Cannery Row

by

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“In spite of his friendliness and his friends Doc was a lonely and a set-apart man,” Steinbeck writes, suggesting that Mack is the only person who truly notices that Doc seems “always alone” even in a group. Now, Doc makes the drive to La Jolla by himself because he couldn’t find anyone to accompany him. Mack and “the boys” are in Carmel, and even Henri is busy, since Holman’s Department Store has hired a “flag-pole skater”—a man trying to stay on a raised platform for as long as possible while wearing roller skates. The skater has been doing this now for three consecutive days without stopping, and Henri feels he can’t “leave town while the skater [is] up there,” for he wants to make a painting called “Substratum Dream of a Flagpole Skater,” thinking that there are “philosophical implications in flag-pole skating.”
Mack’s observation that Doc is “always alone” even when he’s in a group is worth noting, for it suggests that well-liked people who are respected and surrounded by friends still experience loneliness. In this way, Steinbeck intimates that loneliness is simply a symptom of life, something that no one can avoid altogether. Fortunately, though, Doc does have people around him, which puts him in a better position than someone like William, who was completely alone and isolated. On another note, the flag-pole skater is an interesting figure in Cannery Row, as he represents not only Steinbeck’s interest in exploring the ridiculous things people will do for money, but also the ways in which something can mean different things to different people. This is evident by Henri’s artistic and philosophical interest in the skater—surely a different kind of reaction than what the owners of Holman’s Department Store must have originally had in mind when putting on this promotional spectacle.
Themes
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
Reality, Randomness, and Disorder Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Compared to most people, Doc travels slowly. This is because he frequently stops for hamburgers and beer. In fact, someone once told him, “You love beer so much. I’ll bet some day you’ll go in and order a beer milk shake.” This statement has stayed with Doc, troubling him because he can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have a beer milkshake. He finds the idea disgusting, and yet, he can’t banish it from his mind. Having stopped for a snack, Doc now avoids looking at the milkshake machines, thinking that if he were ever to order a beer milkshake, he would have to do it in a town where people don’t recognize him. However, he worries that people would be suspicious of a bearded man like him ordering a beer milkshake. “A man with a beard was always a little suspect anyway.”
In this section, Steinbeck makes a point of making Doc into a more three-dimensional character. Until this point, he has simply presented Doc as a kind fellow with a few eccentricities. Now, though, readers see that Doc is a quirky man who, despite his self-assuredness, still considers—and, to a certain extent, worries about—what people think of him. Indeed, he knows that his beard sets him apart from most men, an idea that emphasizes his loneliness, as it calls attention to the ways in which he feels like an outsider in the world in which he lives.
Themes
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Steinbeck tells a story about Doc’s youth, when he was a university student who—feeling depressed about “love” and having “worked too hard—decided to walk from Chicago to Florida. Whenever someone asked why he was walking, he tried to tell the truth, since he “love[s] true things.” However, speaking honestly about his discontent unnerved people, who often told him to get away from them “if he knew what was good for him.” “And so he stopped trying to tell the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet—that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him.” Ever since then, Doc has understood that the truth can be “a very dangerous mistress” in this world.
Doc is an unfailingly good man, so it’s no surprise that he wants to tell the truth whenever possible. However, he discovers that not everyone is ready to speak honestly about unhappiness or discontent. Interestingly enough, his decision to lie while walking such a long distance as a young man is nothing more than an attempt to be kind, for he doesn’t want to upset other people by shocking them with the truth about his own melancholy. Readers see once again that he is devoted to doing what’s best for others, even when this means lying at his own expense.
Themes
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
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At a certain point during his trip to La Jolla—after stopping in multiple towns for burgers and beer—Doc visits a gas station, where he takes on a hitchhiker. After a while, he pulls over again and asks the hitchhiker if he wants any beer. “No,” the man replies. “And I don’t mind saying I think it’s not a very good idea to drive under the influence of alcohol. It’s none of my business what you do with your own life but in this case you’ve got an automobile and that can be a murderous weapon in the hands of a drunken driver.” Hearing this, Doc says, “Get out of the car,” and when the hitchhiker hesitates, he adds, “I’m going to punch you in the nose.”
Despite Doc’s all-around goodness, he is still human. As such, he has certain vices, and though it doesn’t seem to interfere with his life all that often, he clearly has a drinking problem. After all, the hitchhiker is right to point out that Doc shouldn’t be driving under the influence, but Doc is unwilling to hear this. This is the first time in the entire novel that Doc has acted selfishly, and his threat to punch the hitchhiker in the nose is quite obviously inappropriate. However, this is just a testament to the fact that even the most virtuous people have various shortcomings and vices.
Themes
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Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
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The hitchhiker scrambles out of the car. “I’m going to find an officer,” he says through the window, but Doc grabs a wrench and gestures threateningly, and the man quickly walks away. Getting out of the car himself, Doc goes into the restaurant and orders a beer milkshake. “Are you kidding?” the waitress asks. “I’ve got a bladder complaint. Bipalychaetorsonectomy the doctors call it. I’m supposed to drink a beer milk shake. Doctor’s orders,” Doc lies. “Oh!” replies the waitress. “I thought you was kidding. You tell me how to make it. I didn’t know you was sick.” After instructing the waitress how to make it, Doc takes a sip of the milkshake. “It sounds awful,” the waitress says. “It’s not so bad when you get used to it,” Doc replies. “I’ve been drinking it for seventeen years.”
Again, Doc demonstrates that he is not immune to anger, for although he’s quite virtuous, he is still human and, thus, prone to certain flaws. On another note, his decision to lie about why he’s ordering a beer milkshake aligns with his understanding that sometimes the truth can be disconcerting to other people. When the waitress expresses her disgust, he tells her that he has been drinking beer milkshakes for 17 years because of a medical condition, thereby allowing her to feel at ease rather than making her uncomfortable.
Themes
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Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon