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Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

Chapters 14 - 17

Chapters 10 - 13

Chapters 18 - 21

Summary

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.

Commentary

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.

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