else.
Lee Chong - The Chinese grocer of the Row. Lee Chong's store stocks absolutely everything, and he is willing to engage in almost any transaction, provided it's profitable and risk-free. Sometimes, however, his calculations prove to be wrong, as the business with Mack and the frogs shows. Lee Chong is a shrewd, even occasionally manipulative, businessman but also good-hearted; he extends credit generously, tries to take care of the unfortunate, helps with the parties for Doc, and even arranged for his grandfather to be disinterred and reburied in his homeland.
Frankie - A mentally handicapped boy who is neglected by his mother and taken in by Doc. Frankie is incapable of doing any work; he just seems to do everything a little bit wrong. He loves Doc, though, and frequently tells him so. Frankie is institutionalized after breaking in to a jewelry store to steal a gift for Doc. Frankie can be compared to Benjy in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or to Lenny in Steinbeck's own Of Mice and Men.
Henri - The local artist and a friend of Doc's. Although he pretends to be, Henri is not actually French. He keeps up on the latest trends from Paris and is always forming new sets of principles (e.g., no red paint, chicken feathers only) by which to do his work. No one is certain about Henri's artistic abilities, but everyone agrees he's doing a beautiful job building his boat, which is up on blocks in a vacant lot. The boat will never be finished because Henri is afraid of the ocean, but, more importantly, it is his life's work. A series of women come and go from the boat.
Cannery Row, like many of Steinbeck's other works, has something in common with so-called "local color," or regional, writing. It seeks to capture the spirit of one of the rougher areas of Monterey, California, a port town south of San Francisco on the California coast. Like other local color writing, this novel wants to preserve what it sees as a unique way of life distinct from the kind of "everyman" existence that most realist novels try to capture. Steinbeck is more idealistic and more sentimental about this than many of his fellow regionalist writers, though. Although it lacks the heavy-handedness of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row still romanticizes its cast of misfits and ne'er-do-wells to a significant degree.
In its way, this is a utopian novel, which idealizes the values of the lower classes and insists that good fellowship and warm-heartedness are all that are needed to create a paradise anywhere on earth, even here on run-down Cannery Row. The characters in the novel are accordingly stereotyped at times: the gruff madam with the heart of gold, the grocer who is a tough and even extortionary businessman but who nevertheless keeps the Row going and is capable of extreme generosity, the shiftless man who can't hold a job but will tenderly nurse a puppy back to health.
This novel is disrupted by subtle (and, sometimes, not-so-subtle) instances of violence and cruelty, though: Doc finds a dead girl on the beach, several men commit suicide, and a gentle retarded boy is sent away to an institution because he tried to steal a gift for the person he loves most in the world. In this way, the utopian fantasy of Cannery Row is quietly but persistently questioned. The weight of current events sometimes breaks through: This novel is set immediately following the Depression and World War II, and for many on Cannery Row, the war did little to end the Depression. In all these ways, the "real world" intrudes, to produce a strange hybrid of fantasy and reality. Cannery Row can perhaps be best characterized by what seems a contradiction in terms: It is a realistic utopian novel.
Steinbeck typically uses interspersed anecdotes and vignettes to introduce these instances of darkness. These often take the form of separate chapters that have little to do with the main plot and that often introduce new characters who will not reappear. This structure has several effects. First, it allows Steinbeck to keep his anti-utopian commentary subtle; the book will still be able to end reasonably optimistically. Second, it provides him with a way to capture more of Cannery Row, to paint a broad portrait without being forced to construct an artificially enormous plot; he is able to use the "collecting" technique that Doc's work suggests as a model. Finally, it is an extension of Steinbeck's overall writing style, which depends on small moments of aesthetic brilliance and occasional off-topic riffs. This style owes something to the modernists of the 1920s, particularly Fitzgerald and Faulkner; it also has something in common with techniques used by the Beat writers of the 1950s, like Kerouac. Despite his commitment to provide a realistic description of a particular place, Steinbeck still allows himself moments of linguistic free-wheeling and cosmic speculation (the second chapter of the book is a good example of this). Perhaps it is this connection with the aesthetic that allows Cannery Row to maintain its optimistic outlook and to conclude on a positive note despite the undeniable presence of sorrow and misfortune in the world.
Cannery Row opens with a small set piece that functions almost like a landscape painting; the mood of the place is carefully described, most of the major characters are seen strolling across the screen, and the general tone of the story is set. The introduction ends with a description of how Steinbeck has written this book: He has captured something not easily described in words by just "let[ting] the stories crawl in by themselves."
The novel proper begins with a description of Lee Chong's grocery store, a tiny shop where one can buy anything except female companionship, which can be found across the street at Dora's brothel. The grocery store is particularly important to the community as a place to buy cheap whiskey ("Old Tennis Shoes"). Lee Chong has done well by being clever and serving his customers' needs. He is fairly generous with credit, only withholding it when a customer's debts get truly out of hand. One customer who found himself in such a situation was Horace Abbeville. Horace had two wives and six children and quite a debt. One day, he came to Lee Chong's and offered to settle the debt by signing over a fish-meal storage shed that he owned to the grocer. Lee Chong agreed and drew up the paperwork. Horace, now free of financial obligations, returned home and shot himself. Feeling guilty, Lee Chong has done his best ever since to take care of Abbeville's family. The fish-meal shack presented a problem to the grocer, however. He was pondering what to do with it when Mack, the leader of a small group of unemployed roustabouts, came to see him. Mack proposed that Lee Chong let him and his friends live in the shack for a nominal rent. Knowing that Mack and the boys will undoubtedly vandalize the shack if he refuses, Lee Chong agrees, even though he knows that he will never see a penny of rent. The arrangement works out well, as Mack and the boys provide protection for the grocery and even stop stealing from the store out of gratitude. The old fish-meal shack has become known, sarcastically, as the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack and the boys spend most of their time stealing furnishings for their new home and painting them to disguise their origins.
Mack and the boys also contemplate doing something nice for Doc, who runs the Western Biological Laboratory across the street. As Doc walks across to Lee Chong's to buy some beer, the narrative digresses into a poetic contemplation of the characters we have met so far. Lee Chong is shown to be tough-headed but soft-hearted; he has dug up the bones of his grandfather and had them sent back to China to be buried in the old man's home soil. Mack and the boys are held up as ideals: While they are not ambitious, they also avoid many of the anxieties of modern life and are able to live each day in peace and a kind of sensuous richness. God must admire and protect people like Mack, the narrative claims.
Across a vacant lot from Lee Chong's is Dora's brothel, the Bear Flag Restaurant (named after the state flag). Dora, an enormous woman with orange hair and a taste for flamboyant clothes, runs an upstanding establishment. She makes sure all of her girls are well-behaved and well cared for, and she maintains her position in the town through generous charitable contributions and careful behavior. During the Depression, she was particularly active in helping others, feeding many of the families in the area and paying their bills at Lee Chong's. The narrative digresses again to tell the story of William, the former bouncer at the Bear Flag. William was never able to make friends and always thought that others saw him as a "dirty pimp." One day, in a fit of despair, he stabbed himself to death. The bouncer now is Alfred, a popular fellow.
The narrative interrupts itself once again to sketch another little picture. This one describes an elderly "Chinaman" who walks through Cannery Row every day at dusk and again at dawn on his way to and from harvesting marine animals below the piers. His sandals make a slapping noise as he walks; this sound alerts the locals to his passing. The Chinaman is inscrutable and a little scary; no one has ever spoken to him except one little boy, who once sang a song full of racial slurs at the old man. The old man stopped and fixed him with a stare and the boy nearly lost consciousness. Since then, no one has bothered the Chinaman.
The first chapters of this book are largely concerned with painting a picture of a specific time and place. Steinbeck is more interested in the community as a whole and the way that an individual character's behavior is judged by the community than he is in the specific actions of that character. In other words, this is not a book about plot; it's a novel where setting and atmosphere take precedence. This aligns Steinbeck with some of the "local color" or regional writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steinbeck is less like someone like Sarah Orne Jewett, who was interested in depicting local ways of life and the conflict between outlying regions and metropolitan areas, and more like someone like William Faulkner, who wrote novels dominated by a sense of place and who attempted to sketch a community of co-dependent people rather than a series of independent psyches. His alignment with regional writing can be seen most strongly, though, by comparing him to someone like Hemingway, whose novels show people far from home who really don't connect with their surroundings or by placing him next to Fitzgerald, whose novels, while precise in describing their surroundings, could take place anywhere. By refusing to write about "everyman" type figures the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald do, Steinbeck also signals that he will not be writing about the "American dream," at least not in any straightforward way. It is as if he is saying to his reader, "No, this couldn't happen to you, not unless you come to Cannery Row chapters, we have already had two suicides and several other more vague moments of hostility (most notably the little boy's encounter with the Chinaman). The hidden violence in the narrative reminds us of the imperfection of human beings, but it also suggests that evil must be balanced with good in order to create a greater good, as the second chapter suggests. More than anything, though, violence hints at the intrusion of the real world. Cannery Row was published in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Somehow, though, the world it describes seems to be in limbo between the Depression, the effects of which still and leave your previous life behind." This allows Steinbeck, paradoxically, to be more utopian (albeit in a perverse way) in his thinking: Mack and the boys and Dora the benevolent madam are fictional enough to remain ideal, and we are not forced to confront their very real flaws.
Cannery Row is not all sunshine and happy bums, though. A great deal of peripheral violence makes its way into the narrative. In these opening linger, and the war: No one is going off to fight, and the prosperity of the war years has not come to Cannery Row. The violence that sneaks into the narrative at its edges disrupts the pearl-colored dawns and lazy afternoons of the main characters. Just how the "real world" figures into these people's lives will never be made clear.
The overall structure of this book becomes clear in the first chapters, as well. Some semblance of a plot will be constructed around Mack and the boys and Doc, but the narrative will be constantly interrupted by a series of vignettes and portraits that describes other inhabitants of the Row. This kind of sketch-based writing has, as Steinbeck claims in the introduction, the effect of capturing more of the whole of a fragile organism--the community--that would be destroyed if he tried to describe it in any more categorical or straightforward way. Sometimes, these digressions inform the main plot, as in the story of how Mack and the boys came to live in the old fish-meal shed. At other times, though, they simply work to create atmosphere.
Western Biological Laboratory, which Doc runs, is a supply house that can procure almost any animal for study, live or dead. The Western Biological building is full of equipment and bizarre smells; it is also Doc's home. Doc is a bundle of contradictions: a gentle yet violent man, who can wade in the ocean for hours but hates rain, and who, in one of the book's more famous lines, "has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another." Doc is a scientist, not a medical doctor; he is also something of an aesthete, who has introduced the denizens of Cannery Row to classical music and literature. Sympathetic to an extreme, Doc can talk to anyone, and most everyone on the Row is indebted to him in some way and wants to do something nice for him.
Hazel, one of the boys, is out helping Doc collect specimens in the tide pools. Hazel was given a girl's name by his mother, who had too many children and was confused as to his gender. She named him after an aunt with some money, hoping to benefit by the gesture. Nothing ever came to it, and Hazel grew up a small-time troublemaker, who went to reform school but never really acquired habits of viciousness or criminality. Hazel is a skilled specimen collector but tends to annoy Doc with his habit of making simple-minded, repetitive conversation. Doc and Hazel talk about Henri, the local artist, who is building a boat that will never be finished, since he likes to build but is afraid of the ocean.
The narrative digresses for a moment to describe life at the Palace Flophouse and Grill, where Mack and the boys live. They have made the Palace into quite a home. The most popular denizen of the Palace is Eddie, who sometimes works as a bartender at La Ida, the local saloon. He keeps a jug under the bar, which he fills with the remnants of people's drinks and then brings it back to the boys. While Hazel is out collecting with Doc, the boys sit around drinking from one of Eddie's jugs and talking about doing something for Doc. They decide to give Doc a party. To pay for provisions, they decide to talk Doc into letting them collect frogs for him at 5 cents apiece. They know a spot up in Carmel Valley where frogs are plentiful.
The narrative digresses yet again to tell the story of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy, who live in a giant boiler abandoned in a vacant lot by one of the canneries. They have lived there since 1935 (the middle of the Depression). In 1937, the economy picked up a little, and Mr. Malloy started renting out sections of pipe in the lot for men to sleep in. Once he became a landlord, Mrs. Malloy felt her status had improved, and she started to decorate the boiler. When she tried to buy curtains, though, her husband discouraged her, pointing out that the boiler had no windows. This upset her greatly.
Hazel returns from his collecting expedition with Doc, and the boys tell him of their plan for the party. Mack decides to go solicit frog-collecting business from Doc. On his way to the lab, he speaks briefly with Mr. Malloy, who still lives in the boiler with his wife. Doc is suspicious of Mack's friendliness but, since he does need frogs, agrees to let the boys collect for him. Mack realizes that the boys have no way to get to Carmel Valley and asks Doc for his car. Doc needs the car, so Mack suggests that the boys borrow Lee Chong's truck and asks Doc for gas money. Doc gives him a note for the man at the service station, and Mack heads for the grocer's to ask to borrow the truck. Lee Chong tells him it is broken; Mack offers to fix it if they can use it, and Lee Chong, who is also suspicious, agrees. The expedition is on.
Collecting is an important idea with which to compare the structure of this novel. Collecting specimens for study is based on the idea of representativeness: that one particular starfish or frog can stand in for all other starfish or frogs and that it can, furthermore, stand in for all animals in general as an object for study. The question of representativeness lies behind all of Steinbeck's writing. This novel is full of quirky anecdotes and strange characters who must surely be one-of-a-kind. This novel seems so specific and so random that it must not have any universal applicability. The parallels between Cannery Row and other examples of local color or regional writing, as noted previously, suggest that this is in part true. Doc's collecting activities, though, hint that representativeness is a false idea to begin with: What is the ideal starfish? And, by the same token, what is the typical human being? Perhaps a better method is to collect a great number of starfish, or stories, which, when taken together, can better describe a whole or an ideal. Doc's collecting activities are destructive and often result in the death of many animals. This goes against Doc's generally gentle nature but it is his passion and his living. As the comparison between writing and collecting in the introduction also implies, collecting can destroy what it seeks, and it will always give a result that is, at best, taken out of context, just as the starfish is taken from its tide pool.
Again, history intrudes only slightly on the narrative. The Malloys' move into the boiler has been provoked by the Depression, and the "career" choices of Mack and the boys are also a lingering reminder of when times were bad. The thriftiness and inventiveness of the boys are other Depression-era commonplaces, though, and they are what will drive the bare plot of the book forward. In their resourcefulness and their comic banter with one another, and in the suspicious eye with which the rest of the community regards them, Mack and the boys are reminiscent of some of Shakespeare's comic characters: the fools, servants, and oddjobbers who populate the edges of the plays and provide much of the laughter and not a little of the serious commentary. In a place where people patch together their livings and try to anticipate others' actions to profit by them, Mack and the boys are the all-star team. That they can not only survive but thrive is testimony to the kind of place Cannery Row is. It is the boys, and not Doc, who are the models for living at this stage in the novel. Clearly their good intentions and their bumbling are setting them up for a fall, but, like Shakespeare's fools, they live in a place on the margins of society where screw-ups are not only forgiven but expected.
Frankie is a mentally handicapped boy who more or less lives at Western Biological. His father is dead and his mother seems to be a small-time prostitute. Her clients (whom Frankie calls "uncles") either bribe or beat Frankie to keep him away. He doesn't go to school because the school refuses to allow him there. It takes him several weeks to feel comfortable enough to enter the lab; up until then, he has been watching Doc through an open door. Doc takes the boy in and gets him clothes and a haircut. He tries to let Frankie do chores and sort specimens, but his handicaps prevent him from doing things successfully. Frankie is absolutely loyal to Doc and constantly tells him that he loves him. At one of Doc's parties, Frankie makes a great success of himself by bringing a beer to a young woman; both she and Doc praise him for his consideration. The incident stays with Frankie, and, at a later party, he tries to repeat his success by bringing a large tray of beers to the guests. Unfortunately, he drops the tray on a woman. Ashamed, he hides in the basement. Doc finds him but there is little he can do to make him feel better.
The narrative shifts back to the adventures of Mack and the boys. They arrive at Lee Chong's to work on the truck. The truck has had a long career. It started out as a Model T sedan driven by a prominent doctor, who sold it to an insurance salesman who treated it badly and banged it up during his frequent drinking sprees. The next two owners converted it to a truck and removed the windshield. The last of these owners turned the truck over to Lee Chong to pay a grocery bill. Mack and the boys are all excellent mechanics, but Gay is magical with cars. He gets the truck back in shape and sends Eddie to his house to steal the doorbell batteries, with which they will start the truck. Gay warns Eddie to beware of his (Gay's) wife, who used to beat him. Eddie returns with the batteries, and the boys are off. They hang rags on the truck to conceal the fact that it has neither license plates nor a light. They have brought very little in the way of food with them, since Mack assumes they will be able to steal everything they need from farms. They make their way to the gas station, where they use Doc's note to get gasoline. They try to get a smaller amount of gas with the difference in cash, but the station owner is aware of their reputations and will give them only gas. Driving in reverse since low gear and the brakes are gone, the boys set off for the valley.
The truck breaks down midway. Gay volunteers to go back to town to get the part they need. Somehow, though, through a long chain of circumstances, he winds up in jail after a boisterous party and doesn't make it back to where the boys are camped. Finally, Eddie sets off for a nearby construction camp to steal the part from one of their trucks.
The narrative digresses to tell the story of the death of Josh Billings, a writer and humorist. He died in a hotel in Monterey and was embalmed by the town doctor, a Frenchman on the cutting edge of biological science. The day after his death a boy and his dog find some innards in a gulch behind the doctor's office, and it is discovered that the doctor has been removing the internal organs of corpses (as one would do when embalming a body) and discarding them in the gulch. He is forced to collect the organs and pay for a small coffin that will go inside the larger coffin. The town is appalled at the treatment of such a prominent literary figure.
Eddie returns with the part for the car, which he has lifted from the construction camp. The boys set off again, turning into the Carmel Valley. They run down a rooster, which will become dinner. They set up camp and begin to eat, drink, and talk. Mack is bothered by the fact that they are actually giving Doc a party to give themselves a party, but after they talk some more, they are convinced the party is a good idea. Suddenly, a man and a dog appear out of the darkness. The man owns the land they are camped on and is about to kick them off when Mack intervenes. He tells them they are collecting frogs for cancer research and then begins to flatter the man, complimenting him on his military bearing and then on his fine dog. The man warms to Mack and points out a tick bite that has lamed the dog, who has just had puppies. Mack is instantly solicitous and offers to care for the dog himself. The man, whom they have started calling "Captain," is pleased and invites them up to his house, telling them he has a pond full of frogs. Mack departs with him, telling the boys to clean up the campsite well and then follow him. Impressed by his skill at charming the man, Hazel remarks that Mack could be president of the United States if he wanted the job. One of the boys reminds Hazel that that wouldn't be any fun.
Lee Chong's Model T truck takes on a great symbolic importance in this section of the book. The truck, like Mack's plans and Mack himself, has seen several different incarnations, each successively a little more shabby. It has been modified to meet the dreams and the needs of each of its owners, and, finally, it has fallen victim to outside circumstances, in this case, an unprofitable existence and an unpaid grocery bill. The truck has come to Lee Chong in the same way as the fish-meal shack where the boys now live. The reader is left to wonder if its last owner reacted to his loss the same way the shack's owner did. At any rate, it is only appropriate that Mack and the boys, who live in the shack, get the truck. As the narrative points out, the Model T carries a great deal of cultural weight. Americans know more about its workings than about their own bodies or the planet they live on, the narrator claims. In this way the Model T is the ultimate symbol of democracy: available to all, its inner workings easily understood, able to be modified to fit a variety of needs, and a commodity of a sort that can go from the ownership of one of the town's most prominent citizens to the custody of one of its least prominent denizens. The car is also infinitely adaptable, as the boys prove by driving it in reverse when the brakes and low gear fail. Like the boys themselves, the truck is resilient, malleable, and able to change according to the situation.
The struggles to get the truck running foreshadow the boys' encounter with the Captain. Again, Mack shows himself to be a master of adaptability, seeking out the man's soft spots and playing to them. While the Captain is clearly not in any real danger from the boys, their schemes have incurred more troubles for others in this section. The theft from the construction camp and the rather violent running-down of the rooster hint at the dark side to the boys' picturesque plotting. The presence of Frankie's mother in the novel's background is another suggestion that shiftlessness is not always accompanied by benevolence. Frankie's unfortunate fate later in the book will be the most damning strike against the boys' good intentions.
This is the most explicitly pastoral section of the book, with its loving descriptions of the Carmel Valley. Mack and the boys view the countryside as somewhere where they can live off the land (compare their thoughts with George and Lenny's in Of Mice and Men). As their encounter with the Captain shows, though, things are the same wherever the boys go. Cannery Row, as the opening to Chapter 14 will remind us, is just as much of an Eden as the valley. Good and bad, happiness and pain, are all relative terms here; human life is an ambiguous mixture of both.
The opening of Chapter 14 gives a beautiful description of dawn over Cannery Row. Dogs urinate along the street and seagulls wait for offal from the canneries, but somehow everything glows with a soft beauty. Two soldiers and two girls stumble out of the La Ida bar at daybreak and make their way down along the row to the beach in front of Hopkins Marine Station. The beach is private property, but the four sit down and open beers anyway, tired and happy and enjoying the beautiful morning. A watchman comes and tries to kick them off and is told where he can go.
Meanwhile, Mack and the boys have made it to the Captain's farmhouse, where Mack is nursing the dog and giving the Captain advice and flattery. The Captain offers him a puppy from the litter, which Mack joyfully accepts. The Captain tells them that his wife is a member of the Legislature and has essentially abandoned their home for politics. The boys react with sympathy. He offers them a drink before they go after the frogs. They accept with a show of reluctance, and the Captain brings out a keg of high-quality whiskey he's been cellaring since the beginning of Prohibition. They all get quite drunk. Finally, they remember about the frogs and go out to the pond, where they chase the frogs to one end of the water and then capture them. The hunt is enormously successful and they return to the Captain's house to celebrate. The Captain finally passes out with the house trashed and the curtains burned to ashes. Mack and the boys take a puppy and a jug of whiskey and leave.
The past few weeks have been busy for Dora and the girls at the Bear Flag. A big sardine catch and a new regiment of soldiers have brought a lot of money into the town. Dora is short-handed due to girls going on vacation and getting hurt. She is also being hassled by the tax authorities, who paradoxically require her to pay taxes on an illegal business. During all of this, an influenza epidemic has hit the town. Doc, although he is not a medical doctor, has been treating many of the poor, and he persuades Dora and her girls to act as nursemaids to needy families
The narrator comments on Doc's hard work and overall loneliness. Even when he has a girl over and is playing his famous phonograph, the people of Cannery Row still feel sorry for him. Finally, after the influenza epidemic has subsided, Doc is able to go on a collecting trip to La Jolla, where he can find baby octopi. He must plan his trip to arrive there just at the right tide. Unfortunately, no one will be able to accompany him, as Mack and the boys are collecting frogs and Henri the painter is occupied watching a man roller-skating atop a flagpole outside the local department store. Doc sets off alone, stopping often along the way to eat and drink beers. He consumes a tremendous amount of food on the journey. At one diner, he looks at the milkshake machines and thinks about how he'd like to try a beer milkshake. He imagines how the waitress would react and then thinks about how it's often easier to lie than to tell the truth. He remembers a walking trip through the South that he took in college, hoping to forget "love troubles" and too much hard work. When he told people he met the truth about why he was walking, they shunned him, but when he told them he was doing it to win a bet, he was fed, given places to sleep, and treated like a celebrity. On this trip to La Jolla, Doc decides to pick up a hitchhiker. The man is uptight and reacts badly when Doc stops for beer, chiding him about driving drunk. Doc chases the man off and finally orders his beer milkshake. The girl at the counter is suspicious, until he tells her that he has to drink them due to a bladder condition. Then, she is sympathetic and friendly and asks him how they taste. He tells her they aren't bad, that he's been drinking them for 17 years.
The influenza outbreak, the soldiers on the beach, and the soldiers who patronize the Bear Flag are more reminders of current events. Even though the war and the Depression seem to have passed Cannery Row by, their effects can still be felt. The response of Doc and Dora to the flu epidemic is a part of the mythology of Cannery Row: a place run by a bunch of misfits who pull together when the going gets tough. Mack and the boys are also proving their resourcefulness again in this section. While the Captain does get hurt by their buffoonery, it is not serious and the reader is left with the impression that the Captain will not regret the trashing of his house. Ultimately, too, the frog collecting is fabulously successful, and everything seems set for Doc's party.
Doc's ruminations on telling the truth and lying provide some insight into the way the Row sees itself and into how Steinbeck chooses to tell his story. Lies, at least the kind that Doc tells, let everyone keep their views of the world intact. The people he meets on his hike through the South don't believe that there are people out there who would undertake such a walk as therapy or recreation. Telling them that he's walking to win a bet lets them continue to believe that people are motivated by simple, logical reasons. The counter girl who serves him the beer milkshake cannot conceive of a person who would do something clearly unpleasant, like drinking a beer milkshake, just to have a new experience. Telling her that it is medicinal gives her something she can understand. Likewise, the lies and flattery that Mack and the Captain unleash on each other facilitate social interaction. By acceding to Mack's assumption that he is a military man and that his dog is a champion from Virginia, the Captain is able to take back his initial hostility toward the boys and even invite them into his home. By assuming a pose of expertise and making some grandiose claims about their collecting activities, Mack lets the Captain revise his opinion toward the boys. Through this series of minor lies, goodwill is restored and everyone goes home more or less happy.
Doc's trip is our first real sight (other than the boys' visit with the Captain) of the world outside Cannery Row. This is a place of discord, as exemplified by the unpleasant hitchhiker. Doc views the world mainly as a series of stretches of highway, punctuated by stops for food. His loneliness and the strangeness of his behavior while on the road highlight to how great an extent Doc is a creature of Cannery Row. The romanticized little world of Cannery Row, which thrives on poverty and vice, is nevertheless functional and complete; the outside world is a shambles.
Doc continues down the road to La Jolla, eating huge meals and drinking beer. He arrives there around 2 a.m. and sleeps in the car until he can feel the tide change: Having been collecting for so long, he lives by the tides and can physically sense them. Doc has a good morning collecting and gathers a large number of specimens. As he reaches the edge of the tide flat, he sees something white beneath the seaweed. He moves the seaweed aside and discovers the body of a beautiful woman. Shaken, he retreats to shore, where he meets a passerby. Doc asks the man where the nearest police station is and then, too disturbed by the sight of the dead girl, tells the man that he can report the body and get the bounty himself.
Back in Monterey, the flag-pole roller skater outside the local department store is going for a world record. Rival stores are bidding to have him visit them next, and business is good in the shops around the flagpole. Henri, the painter, is fascinated by him and is planning a series of works based on him. One local man, after a night of drinking and fighting with his wife, comes to the base of the flagpole one night to ask the skater what the whole town has been wondering: how he relieves himself up there. The skater tells him he has a can. The man returns home to his wife, who was sure he'd gone to the Bear Flag, and tells her the news.
Mack and the boys return from their frog-collecting trip and go to see Lee Chong. Trading on his indebtedness to Doc, they work out a deal by which they will trade the grocer frogs for supplies for the party (Lee Chong can then sell the frogs to Doc himself). Happy, full, and a little drunk, they soon spend nearly all the frogs. Lee Chong, of course, is marking up tremendously prices as figured in frogs. The dog Mack got from the Captain is adapting quickly and becomes a treasured companion to the men, who call her Darling. The men decide to get decorations for the party from Lee Chong, who has them for every possible holiday. Eddie, who has some experience as a cook, is to bake a cake for Doc.
Unfortunately, Darling eats most of the cake. The boys persuade Lee Chong to bring the frogs over to Western Biological to surprise Doc when he returns. Soon the party is underway. Massive fights break out, much fun is had, and the laboratory is completely trashed. A drunk is pushed into the crate containing the frogs and all of them escape. At dawn, Doc returns to find his home destroyed. He encounters Mack, who tries to apologize. Doc hits him, and Mack acknowledges that he deserves it. The men talk over a beer, and Mack explains about the party. Doc forgives him and tells him not to worry about the broken things, since Mack would never pay for them anyway. Mack feels tremendously guilty and reveals to Doc his distress at messing up everything in his life; he even had a wife once. When Doc asks what happened to her, Mack admits that he doesn't know, she just went away. Mack heads up the hill toward the Palace Flophouse, and Doc begins the cleanup, which will take him all day.
Doc's discovery of the dead woman both foreshadows the failure of the party and speaks to the constant pressure of the outside world on the utopia of Cannery Row. The woman, beautiful herself, is nevertheless the one grotesque thing that disturbs the beauty of the undersea world. Even the refuse of broken shells and marine debris on the reef at La Jolla has been described as aesthetically pleasing, but the discovery of the dead woman suggests that behind everything that seems good there are, at least, horrifying possibilities. That Mack's party goes so wrong reinforces this, as Doc returns home in a beautiful dawn to find the ruins of his home. For Mack and the boys, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. The anecdotal insert about the flag-pole roller skater reinforces this idea. While roller-skating atop a flagpole is neither aesthetically valuable nor particularly profound (except perhaps to Henri), it is the most coarse aspect of the stunt--how the man goes to the bathroom--that most fascinates the citizens of Monterey.
Lee Chong's disastrous involvement in the whole situation is harder to analyze. Is he being punished with the loss of the frogs for enabling Mack and the boys' degenerate behavior or for his greed in charging them high prices? It seems more likely that his losses are meant to illustrate that even the most carefully thought-out plans can fall victim to unforeseen circumstances. Lee Chong thinks he has insured himself by collecting the frogs from the boys as they purchase things, and he figures that nothing can go wrong in bringing the frogs over to the lab for the party, as long as he himself will be there to keep an eye on them. But the party gets out of control, and Lee Chong is out both his goods and the extra profits he had extorted. His logic and reasoning have failed him, just as Mack's conniving and improvising have failed him. The failure of the party seems to be not so much the fault of any one individual as a symptom of a generalized evil in the world that can affect even the paradise of Cannery Row. Doc's reaction upon his return is an acknowledgment of this.
Henri the painter, a good friend of Doc's, is not French and his given name is not Henri. He is an American who fantasizes about the avant-garde and follows the artistic and political movements in Paris with an especially keen eye. Henri has gone through several artistic phases in which he has worked only in a certain medium, like chicken feathers, or has worked under other strange principles, like not using the color red. While his paintings may be of questionable artistic value, there is no doubt that he is an excellent craftsman. He has been working on his boat for quite some time and secretly intends never to finish it. The shape of the vessel keeps changing but it is always a masterpiece. The difficulties of living in the boat have driven away two wives and numerous girlfriends. After each woman leaves him, Henri gets drunk and mourns. His latest girlfriend has just left, and Henri has just begun to get drunk when he sees a "devilish" young man and a blonde little boy appear on the bench next to him. The young man slits the baby's throat with a razor. Henri flees the apparition and ends up at Doc's. Doc has invited a young woman over for the evening. Henri tells the story of the ghost to the young woman. She is intrigued and asks to go up to the boat to see if there is anything there. She becomes the next of Henri's girlfriends, to Doc's chagrin.
The main narrative finds Mack and the boys feeling blue after the disastrous party. Public opinion accuses them of stealing and trashing Doc's lab, and more than one person wants to fight them for what they have done to Doc. This is not a fair interpretation of what happened, of course, but everyone believes it. Doc and a friend of his (the same man who interrogated the flag-pole roller skater) are watching the boys sitting on a log on the Fourth of July. Doc is telling his friend that the boys are true philosophers because they know better than to want worldly success, which is only accompanied by bad things. The two men bet on whether the boys will look up when the Independence Day parade passes. They do not look, and Doc claims that this is proof of their innate wisdom: They know what is in the parade and don't need to see it again. Meanwhile, the boys, who have been working steadily since the party and have come as close as ever to respectability, are still depressed over what has happened.
Other bad things begin to happen all over Cannery Row. Dora's bouncer throws a drunk out and accidentally breaks the man's back. A storm beaches several fishing boats, and a man falls asleep on the train tracks and loses his leg. The Bear Flag is shut down by crusading women from the town, and Dora loses the business that would have come from three conventions that are in town. Worst of all, Darling gets severely ill and begins to waste away. With nowhere else to turn, the boys go to see Doc for advice. He instructs them on how to care for Darling, and she is soon better. Things then begin to improve all over the Row: Dora is allowed to reopen, and Lee Chong forgives the boys their debt from the party. Mack and the boys begin to dream again and decide to do something for Doc. Not sure what to do, Mack goes to see Dora, who suggests they give a party that Doc can actually attend. The boys love the idea and begin to plan.
The narrative digresses for a moment to visit Mary Talbot, a local woman. Mary, the descendant of a woman burned for being a witch, is quite beautiful and rather childish. Her husband, Tom, is an unsuccessful writer. To keep from being depressed, Mary throws parties for every possible occasion; often, these parties are nothing more than teas for the neighborhood cats. After a particularly bad day for Tom, Mary is throwing a cat party and goes out to collect the cats. One of the neighbor's cats is in the middle of torturing and killing a mouse when Mary approaches it. She is horrified and begins to panic. Tom rushes to her aid, kills the mouse, and chases off the cat. To humor Mary, he forgets his disappointments and participates in her tea party. Later that year, Mary throws herself a baby shower, and the town remarks on how much fun a child of hers will have.
Everyone on the Row is flourishing. The boys are still trying to plan their party for Doc when Hazel suggests that it be a birthday party. They love the idea and Mack goes over to Western Biological to ferret out the date of Doc's birthday. Doc is suspicious of Mack's questions but Mack's obvious gratitude at Doc's role in healing Darling touches him, and, for the first time since the party gone wrong, relations between Doc and the boys are normal. Doc nevertheless gives Mac a false birth date. Later, when rumors of the party begin to circulate, Doc realizes why Mac was acting so strangely in trying to find out his birthday.
These chapters continue to interrogate the balance of evil and good in the world. A series of bad things happens to individuals of varying degrees of moral standing. Henri, who seems to be innocent of any real wrongdoing, is haunted by a specter that com es out of his head. The experience is terrifying for him, yet in the end, he profits (at least temporarily) by it: It gets him a new girlfriend. Mary Talbot, perhaps the most innocent and sentimentally sympathetic character in the novel, is subjected to one of the more horrible and cruel aspects of nature simply because she wants to give a tea party for the neighbors' cats. Although she has been traumatized, she too benefits in the end, as her husband forgets his troubles momentarily and (it is implied) they conceive a child that day. The runs of bad and good luck that visit the whole Row are also significant. Symbolically, the run of bad luck has at its root the estrangement between the boys and Doc; when they come to him for help with Darling, the string of misfortunes ends. Perhaps this is meant to symbolize the importance of community and forgiveness over individual scores. It is clear that in certain ways the divide between Doc and the rest of the row is permanent: As his bet over the parade shows, he doesn't understand their motives as well as he thinks he does, and his romanticization of their lifestyle is more of a handicap on his part than he realizes. As the preparations for the party begin, too, Doc is alienated still farther by the conspiracy around him. Although the surprise party is meant to make Doc happy and to show him how much he is admired, it has the effect of making him feel more alone than ever, despite the fact that he knows what is going on.
The redemption of Mack and the boys is significant, though. The acquisition of real jobs and more domestic habits does little for them; in fact, it is linked to the bad times that the Row goes through. Once the boys begin to think of others, however, th ings begin to change. First they have to nurse Darling back to health. This reminds them that, just as Darling is indebted to them, they are indebted to Doc for their continual well-being, and they once again resolve to do something nice for him. This time, though, they seek outside advice, from Dora, who knows, thanks to her business interests, more than anyone about balancing good and evil. The attempt to shut down the Bear Flag highlights the symbiosis between good and bad, moral and immoral, high society and low-class. Dora is able to work with the boys' original good intentions, and by directing them properly, she comes up with something that the boys will be capable of doing for Doc. The boys need to think and work toward their goal this time, though; the much longer span (several months) between the idea and its execution this time shows an advance in their capabilities. Somehow, though, Doc still remains above the rest of the inhabitants of the Row, too aware of their behavior and their habi ts for the surprise to be successful.
Two young boys, Joey and Willard, are playing near Western Biological and talking about the "babies in jars" that Doc reportedly keeps inside. Willard is a bully and is looking for a little excitement, so he asks Joey about his father, knowing full well that his father committed suicide when he could not find work. Continuing to torture Joey, Willard asks him how his father died, and Joey replies that he took rat poison. Willard makes a series of jokes about Joey's father being a rat, and Joey, afraid of Willard beating him up, goes along, laughing sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of genuine amusement. He describes his father's lingering death in fairly significant detail. The entertainment soon goes out of the conversation, though, and the boys continue on.
All over Cannery Row people are preparing for Doc's party. The girls at Dora's are making him a new quilt for his bed to replace the ratty old blanket he takes on collecting trips. Sam Malloy chooses a piece from his collection of vintage auto parts, which he has rightly decided will someday be historically important. Lee Chong selects some firecrackers and some flower bulbs. Mack and the boys collect tomcats, which Doc always needs, and store up liquor. Doc, through rumor and a drunk stranger at a bar, finds out about the party that is to be given for him. He prepares by hiding away valuables and breakables at the lab and by laying in food and drink on his own. The girls at Dora's argue over who will get to go to the party on the first shift, and Mack continues to collect tomcats.
Frankie has found out about the party, as well, and wants more than anything to do something magnificent for Doc. He has his sights on an onyx clock at a local jewelers, on top of which is a sculpture with a figure that looks a little like Doc. Unable to afford the clock, Frankie breaks into the jeweler's and is caught. Doc is called to the police station, since Frankie's mother has denied responsibility for the boy and claimed that he lives at Doc's. Doc tries to get the police to parole Frankie to him, but the chief suggests that they use the robbery charge as a pretext to put Frankie away, since he has almost reached puberty and the doctors believe he may become sexually aggressive. When Doc asks Frankie why he tried to steal the clock, he says, "I love you." Doc is overcome by emotion and runs out of the police station and down to the beach to go collecting.
Finally, the day of the party arrives and everyone's preparations come to a head. Doc prepares the lab and sits down to await his guests. Mack and the boys and the rest of the neighborhood wait with anticipation, trying to decide what time they should go down to Doc's. The girls at Dora's wait until the madam has her first drink of the night before they start in on their own hidden bottles. Alfred the bouncer is in a foul mood because Dora has told him that he must stay at the Bear Flag all night to prevent trouble. Seeing his disappointment, Dora relents and tells him he may come over later in the night, and she also offers to give him a little vacation. Everyone is excited and waiting for the party to begin. Doc sits, playing music on his phonograph to go along with his sentimental mood.
The stories of Joey and Frankie provide a setting for Doc's sentimental melancholy as he awaits the onset of the party. Both serve as reminders that the dark side of life spares no one, not even the most innocent. While Doc clearly appreciates the gestu re of love that the party is meant to be, he nevertheless understands that there is no such thing as a utopia, that Cannery Row is not free from the world's concerns. Through Joey and Willard, we see Doc from an outsider's perspective for the first time, as a spooky man with babies in jars who can be a target of ridicule. Perhaps for the first time, we are led to wonder why such an accomplished and educated man chooses to live with the likes of Mack and Dora. Joey and Willard's conversation about the sui cide of Joey's father reflects the fundamental honesty of children as they seek to evaluate the world around them. Joey, in particular, is trying to figure things out: what's funny and what isn't, what can keep him from getting beat up, how to manage peo ple. Even the truly unpleasant death of his parent, which he has been forced to watch, does not protect Joey from the cruelty of the world, not even for the few years of childhood. Frankie provides an even more extreme example of this. Like Lenny from Steinbeck's earlier Of Mice and Men, Frankie seems to represent all that is good in the world: love of one's friends, love of beauty, and the desire to demonstrate your love to those who are important to you. In a bit of heavy-handedness that is r eminiscent of Lenny's fate, Frankie is sacrificed to the misunderstandings and intolerance of the community. The truly cruel part of Frankie's fate is that the problem is not his intentions but that his impulses as to how to carry them out are indeed har mful to others. Frankie can be compared in interesting ways with Benjy, the narrator of the first section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, who is also mentally handicapped and who also has a problem expressing himself appropriately and is pun ished severely for it.
Frankie also serves as an extreme version of Mack and the boys. Like Frankie, the boys tend to live on impulse and don't often consider the ways their plans could potentially go wrong. Despite their good intentions, Mack and the boys often end up hurtin g others. Like Joey, though, Mack and the boys are capable of learning, as they demonstrate in their preparations for the second party. In this way, education, particularly learning to anticipate future outcomes, is figured as the ultimate loss of innoce nce. The overwhelming melancholy of Doc, the figure of learning and wisdom, as he listens to his records of classical music and opera--the ultimate expression of culture and transmission of experience in this book--is the end state of the process.
The party is a major success. Mack and the boys arrive first, followed by Dora and the girls from the Bear Flag. Doc offers them a drink from the provisions he has bought. The rest of the neighborhood arrives, and Doc is presented with his gifts. Doc fries up some steaks and everyone eats. Then, Doc begins playing opera for the guests and everyone sits and listens in silent rapture. When the record ends, Doc reads a translation of a sensual Sanskrit love poem, and, again, everyone is overcome with the beauty and the emotion of the work. As they sit quietly a group of strangers rushes in, having seen Dora's girls and thinking the lab is a whorehouse. A good-natured fight ensues, and the party really gets going. The police come and eventually join in the party. Mack and the boys take the police car and go to get more wine. At some point, the car is driven onto the beach, where the police find it the next day after they report it missing. Nearly everyone around ends up at the party.
The narrative offers one last digression. A gopher digs a burrow in a corner of the vacant lot on Cannery Row and waits for a female with whom to mate. The spot is ideal for a burrow, scenic and with good soil. The gopher builds carefully and begins to lay in food for future offspring. No female appears, though, and in going to search for one, the gopher is badly wounded by another male gopher. Finally, he is forced to abandon his perfect burrow and move to a garden nearby where there are gopher traps.
Doc wakes up with a bad hangover the morning after the party. The lab is a mess. He dresses and goes over to Lee Chong's to buy beer. The grocer is barely awake but is happy that Doc has enjoyed his party. Doc puts an album of choir music on the phonograph and begins to clean up. He picks up the book of Sanskrit poetry from which he had been reading the night before and reads a bit aloud to himself. The poignancy of the final verse, which speaks of savoring life, brings tears to his eyes. The final image of the book is of the white rats and rattlesnakes in their cages that Doc has locked away from the partygoers.
Doc's party is a strange mix of violent revelry and high culture. Everyone is equally involved in the fight that breaks out; everyone is equally moved by the poetry reading and the music. The end result is a democratizing of culture and lifestyles that is representative of Cannery Row at its best. This book ends on a strange and uncomfortable note, though. The tale of the gopher seems to be a cautionary little fable about the way that even the best-laid plans can go wrong for reasons completely outsid e one's control. This is a strange message, though, coming after the successful party: Mack and the boys' careful plans have not gone wrong. The gopher's tale also speaks to the difficulty of finding a soul mate in the world, and it is perhaps this asp ect of the anecdote that is most applicable to the book's ending. Doc is still alone at the end of the book, perhaps more alone than ever, despite the party. Perhaps Steinbeck is suggesting that Doc, like the gopher, may be looking in the wrong place fo r happiness, that people like him do not normally live on Cannery Row with people like Mack and Lee Chong. The novel remains fairly ambivalent in its ending: it neither excessively condemns nor celebrates the Row.
Probably the most disturbing aspect of Cannery Row's conclusion, though, is the final image of the book: the rats and rattlesnakes in their cages. Both creatures suggest a certain inescapable malevolence about the world, while their cages suggest a lack of control or free will that keeps the characters in this book from ever really changing their status. This reinforces the image of Doc, hung over, dealing with the aftermath of a party that was meant to be a gift to him: The situation is fundam entally unfair and yet entirely unavoidable. Despite it all, there is still beauty in the world, as the description of early morning on the Row suggests and the poem Doc reads explicitly states. Perhaps beauty is more easily perceived when it is surroun ded by disappointment and human fallibility. The snakes, motionless and staring into space, seem aware of this fact and resigned to their fates.
While the novel ends a little sadder and a little wiser than it started out, it nevertheless retains the aestheticized, almost pastoral qualities that have been its hallmark throughout. There is no distinct image of violence in the last chapters of the n ovel (although the snakes hint toward violence), and the writing is as beautiful as ever. Cannery Row, thus, ends paradoxically, as a utopian work that is nevertheless relentlessly realistic.
1. What is the symbolic importance of collecting in this novel? How do Doc's collecting activities inform the plot? How is collecting a metaphor for the act of writing? [Answer]
2. How is success defined in this novel? Who is the most successful: Doc, Mack, Dora, or Lee Chong? Why? Try to argue the case for each of these characters. [Answer]
3. How do the interspersed vignettes and anecdotes about the people of Cannery Row inform the main plot? Do they have anything to do with the main plot or are they there merely for atmosphere? [Answer]
4. What are some of the important historical events that influence this text? How are they handled in the text?
5. What is the function of violence in this novel? Why are there so many suicides and other deaths?
6. Would you characterize Steinbeck's writing as realistic? As fairy-tale-like? As abstract? As allegorical? Explain the reasons for your answer.
7. How does Steinbeck use the idea of place? What does it mean to be part of a neighborhood or community in this novel?
8. How do families and marriages function in this novel? Who are the most important people in a character's life? Why might family be a troublesome concept?
9. What are the financial and social issues surrounding drinking in this novel? Consider the two parties at Doc's, Dora's policies for her girls, and Lee Chong's success as a purveyor of "Old Tennis Shoes."
10. Doc claims that it's easier to lie than to tell the truth and that people like you better when you lie to them. Does Steinbeck "lie" in his narrative? Why or why not? If he does lie, what are his reasons?
Study Questions: Suggested Answers
Answer for Question 1
Collecting involves taking a random sample and using it to make generalities about a larger population. This is what Doc does by selecting specimens for scientists to study; it is also what Steinbeck does by introducing random characters through brief sketches inserted into the main plot. Collecting also implies taking what you find in front of you rather than trying to construct something original. Steinbeck seeks to describe a specific place and to capture some of its local specificity; he is less concerned with constructing a story that will be universally applicable. In this way, his creative technique has something in common with Doc's collecting activities.
Answer for Question 2
Dora may be the most successful character in the novel. She is a successful businesswoman, and, although her business may seem to modern readers to involve the exploitation of others, we see throughout the novel how her brothel provides a needed outlet for some of the sexual energies of the town. Dora also exemplifies a sense of community: She is constantly giving help to those who need it, and she uses her "girls" to help the people during the influenza epidemic. Mack is too self-centered, and his plans often go awry as a result. Lee Chong is mostly concerned with profits, and, again, he often faces disaster as a result of his neglect of the human side of situations. Doc is hampered by his melancholy and doesn't really form any strong bonds with others. Overall, Dora is the character who best combines humanity and financial success. (Note: this is only a sample answer; Dora should not be considered as definitively the most successful character in the novel.)
Answer for Question 3
The interspersed sections let Steinbeck paint a broader picture of Cannery Row: They give him a chance to introduce more characters and show more of the Row without having to construct a convoluted or artificial plot to do so. Many of the anecdotes end on a note of violence, death, or cruelty, though, and, as such, they provide another perspective on the sometimes overly sunny portrait Steinbeck paints. By remaining outside the main plot, though, they provide a more subtle commentary, without forcing Steinbeck to use heavy irony by having disaster befall his main characters.