Cannery Row

Cannery Row Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-19


Chapter 13

Eddie comes back before dawn with a carburetor he has lifted from another Model T. Mack wakes and stretches, looking out over the sea. Eddie installs the carburetor and the truck sputters to life after a push down the hill.

Along the way, they hit a rooster that has wandered into the road, and Hazel saves it to eat later on.

The Carmel is the perfect river; it courses through the mountains, forms a lake, and weaves through fertile valleys. It rushes hard and fast during the winter and flows softly in the summer. Animals drink from it and farmers use it to quench their land. There is a deep green pool a few miles up from the valley where the boys plan to look for frogs. It is a relaxing and happy place.

The boys unload their things and cook the rooster for dinner. Everything is peaceful and the rooster smells wonderful. Jones nonchalantly suggests the alcohol might be better if Eddie did not pour everything into one jug, which does not sit well with his friends. However, Mack quickly smoothes over the conflict by changing the topic of conversation to McKinley Moran, a deep-sea diver they all used to know.

Finally, Eddie wonders what has happened to Gay, but Mack simply responds that "you just can't trust a married guy" (76). Later, after the sun has gone down, Mack gets frustrated with himself for having so much fun; he questions whether or not his actions are for Doc's benefit or his own. For a moment, the boys wonder if it might be better to just get Doc a present, but they eventually decide to stick with the party.

While they are talking, a man comes over, accompanied by a pointer and holding a shotgun. The man tells Mack and the boys that they are on posted land and they cannot be there. Mack is very polite and courteous, apologizing profusely to the man. He compliments the man's dog, and the man grumbles that she is lame from a tick bite. Mack says he knows how to heal her with Epsom salts. Mack negotiates with the man - he will tend to the dog while the rest of the boys hunt for frogs in the pond near the man's house. Mack instructs the boys to put the fire out before they come up to the house. After Mack is gone, his companions marvel at his smoothness. Hazel says he bets Mack could be president.

Chapter 14

Early morning in Cannery Row is magical, infused with a silvery light. It is peaceful, deserted, and slow; business and progress have come to a halt. Very few people are out and about.

Two soldiers and two busty blondes walk out of La Ida, having a grand time. The soldiers wear the girls' hats. They walk along the railroad tracks, peer into Lee Chong's window, and finally amble down to the beach. They are full of their happy secrets.

A watchman yells at them to get off the beach, but they barely notice until one soldier yells lazily for the man to leave them be. They do not even notice when the watchman goes away. They are in their own world.

Chapter 15

Mack is in the kitchen of the man who owns the land, whom he now refers to as "the captain." Mack is able to heal the dog's tick bite and advises the captain to wean her pups. The captain explains that his wife's political career keeps her away from home a lot. He is grateful for Mack's help and offers Mack a puppy.

The rest of the boys arrive, and the captain offers them a five-gallon jug of corn whiskey. They all ceremoniously drink a glass, and another, and another... and two hours later, they have nearly forgotten why they came in the first place.

They make their way out to the pond, which is filled with frogs. Mack and his boys gather up the amphibians quickly. The hysterical frogs try to escape, but they do not stand a chance against their determined captors; "never before in frog history [has] such an execution taken place" (94).

Back at the house, the captain once again expresses his pleasure to have the boys there, but once he falls asleep Mack says it is time to move on. He picks a puppy and they leave. He comments that he is having a fine time at the captain's place but they cannot forget that they are doing all of this for Doc.

Chapter 16

March is the busiest time for Dora's girls because of the sardine catch. In addition to the regular customers, there is a regiment of soldiers in town. Cannery Row is buzzing joyously, until the influenza epidemic hits the town. All of the doctors of Monterey are too busy to attend to all of the cases; even though the denizens of Cannery Row are tougher than most, many of them fall sick.

Doc is not qualified to practice medicine but everyone comes to him for advice and succor anyway. He is sleep deprived and overwhelmed when he runs into Dora at Lee Chong's. Dora takes pity on the worn-out Doc and offers her assistance. He eagerly accepts and asks if some of Dora's girls could go sit with the Ransels, who are all ill and scared to be alone.

Even though it is a hectic time for her, Dora organizes the girls of the Bear Flag to help Doc. In between their regular customers, they go in shifts to visit with sick families and bring them soup. Dora keeps consulting Doc about what to do in certain cases while also managing to keep the Bear Flag running as normal. This is the busiest the Bear Flag has ever been, and the girls are all relieved when the frenzy finally passes.

Chapter 17

Despite his popularity, Doc is a lonely man. Mack notices it, and points out that even when Doc is with a girl, he is solitary. He keeps himself busy, though; Doc is a night crawler, often using his evenings to replenish his stock.

Doc is currently trying to fulfill an order for octopi. This necessitates a trip to the intertidal zone at La Jolla, where small octopi cling to boulders. It is a five hundred mile drive and he wants to take someone for company, but everyone he asks is busy – a few girls he likes, Mack and the boys, and Henri the painter, who is watching a man trying to break a record for skating around a flag pole.

Doc gets his things together and sets out. He is a slow traveler, always letting dogs pass and stopping for hamburgers and beer. On his journey, he remembers how one time someone remarked to him that he loved beer so much he'd probably order a beer milkshake. For some reason, this comment stuck in his head and he cannot stop thinking about it. He knows if he orders a beer milkshake people will think he is strange.

However, he figures that his beard makes him look suspicious with or without the beer milkshake; people are always a little wary of beards. Doc recalls a time when he had the urge to go on a long walk. He ended up walking through several states, soaking up nature and enjoying himself. Whenever he told anyone what he was doing, though, they were nervous and/or hostile. It was not until Doc started telling people he was walking because of bet and stood to earn a hundred dollars that everyone warmed to him and welcomed him in the towns he passed through. Doc loves telling the truth but knows it can be a fickle mistress.

In Santa Barbara, Doc fills up his gas tank after he eats dinner. A few hitchhikers loiter around and ask where he is going. Being so familiar with the road, Doc knows he needs to choose a veteran hitchhiker who will not talk the entire time and annoy him. He chooses one and the men set out.

After a long period of silence, Doc suggests stopping in Ventura for a beer. The man huffily says he thinks it is a bad idea to drink and drive, and that a car can be a "murderous weapon" (105) in the hands of an intoxicated man. Quietly and sternly, Doc orders the man out of the car. The hitchhiker is startled, but once he realizes that Doc is serious, he quickly obeys his orders.

Doc approaches the waitress at the counter, and knowing he has nothing left to lose, he orders a beer milkshake. The girl is shocked, but Doc says he is sick and it's doctor's orders. Visibly relieved, the girl smiles and complies.

As Doc drinks his beer milkshake, the waitress remarks that it looks awful. He says it's not so bad once you get used to it - and he's been drinking beer milkshakes for seventeen years.

Chapter 18

Doc drives very slowly as he continues on his journey, stopping several times for food. At night, the road is much more boring – no dogs – so he decides to speed up for the last two hours to La Jolla.

Doc arrives at two in the morning and sleeps in his car. His body can sense when the tide changes, and when it does, he awakens. He puts on his boots and hat and steps into the tide pool, which is full of "the incredible refuse of the sea" (108).

It is a good hunting day and Doc gathers plenty of octopi – twenty-two, in fact. The sun rises and he explores the tide pool a little more. He ventures out to the barrier edge. He sees a flash of white and leans over to investigate. He stiffens. There is a girl's face below, white, pretty, and serene. Her body is caught in the crevice.

He retreats, his heart beating and his throat tight. The girl's face looms before him as he packs up.

A man breaks Doc's trance by asking him if he's been fishing. Doc replies slowly that he has been looking for octopi. The man asks if he is okay, and Doc asks if there is a police station nearby. He says there is a body out on the reef. The man remembers that there is a bounty for a body. Doc tells him to keep the bounty after the man asks if the body is rotten or eaten up.

Chapter 19

The man who is skating around the flagpole at Holman's Department Store has become extremely popular. Everyone marvels at his ability to break his own records. He is attached to a steel rod as he skates around, but no one minds that. Holman's loves the publicity he brings to their store.

Someone shoots at the skater with an air gun, but it is only Dr. Merrivale, the old Masonic Lodge member. He promises not to do it again.

Everyone is charmed and interested, at least for a little while. Henri the painter muses on the philosophic implications of the event and thinks he must try flagpole-skating himself. Mack and the boys check it out, but leave soon after, unsure of what the fuss is all about.

There is one question that haunts everyone, but no one says it aloud. The young and brilliant Richard Frost is particularly anxious about it; it consumes his thoughts.

One night, Frost gets in a fight with his wife while he is drunk. He leaves the house and heads to the flagpole. Richard calls up to the skater and asks him how he goes to the toilet.

The reply comes – the man has a can.

Satiated, Richard returns home and climbs into bed with his wife. He tells her that the man has a can.


The tide pool is one of the most powerful symbols in Cannery Row. Steinbeck first introduces the image in Chapter 6, describing the tide pool as being full of "hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals" (31) and possessing the "smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth" (32). Later, when Doc goes to collect octopi in La Jolla, he calls the tide pool "the incredible refuse of the sea" (108). In both of these instances, the tide pool symbolizes Cannery Row: a messy, complicated, chaotic ecosystem that somehow operates seamlessly. While the tide pool might look like "refuse" to the untrained eye, Doc finds value in it. Similarly, Cannery Row's residents may not be the most glamorous or successful people, but Steinbeck's words bring out the beauty and vitality of the community. Animals in a tide pool are inclined toward domesticity, as are their human counterparts in Cannery Row. In both situations, there are predators and there are victims, but they all function together harmoniously.

Specifically, Steinbeck associates the tide pool most closely with Doc, who knows its rhythms in his body and can remove pieces from it without destroying it. Doc is also an intrinsic part of his community – the other residents of Cannery Row ask him for advice, rely on him, and even try to celebrate his contributions. However, he is is still lonely and set apart. Mack is very perceptive about this, and observes that "even in the dear close contact with a girl... Doc would be lonely. Doc [is] a night crawler" (100). Doc's neighbors and friends are always trying to figure him out, although they are not very successful. This is because like Mac, Doc is often contradictory. He demonstrates erudition and cultural literacy but enjoys fast food and drinking with strangers over reading books. He is sociable, but never quite seems to connect with anyone on a deeper level.

Ultimately, Doc likes to collect information in the same way he likes to collect specimens in the tide pools; this is why he always has answers to Hazel's constant stream of questions. Doc is very self-aware, however, and knows that mainstream society does not tolerate certain aspects of his personality, like his insatiable curiosity. He makes up reasons for his actions that he knows people will understand. Nobody could figure out why Doc was walking across several states until he lied and said he was trying to win a bet. Because of that experience, he knows that the only way to order a beer milkshake without eliciting stares is to lie about it. Doc loves "true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress" (104).

It may not make sense why Doc is so devoted to the Cannery Row community, especially since he does not seem to have a great deal in common with his neighbors. The answer seems to be rooted in his zest for life and his overwhelming compassion and humility. Steinbeck writes, "Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom" (28). Furthermore, as the novel proceeds, Doc's kindness manifests itself in tangible ways – helping Darling, organizing relief during the influenza epidemic, lending Mack money, caring for Frankie, and so on. Doc understands people and accepts them; he might not be like them, but his generous heart and open spirit draw people to him. Plus, his loneliness seems to be satiated by people needing him. He clearly cares what others think about him and wants to fit in, otherwise he would not take such pains to lie about his motivations.

One of the most shocking moments in the novel is when Doc finds the dead body in the reef. While there is certainly something terribly sad and melancholy about the encounter, which hints at the dangers of the world outside Cannery Row and foreshadows the disastrous, socially-destabilizing party waiting for Doc when he gets home, critic Michael Meyer offers another viewpoint. Meyer writes that the novel is concerned with finding the principles that tie humanity together and how people are related to each other; thus, "the drowned girl found during Doc's exploration of the tidal flat exemplifies this unity. After the find, Doc hears cosmic music, the music of the spheres. The vision implies great beauty and even ecstasy, although it is simultaneously appalling and fearful. In this vision of death, the purposiveness of the events is shown to be irrelevant."