Two young boys, Joey and Willard, play in the boat works yard. They throw stones at cats and then hide for a bit before they stroll down to Cannery Row. Joey tells Willard that the doctor (Doc) keeps babies in bottles in his laboratory. Willard is combative and questioning, even calling Joey a liar.
As they stroll along lazily, Willard asks Joey a question to which he already knows the answer – where is Joey's dad? Joey says his dad is dead - he committed suicide because he could not find a job and was full of despair. Willard starts making jokes, comparing Joey's dad to a rat after Joey says his dad drank rat poison to kill himself.
Joey says quietly that after his dad died, a funny thing happened - someone came by the very next day to offer his dad a job. Joey sees a penny and reaches for it, but Willard gets to it first. When Joey protests, Willard tells him to "go take some rat poison" (155).
Mack and the boys sit around the Palace Flophouse talking about their plans to throw Doc a second party. This time, everyone on Cannery Row knows about it; the details slowly trickle out. Dora and the girls are making Doc a beautiful patchwork quilt out of their silks and undergarments. Lee Chong and Sam Malloy are also working on handmade gifts.
Mack decides that since Doc is always asking for cats, he and the boys will give Doc twenty-five tomcats as a birthday gift. Even Gay (who is still in jail) hears about the party and makes arrangements with the Salinas sheriff to get out for the night. Henri abandons his usual artistic ventures and starts making a giant pincushion for Doc.
Doc slowly realizes that something is going on. He is puzzled when people ask him what he is doing October 27th; he has forgotten that he told Mack that this was the date of his birthday (it isn't).
Doc encounters a drunk at the Halfway House. The drunk does not know Doc and mentions that there is going to be a massive birthday party for a man named Doc on Cannery Row. Doc digests this information. He is touched but at the same time, he is worried about potential disaster. The next day, he prepares his laboratory for the party by hiding all of his breakable equipment and purchasing extra liquor and a lot of food.
Everyone else on Cannery Row is getting more and more excited about the party. The girls at Dora's plan their shifts. The boys have fifteen cats in a cage at the Palace Flophouse.
When Frankie finally hears about the party, he has his eye on a beautiful black onyx clock in the window of Jacob's Jewelry Store. Atop the clock is a bronze group of St. George killing the dragon, and Frankie thinks that the rendering of St. George looks a little like Doc. Frankie always thinks about buying the clock for Doc, but it costs seventy-five dollars.
One evening, Frankie is lingering close to the window of Jacob's when a policeman asks him what he is doing. Scared, he flees. He returns later, throws a piece of concrete to break the window, and steals the clock. The policeman finds Frankie, chases him, and eventually arrests him.
The police chief calls Doc to the station after Frankie's mother shrugs off any blame for the incident. Doc asks if Frankie can be paroled to him, but the policeman says that after seeing Frankie's mental report, the best thing for the boy will be to put him away. Doc cannot do anything about it. Doc turns to Frankie and asks him why he did it, knowing there must be a reason. Frankie looks at him and says, "I love you" (175). After Doc leaves the station, he goes down to the caves to collect specimens for his laboratory.
It is finally October 27th, the day of the party. Doc goes about his business as usual, although he is aware that the townspeople are watching him all day. He feels the suppressed excitement everywhere.
Back in the Palace Flophouse, Mack and the boys are waiting for the clock to strike eight so they can go over to Doc's. Darling is wearing a bow around her neck for the occasion. They discuss how to present the cats to Doc and decide that Doc should pick the cage up from the flophouse the next morning. Otherwise, the cats might escape during the party, just as the frogs did at the previous one.
The girls at the Bear Flag are getting ready, and Dora looks stunning. She drinks a bit of whiskey alone in her office, and once another girl hears the clink of ice cubes in Dora's glass, she informs the others that they can all drink before the party as well. While they are drinking, Doris and Phyllis Mae (two of Dora's girls) wonder sadly why Doc does not patronize the Bear Flag. Phyllis figures that Doc just wants girls who are little different than them.
Dora drinks a bit more and walks over to Alfred, who is sulking because he has to keep a lookout at the Bear Flag and cannot come to Doc's party. Upon seeing how disappointed Alfred is, Dora softens and tells him that he can come over later and keep an eye the Bear Flag from the distance. Alfred is grateful, and says he just hasn't been the same since he accidentally broke the drunk man's back. Dora, a kind madam, recommends that Alfred take a couple weeks off; she can get Mack to fill in for him.
Back in the laboratory, Doc feels mellow and is pleased that there is going to be a party for him. He puts on music that keeps him in his good mood – "The Moonlight Sonata" – and waits for his guests to trickle in. It grows dark outside. A female cat wonders where all the male cats have gone. The boys in the flophouse watch the ticking clock, waiting for the right time to go to Doc's.
Steinbeck writes that a party "has a pathology...it is a kind of individual and...it is likely to be a very perverse individual" (182). Parties do not usually go the way they are intended to go and the best ones are usually spontaneous.
Mack and the boys, all cleaned and combed, walk down to Western Biological. They are shy and embarrassed. Doc opens the door and Mack announces the party and tells him about the cats. It is awkward at first, but then Doc invites them in and offers them some whiskey.
Dora and the girls come by soon after and present their handmade quilt to Doc, who immediately puts it on his bed. Mr. and Mrs. Malloy arrive next and give Doc a Chalmers 1916 piston and connecting rod as a gift.
After that, there is a steady flow of partygoers into the laboratory. Henri, Lee Chong, Mr. and Mrs. Gay, and others arrive. Doc cooks the food and people start eating. The whiskey runs out and Doc brings out gallons of wine.
Dora asks for music and Doc obliges by putting on some Monteverdi. Everyone stops to listen and a calmness spreads over the place. After the music is over, Doc brings out a book and reads a poem called "Black Marigolds." It is about lost love.
When Doc finishes his reading, some of his guests are weeping because they are remembering lost loves of their own. Mack says it is a lovely poem. The party seems to be slipping into a quiet phase, but then raucous voices break through the silence.
It is the crew of a San Pedro tuna boat, "good hard happy fight-wise men" (188) who are looking for a brothel. Mack tries to to kick them out, but they refuse to leave, so a massive fight erupts. But this time, it is a "good fight" (178). Alfred hears the chaos and comes over with a ball bat. By the time the police show up, the intruders are gone and Doc's guests are huddled in the dark, happy and drunk.
The party proceeds even after this incident. It can be heard all night all over Cannery Row. The men from the San Pedro tuna boat come back, humbled, and join the party. Someone steals a police car and the cops find it later on the beach. The firecrackers go off.
A fat and elegant gopher in the prime of his life takes up residence in the weeds of Cannery Row. He builds himself a perfect hole, safe from all of the elements and far away from the gardens where humans set traps. He is prepared for a long life with a large family.
However, time goes on and no female gopher appears. Finally, the gopher is forced to leave his residence and move several blocks away where there are more females but also more traps.
Doc awakens leisurely and surveys the grand mess in his laboratory. Cannery Row is sunny and peaceful in the morning. He buys beer at Lee Chong's, returns home with soothing music in his head, ands starts cleaning. He listens to a Gregorian chant while he works.
Doc recites "Black Marigolds" again while the waves crash outside and the soapy water settles in the sink. The animals scamper in their cages.
In this section, Mack and the boys finally succeed in throwing Doc the perfect party. Unlike the first one, it comes together organically. No receives an official invitation; guests just come. There is a spirit of goodwill around this party, evinced in Dora letting Alfred come, the townspeople giving Doc heartfelt presents, and Darling getting dressed up in a red bow. Mack shows that he has learned from his mistakes by leaving the tomcats at the Palace Flophouse, even though he previously lamented the fact that he can never learn. Doc also finds out about this party beforehand, which turns out to be a happy accident because he can prepare himself mentally and physically for his well-meaning but demanding guests. Over the course of the night, the party ebbs and flows, shifts and evolves, but everyone has a good time. Steinbeck personifies the party, describing it as having a "pathology" (172). His description of the party's natural rhythms is reminiscent of the symbolic tide pool.
Doc's party is not only a celebration of Doc, but of the entire Cannery Row community. It slowly expands to include more and more people. Even Gay, who is in prison in Salinas, finds a way to participate. The way that the denizens of Cannery Row come together to plan and execute Doc's party exemplifies Steinbeck's exploration of ecology in this novel – the interconnectedness of people and animals with the natural environment. When Mack and the boys throw the first party for Doc, they take advantage of the community instead of being inclusive, which damages the spirit of Cannery Row. With this second party, though, everyone is involved, working together collectively in a mutually affirming way. The inter-chapter about the gopher reinforces the idea that it is better to be in a community than on one's own, even if it is slightly more perilous.
However, there are a few antagonistic forces that appear throughout the novel. The young boy, Willard, is an exemplar of childhood cruelty and bullying. It is unclear what Steinbeck meant to convey through this short chapter, other than childhood can be a rough and capricious time in which one's character is molded and tested. Frankie, another child in the book, is deemed unfit for society; his attempt to steal a clock for Doc results in his placement in a facility due to the police's fears that his "criminal" proclivities will manifest themselves more dramatically as he gets older. In addition, there are three suicides mentioned over the course of the novel, (Horace Abbeville, Joey's dad, William), a mysterious death that may or may not have been a suicide (the girl in the reef), the extrication of Frankie, all of which reveal that the community only thrives if those who do not adhere to its social norms or fulfill social expectations are displaced, and that despite the congenial attitude on the Row, life is still cruel and often tragic.
Steinbeck's novel may not follow a traditional narrative, but its overall effect is just as powerful as any tightly structured novel. Esteemed critic Norman Cousins writes that Steinbeck celebrates real people by elevating bums and prostitutes to near-sainthood. Many critics laud this aspect of Cannery Row; contemporary critics praise Steinbeck's melting pot of races, genders, and social levels. Steinbeck sets forth what he considers traits worthy of admiration: "kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling" (142) and decries how they are often associated with weakness or a lack of success.
As for success, Steinbeck offers a far different rubric for discerning its achievement. Critic Sarah Perrault writes, "none of [the characters] are conventionally successful...but [their] lack of standard forms of success –financial, marital, or otherwise – demonstrates the shallowness of an American tendency to measure the values in terms of dollars earned or social status attained rather in terms of harder-to-gauge indexes such as pleasure and intellectual satisfaction." By creating a slate of characters who are (mostly) charming, lovable, and unique, even they do not possess the traditional benchmarks of success or morality, Steinbeck forces his read to question his or her own assumptions and values.