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Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

Chapters 5 - 9

Chapters 1 - 4

Chapters 10 - 13

Summary

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.

Commentary

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.

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