Cannery Row

by

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Doc returns to Cannery Row at dawn. Tired from driving, he enters the laboratory in confusion. Looking around, his eyes “flame red with anger,” and he tries to put a record on the phonograph but finds that it, too, has been broken. Then, he sees Mack come into the lab. “Did you do this?” he demands, and before Mack finishes speaking, Doc punches him in the mouth. Stricken, Mack sits on the floor, but Doc tells him to stand. “Put up your hands. Fight, you son of a bitch,” Doc says, but Mack tells him to keep hitting him because he knows he deserves it. “Oh you dirty son of a bitch,” Doc says, lowering his fists and sitting. “Go wash your face,” he says to Mack before going to buy beer at the store, where Lee can’t bring himself to look at him.
Yet again, readers see that Doc is capable of great anger, despite his overall virtuousness. At the same time, though, it’s hard to fault him for this behavior, since Mack has utterly destroyed his home, and even Mack is cognizant of the fact that he deserves punishment. In turn, Doc can’t bring himself to keep beating on his friend, since he knows it’s pointless. After all, Mack didn’t intentionally harm him.
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When Doc returns, Mack is still washing the blood off his face, and Doc pours them each a glass of beer. Mack explains that he and “the boys” wanted to throw a party for Doc, saying, “She got out of hand. It don’t do no good to say I’m sorry. I been sorry all my life.” He then tells Doc that he used to have a wife, but that she left because she couldn’t “stand” him anymore. “If I done a good thing it got poisoned up some way,” he says. “I don’t do nothin’ but clown no more. Try to make the boys laugh.” He was, he says, glad when Doc hit him, hoping that it might teach him a lesson, though he knows he’ll never “learn.”
In this moment, Mack acknowledges that whenever he tries to do something “good,” he ends up veering toward destruction. In this way, Steinbeck suggests that true kindness—which is a selfless expression of goodwill—is rare and perhaps not as easy to embody as some people think.
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Doc,” Mack says, “I and the boys will clean up here—and we’ll pay for the stuff that’s broke. If it takes us five years we’ll pay for it.” In response, Doc tells him not to say that. “No you won’t, Mack,” he says. “You’ll think about it and it’ll worry you for quite a long time, but you won’t pay for it. There’s maybe three hundred dollars in broken museum glass. Don’t say you’ll pay for it. That will just keep you uneasy. It might be two or three years before you forgot about it and felt entirely easy again. And you wouldn’t pay it anyway.” Mack agrees that Doc is right, but asks what he can do to make up for what’s happened. “I’m over it,” Doc replies. “Those socks in the mouth got it out of my system. Let’s forget it.”
Again, Doc demonstrates his ability to empathize with other people. In this case, he puts himself in Mack’s shoes despite the fact that Mack has done him wrong. By doing this, he’s able to see the toll that paying for the glass would take on Mack. And because he himself is so generous, he doesn’t think it’s worth it to put Mack through that kind of “uneas[iness].” Indeed, he says that hitting Mack in the mouth was enough to get the anger “out of [his] system.” Steinbeck suggests that everyone will of course succumb to anger now and again, so it’s better to simply express this anger in small ways, since doing so enables one to forgive and forget more easily.
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