Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 24 Summary & Analysis

Mary Talbot is a “lovely” woman who loves parties. However, she and her husband, Tom, don’t have very much money, so she can’t “give parties all the time.” As such, she often hosts tea parties for “the neighborhood cats.” During a period of particularly pronounced financial woes, though, she finds it difficult to cheer up Tom, who isn’t feeling well and is lamenting their lack of money. “Why don’t we face it for once?” he says as she tries to put flowers under his nose. “We’re down. We’re going under. What’s the good kidding ourselves?” Mary, for her part, tells him that they are “magic people” who can persevere, but he only says, “I just can’t talk myself out of it this time. I’m sick pretending everything. For once I’d like to have it real—just for once.”
Although Tom and Mary don’t factor heavily into the rest of the novel, what Tom says in this scene is important, since it aligns with Steinbeck’s belief that sometimes unhappiness is simply part of life. In this moment, Tom wants to be “real” about his discontent. By saying, “What’s the good kidding ourselves?” he suggests that it’s not worth trying to deny one’s own unhappiness. After all, melancholy and discontent are facts of life, which means there’s no reason to ignore or repress such feelings.
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In response to Tom’s misery, Mary says she might host a party, but Tom says it’s “no use.” As such, Mary leaves and starts inviting the “neighborhood cats” to a tea party. At one point, though, she finds a cat mauling a mouse, and she yells in horror. Running outside, Tom sees the cat perched on the fence and throws a rock at it. Going inside, they sit in the kitchen and have tea, and Mary says, “I know how cats are. It isn’t her fault. But—Oh, Tom! I’m going to have trouble inviting her again. I’m just not going to like her for a while no matter how much I want to.” Ending this vignette, Steinbeck writes, “Mary Talbot gave a pregnancy party that year. And everyone said, ‘God! A kid of hers is going to have fun.’”
Admittedly, this is an odd way to end this vignette. First, Steinbeck never makes it clear whether Mary is crazy or simply bored and playful. The fact that she treats stray cats like party guests suggests that she isn’t fully sane, but Steinbeck doesn’t give enough information to make a definitive judgment. Second, the author’s decision to jump forward in time—to the Talbots’ “pregnancy party”—is a strange narrative choice, one that leaves readers wondering what, exactly, to make of this short anecdote. In the end, it’s helpful to remember that Steinbeck has set out simply to let life “crawl” onto the page. As such, he is free to create snapshots of quirky characters without necessarily wrapping them up or tying them into the broader framework of the novel.
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