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Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

Chapters 30 - 32

Chapters 26 - 29

Analysis

Summary

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.

Commentary

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. /PARAGRAPH

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