Cannery Row

Cannery Row Summary and Analysis of Chapters 20-25


Chapter 20

Mack and the boys return to Cannery Row after their successful venture. Mack convinces Lee Chong to accept the frogs as currency (since Doc has said he will pay for them) and trades them for party supplies like whiskey, steak, cake ingredients, and decorations. Lee Chong only agrees to this arrangement because he likes Doc.

Back at the Palace Flophouse, all the men are doting on Mack's dog, Darling, even though she is not yet housebroken. Meanwhile, Mack and the boys are in full party-planning mode, trying to get the laboratory decorated and fully stocked before Doc returns that night. They keep going back and forth to Lee Chong's until they owe him all of their frogs. Eddie tries to make a cake and fails miserably; even Darling gets sick after eating the remnants of it.

As evening grows near, Mack and the boys gather in Doc's laboratory and decide to display the crate of frogs in the middle of the room, as they believe this will make Doc happy. They start drinking and eating and soon, the party is in full swing - even though Doc has not yet arrived. Passers-by come in to join the celebrations and keep bringing over more alcohol from Lee Chong's. "The noise [of the party can] be heard from the boat works to La Ida" (118). Late at night, Mack gets into a fight with a man who insults Doc. The case of frogs is overturned in the ensuing melee and many of the drunken guests run off into the night. By the end of the party, Doc's laboratory is completely destroyed and Doc himself is still nowhere in sight. The frogs have scattered and escaped.

Chapter 21

Doc returns the next morning and is furious to see the state of his laboratory. Mack is still there and tries to explain, but Doc hits him in the mouth. Mack refuses to fight back because he knows he deserves the beating. While Mack is tending to his wounded mouth, Doc buys him some beer. Mack finally explains that he and the boys were trying to throw Doc a party and they thought he was coming home the night before.

Mack reveals that he had a wife who accused him of poisoning every good thing that ever came their way, and this is why she eventually left him. Mack laments that he never learns; he tries to do nice things, but his plans always go awry. Mack offers to clean up the laboratory and insists that he and the boys will pay Doc back for what they have broken, but Doc won't have it. He claims that hitting Mack in the face is all he needs to get the anger out of his system. Mack slinks back to the Palace Flophouse and Doc starts the process of tidying up the mess.

Chapter 22

Henri the painter is not French, his name is not Henri, and he is not a painter. He is simply a francophile who has studied all of the stories he could find about Paris' Left Bank. Despite his lack of talent for painting, Henri is a gifted craftsman and boat builder. He has been building a boat on-and-off for the last ten years; he can only work on it when he has the money for parts. However, Henri secretly does not want to finish his boat.

Henri lives on his unfinished boat. In the time that he's been working on it, he has been married twice and both unions failed for the same reason - the women got tired of living in the boat, which is too small for two people and lacks a proper bathroom.

One night after Alice (his second wife) has left him, Henri has a disturbing vision. He sees a man killing a baby by slitting its throat. He quickly realizes that the murder hasn't actually happened, but Henri is rattled regardless and goes to Doc's place. Doc does not believe in ghosts and says he cannot help Henri. Their conversation is interrupted by a pretty girl who has come to see Doc. Upon hearing about Henri's ghost, the girl decides to accompany Henri back to his boat to see if the ghost returns. She ends up falling for Henri and staying with him for the next 5 months until the "cramped cabin and the lack of a toilet [drives] her out" (130).

Chapter 23

Everyone at the Palace Flophouse is gloomy after the party debacle. Darling is the only happy being in the house. By now, all the residents of Cannery Row know that the boys carelessly threw a raging party and destroyed Doc's laboratory when he wasn't home. As a result, Mack and his boys have become pariahs. Lee Chong is furious about his financial losses; a rumor circulates that Mack and the boys stole liquor and money from Lee. They cannot bear to face him so they have to shop at the Thrift Market up the hill. Ironically, the one person who isn't holding a grudge against Mack is Doc, who tells Richard Frost that Mack and the boys are "true philosophers" because they are able to "satisfy their appetites without calling them something else" (133).

Doc makes a bet with Richard Frost. He says that Mack and the boys won't look up to watch the 4th of July Parade as it passes them by. Frost cannot believe that the entire group could ignore such a spectacle and accepts the wager, but Doc is correct; Mack and the boys do not flinch when the parade crosses in front of the Palace Flophouse.

It is a bad time for everyone on Cannery Row. Sam Malloy and his wife are fighting constantly and their shouts echo loudly in the boiler. Alfred throws a drunk out of the Bear Flag and accidentally breaks the man's back. A group of "high-minded ladies" demand that "dens of vice" like the Bear Flag be shut down, and Dora is forced to close for several days. Darling is sick with distemper, which makes her weak and alarmingly thin. Hazel and Jones are forced to bring Doc over to examine her. Doc tells them to feed her soup, eggs, and cod liver oil. Doc's cure is just what Darling needs and by morning, the dog is fine. Soon after Darling's recovery, fortunes change all over Cannery Row. Lee Chong even forgives Mack and the boys and writes off their frog debt. Mack goes to see Dora and asks her for advice on how to do something nice for Doc. She suggests that they throw a party to which he actually gets to go.

Chapter 24

Mrs. Mary Talbot loves to go to parties. Her husband, Tom Talbot, does not earn very much money, though, so Mary makes do with tricking her friends into throwing them or organizing small celebrations for the neighborhood cats. Her optimism and joyful energy make up for the fact that she and Tom are often just scraping by. When her husband is feeling low, Mary assures him,"we're magic people. Nothing can happen to us" (144). However, one day, Tom feels immune to Mary's charms. "I'm sick of pretending everything," he says. Mary is undeterred and decides to throw Tom a party. She invites all of the neighborhood cats and prepares to serve tea. There is a little incident, however, when Kitty Casini brings a mouse and Tom has to kill the rodent and chase the cat away. Nevertheless, Mary keeps up her imaginative charade. Later that year, she throws a pregnancy party and everyone points out how much fun her kid will have.

Chapter 25:

Things have taken a turn for the better all over Cannery Row. The dark cloud that was hanging over the street has been lifted. Darling is back to her healthy self and has even started to urinate outside, all on her own accord. The local businesses are flourishing. Meanwhile, Mack has been planting the idea of Doc's party in the minds of all the townspeople. Hazel suggests that Mack find out Doc's birthday so that they have a more concrete reason to celebrate him.

Mack comes up with a story about astrology in order to nonchalantly ask Doc about his birthday. Doc wonders what Mack is up to and cautiously says that his birthday is on October 27th.


Critic Susan Shillinglaw draws attention to the fact that although Steinbeck's novel is called Cannery Row, it has very little to do with the canneries themselves. The characters do not work in the canneries and the bulk of the novel takes place after the canneries shut down for the day. Even Mack and the boys look at cannery work as a last resort. To return to the symbolic tide pool, Shillinglaw writes that Steinbeck's portrayal of Cannery Row is "a tide pool teeming with life after the ocean of commerce recedes." However, the people left behind do not have the same sense of purpose as cannery workers, who know exactly how each day is going to unfold. Rather, the permanent residents of Cannery Row must forge their own paths. According to Shillinglaw, they live "on the margins of society, on the verge of loneliness, depending on one another for survival" (ix).

As a result, many of the characters in Steinbeck's novel are locked in an endless cycle or worse, a state of stagnation. Henri does not ever want to finish his boat; if he does, he will no longer have a purpose. Meanwhile, Doc continues to put up with the shenanigans of Mack and the boys. He is impressively forgiving after they destroy his laboratory, but that seems to be because Doc understands Mack. He says to Frost that Mack "has the qualities of a genius" and that he and the boys "are all very clever if they want something... they just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting" (134). Here, it becomes clear that Doc himself has taken a page from Mack's book. He does not push himself too far beyond his comfort zone. He cavorts with various women but never marries; he makes money but then spends it on frivolous things like cleaning up after Mack's party. By sticking in this pattern, Doc avoids life's larger disappointments, those that come from being too "caught in that wanting."

Meanwhile, Mack and the boys' disastrous party upsets the delicate ecosystem of Cannery Row. After that, things all around the street seem to be going sour. There are fights, disagreements, and even outsiders coming in and trying to dismantle the Bear Flag, which is a rare source of prosperity on Cannery Row. This collective downturn in luck seems to suggest that the residents of Cannery Row derive power from their unity. This is a group of people who trust each other. They know that the "Chinaman" will descend into the water and return with his wet basket without disturbing anyone. Doc leaves his laboratory door open all the time, even after Mack and the boys destroy it. Lee Chong expects that his customers will pay off their debts when he asks them to. However, once that trust is destroyed, everyone is on his or her own. This shows that the community togetherness is vital for the survival and prosperity of both the individual and the group.

Steinbeck writes, "...there are two possible reactions to social ostracism - either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world, and does even worse things. This last is by far the commonest reaction to stigma" (132). Mack has clearly been on a downward spiral for most of his adult life, as he confesses to Doc. His failed harebrained schemes drove his wife away and momentarily destroyed any goodwill towards him on Cannery Row. It seems as though he has reacted to many of life's challenges by "going bad." However, after Doc's first party, Mack decides to take the former route instead. Perhaps his confidence comes from Doc's forgiveness, or maybe he just cannot bear to keep causing trouble for others. Mack's trajectory further underlines Shillinglaw's point that Steinbeck's novel does not insist that the people of Cannery Row aspire to reach great heights, rather, Cannery Row "focuses on life as it is" (x). Instead of searching for joy in aspiration, the residents of Cannery Row must find sustainable ways to make their own happiness.

The inter-chapter about the Talbots is so relentlessly positive that it reads like a fable or a fairy tale. While Tom Talbot is constantly worrying about money, his wife, Mary, lives in a world of delusion. Tom might insist that he wants to speak about the harsh reality of their financial struggles, but Mary refuses to let him; the result is positive for both of them. This mini chapter is what Shillinglaw calls a "little era of rest... when time stops and examines itself" (xxv). The brief interlude also calls attention to the Steinbeck's authorial power, as the author is taking the reader out of the novel's main narrative and forcing him or her to briefly look at the world through the eyes of a stranger. In this way, "Steinbeck's art luxuriates in mimetic representation. He insistently blurs the border between art and life" (xxiii).