Cannery Row

by

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Mack and “the boys” get back to Cannery Row, they have roughly one thousand frogs. Doc isn’t home yet, so they start preparing for his party. Going to Lee’s grocery store, Mack says, “I and the boys are pretty short and we’re pretty hungry. You know the price of frogs is twenty for a buck. Now Doc is away and we’re hungry. So what we thought is this. We don’t want to see you lose nothing so we’ll make over to you twenty-five frogs for a buck. You got a five-frog profit there and nobody loses his shirt.” At first, Lee declines, but Mack reminds him that this is all for Doc, urging him to accept frogs as payment, since he will be able to simply sell the frogs back to Doc when Doc returns. After going to the Palace Flophouse to inspect the frogs—and to have a drink—Lee agrees.
Once again, Mack uses his powers of persuasion to convince someone to do something. In this case, he coaxes Lee into accepting a rather risky proposal, since it seems likely that either something will go wrong between now and the time Doc returns, or that Mack will find a way to leverage his position to his own advantage. And though Lee clearly understands that it’s somewhat dangerous to strike these kinds of deals with Mack, he agrees—yet another testament to how convincing Mack can be when he presents himself as a kind man (of course, he is a kind man, but he’s often motivated to do things that might not benefit others in the ways he that promises to).
Themes
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As soon as Lee agrees to accept frogs as payment, Mack and “the boys” go crazy buying items from the store. First, they purchase things they’ll need for the party, which Lee marks up in price because he knows no other store will take frogs instead of money. Soon, though, “the boys” lose sight of what they’re supposed to be buying and start purchasing things like “silk arm bands” and other unnecessary items. Despite the fact that Lee keeps raising his prices, the gang doesn’t get too upset, for “financial bitterness [can]not eat too deeply into” them, since they don’t “measure their joy in goods sold, their egos in bank balances, nor their loves in what they cost.”
Unsurprisingly, Mack and the boys get overexcited about having the ability to buy items from Lee’s store. After all, they aren’t usually able to buy much, since they rarely have money. However, this is only an indication of the fact that they don’t truly care about whether they’re rich or poor, and don’t “measure their joy in goods sold.” Rather, they live exactly how they want to live. Because they’re so unaccustomed to having money, then, they easily forget that they’re supposed to be shopping for Doc’s party, once again losing sight of their desire to do something nice for him.
Themes
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Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
As the day goes on, Mack and “the boys” revel in their ability to purchase goods at Lee’s. They also lounge in the Palace Flophouse and play with Darling, their new puppy. Sitting in the Flophouse and waiting for Doc to return, they decide that the party—which will take place in Doc’s laboratory—should have decorations, so they return once again to Lee’s store and buy “miles of crepe paper.” Meanwhile, Eddie—who once used to work as a “fry cook”—tries to bake a cake, though it turns out to be a disaster, and Darling eventually eats some of it and then throws up in the leftovers.
Although Mack and his friends have seemingly gone off-track with their planning, they have at least reoriented themselves so that they’re once again thinking about Doc’s party. Indeed, Eddie even turns his attention to baking a cake. However, his baking project doesn’t go well, yet another warning sign that the boys’ attempt to do something nice for Doc will likely cause trouble, despite the fact that they’re doing this to show Doc their appreciation.
Themes
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By the time the evening comes around, “the boys” are drunk because they keep buying “half pints of Old Tennis Shoes at fifteen frogs a crack.” Finally, they spend the last of their frogs on Old Tennis Shoes and two jugs of wine, since they believe Doc loves wine. They then make their way into the laboratory—which Doc never locks—and start trying to decorate it, eventually deciding that they should place the crate of frogs (which now belongs to Lee) in the center of the room so that Doc will immediately see the bounty.
If Mack and the boys knew Doc as well as they claim to, they would most likely know that his favorite alcoholic drink is beer—after all, he likes beer enough to order it in the form of a milkshake. What’s more, he seemingly drinks it constantly, meaning that Mack and his friends have no doubt witnessed this. As such, one would think they would buy him beer, not wine, but they’re too preoccupied by their own excitement about the party to stop and think about this. This is yet another indication that this act of kindness is not as selfless as they’d like to think.
Themes
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Soon enough, Mack and “the boys” finish the rest of the whiskey, and people start filtering into Western Biological and getting quite drunk. Lee, for his part, drinks so much that he has to go home. At this point, a number of men at the Bear Flag think that Western Biological is a “rival house,” so they enter “whooping with joy.” “They were evicted by the outraged hosts but only after a long, happy, and bloody battle that took out the front door and broke two windows.” Later, a drunkard says something that Mack interprets as an insult to Doc—who is still absent—and so he hits him so hard he “crashe[s] through the packing case in among the frogs.” Meanwhile, “someone trying to change a record” breaks the stylus.
First of all, it’s crucial to note that Doc hasn’t even arrived at his own party yet. Nevertheless, Mack and his friends have already settled into the raucous night, seemingly unbothered by his absence. This, of course, confirms that they aren’t throwing this party solely for Doc’s sake, but also for their own. On another note, Steinbeck describes the mayhem of this gathering in a rather romanticized way. Although he’s writing about violence, he refers to the fight that Mack and the boys have as a “happy” battle. With this, he once again suggests that happiness and goodness can sometimes come in strange forms, though in this case what Mack and his friends fail to consider is that they’re doing Doc a significant disservice by trashing his laboratory.
Themes
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“No one has studied the psychology of a dying party,” Steinbeck writes. “It may be raging, howling, boiling, and then a fever sets in and a little silence and then quickly quickly it is gone, the guests go home or go to sleep or wander away to some other affair […].” This is what happens now, as the partiers stream out of Western Biological, leaving the laboratory “littered with broken glass” and snapped records and food smeared on the floor. Then, “through the broken end of the packing case,” the first frog jumps out, followed by another, and another, until all of the slimy creatures have sprung out into the streets, never to return.
With the frogs gone, Mack and “the boys” have done nothing for Doc but destroy his home. Readers see once and for all that their supposed act of kindness is simply an excuse to have a party, and this only harms Doc.
Themes
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Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon