Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Doc reaches La Jolla at two in the morning, at which point he parks near the “tidal flat” and sleeps until morning. Waking up as the tide goes out, he drinks coffee, eats breakfast, and has “a quart of beer.” Wading out over the “flat,” Doc upturns rocks and collects octopi, chasing the tide as it recedes. “He came at last to the outer barrier where the long leathery brown algae hung down into the water,” and Doc then sees “a flash of white under water and then the floating weed covered it.” Making his way to this “flash of white,” Doc “part[s] the brown algae” and looks down. “Then he grew rigid,” Steinbeck notes. “A girl’s face looked up at him, a pretty, pale girl with dark hair.”
Doc is in his element as he wades out into the tidal flat. As a marine biologist who often feels lonely in groups, this moment of solitary research is quite natural for him. However, he soon comes face to face with death itself, as he stares into this unknown young woman’s lifeless eyes. This girl, Steinbeck notes, is “pretty.” By calling attention to this fact, he suggests that even death can be beautiful, though this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for Doc to process what he has just seen.
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Looking down at this dead girl, whose body is stuck in a “crevice,” Doc feels as if the image has become “burned into his picture memory.” In his mind, “a high thin piercingly sweet flute” plays “beyond the hearing range.” Putting the seaweed back over the girl’s face, he makes his way back to the shore, where he comes upon a man who asks if he’s feeling all right. “Is there a police station near?” Doc asks, explaining that there’s “a body out on the reef.” “You get a bounty for finding a body,” the man says, but Doc walks away, saying, “You take the bounty. I don’t want it.” As he retreats, “only the tiniest piping of the flute sound[s] in his head.”
Doc is an emotional man who cares very little about money. As such, he focuses on what the experience of finding a dead woman makes him feel, not the reward he could receive for reporting her body. Indeed, he experiences a kind of existential shock, one that acknowledges his surprise but also opens him up to a world of beauty, one in which there is a “piercingly sweet flute” playing just beyond the “hearing range,” an image that brings to mind the notion that there are certain things in life that a person can feel and experience without fully grasping. This, in turn, aligns with Steinbeck’s determination to replicate the feeling of being alive without using any kind of special literary approach or technique, for he believes that the best way to represent life’s beautiful disorderliness is to simply let his readers experience what happens.
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