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Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

Chapters 26 - 29

Chapters 22 - 25

Chapters 30 - 32

Summary

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.

Commentary

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.

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