Cannery Row

by

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the aftermath of the disastrous party, Mack and “the boys” are ashamed of themselves. Hughie and Jones even start working at the Hediondo Cannery, and Hazel picks a fight and purposefully loses it just to “feel a little better.” Worst of all, everyone in town talks about the event, failing to understand that the gang only wanted to honor Doc. As such, “the boys” keep to themselves. “For there are two possible reactions to social ostracism,” Steinbeck writes, “either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things. This last is by far the commonest reaction to stigma.”
Steinbeck goes out of his way in his section emphasize how devastated Mack and the boys are to be essentially shunned by their community. Although their intentions were good when they planned Doc’s party, they went about showing him their appreciation in a very misguided way, causing the entirety of Cannery Row to think of them as malicious men. As such, they retreat into themselves and think about how they can be “better, purer, [and] kindlier,” for the only other option is to become confrontational, which is not in their nature.
Themes
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Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
As Mack and “the boys” keep a low profile, Doc makes an interesting “observation” about them (for he is not, contrary to what they think, mad anymore). Sitting with a friend and drinking beer one day, he looks at the crew and says, “Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.”
Doc’s words in this passage echo what Steinbeck says in Chapter 2 about Mack and the boys and how their relaxed, easygoing qualities allow them to prosper in life. This kind of prosperity, he goes out of his way to mention, has nothing to do with financial success. Rather, Mack and his friends are “healthy and curiously clean” because they don’t obsess over things that don’t matter. Whereas their contemporaries have “bad stomachs” because they allow greed to rule their lives, Mack and his crew lounge around like “philosophers.” In turn, Steinbeck frames Mack and the boys as superior intellectuals because of their disinterest in the vices that run society and ruin good people.
Themes
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Doc’s friend says he thinks Mack and “the boys” are the same as everyone else except that they don’t have money. “They could get it,” Doc says. “They could ruin their lives and get money. […] They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting.” Going on, he says, “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
In this moment, Doc articulates one of Cannery Row’s most fruitful messages—namely, that society as a whole praises qualities that it doesn’t actually encourage or embody. Although everyone around Mack and the boys claims to covet “kindness and generosity,” they actually fail to recognize it when they encounter it, a notion made evident by the fact that people consider Mack and the boys nothing but a group of vice-ridden bums. Instead of actually behaving according to their supposed worldviews, the majority of people in Doc and Mack’s society commit themselves to “greed” and “self-interest,” rendering themselves hypocrites.
Themes
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Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
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Related Quotes
During this time period, “evil” seeps throughout the community. Sam Malloy, for his part, has a “number of fights with his wife.” What’s more, “a group of high-minded ladies in the town demand that dens of vice must close to protect young American manhood,” forcing Dora to close the Bear Flag for two weeks. Meanwhile, Doc takes out a loan from the bank in order to pay for all of the glass that was broken during the party. “There is no explaining a series of misfortunes like that,” Steinbeck writes. “Every man blames himself. People in their black minds remember sins committed secretly and wonder whether they have caused the evil sequence.”
The idea that “evil” is something that can disperse throughout an entire community illustrates the extent to which Steinbeck believes in the power of relationships. He thinks that unified groups of people have the ability to affect one another, thereby emphasizing the importance of communal goodwill and kindness, since trying times call for especially strong systems of support and fellowship.
Themes
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Perhaps worst of all, Darling becomes sick, and nothing Mack and “the boys” do seems to revive her. As such, Hazel and Jones go to Doc’s and ask for help. When he comes to the Palace Flophouse to examine her, he tells them to “force feed her” “strong soup and eggs and cod liver oil.” Upon his departure, the gang follows his directions, and Darling pulls through the next morning. “At last a crack had developed in the wall of evil,” and the Bear Flag reopens. What’s more, Lee Chong forgives Mack and “the boys,” cancels their “frog debt,” and gives them a pint of Old Tennis Shoes. With everything restored, Mack visits Dora and asks what he and his friends could do to show their appreciation for Doc, and she says, “Why don’t you give him a party he does get to?”
Even though Doc has suffered because of what Mack and his friends did, he is still willing to help them by treating Darling. In turn, readers see once again that he is capable of putting the needs of other people before his own interests. Of course, this only inspires Mack once again to show his appreciation, and so he devises yet another plan to throw Doc a party. This time, though, it seems as if his motivations are a bit more pure, but it’s also not hard to see that this too could end very badly.
Themes
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