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Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

Chapters 18 - 21

Chapters 14 - 17

Chapters 22 - 25

Summary

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.

Commentary

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.

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