Along with Lee Chong’s grocery store and the Palace Flophouse, Dora Flood’s brothel is an important place in Cannery Row. This brothel is “a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora,” who is “respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind.” Unfortunately, her positive qualities of “honesty” and “charity” have also made her “hated” by a number of people in town. Nevertheless, Dora “keeps an honest” establishment, which she has named the Bear Flag Restaurant. And though the inhabitants of the Bear Flag are prostitutes, many of them are also devoted Christian Scientists.
Again, Steinbeck asserts that a person who society would normally see as sinful is, in truth, quite virtuous. Although Dora runs a brothel—a kind of establishment that doesn’t normally gain much respect—she remains “honest” and true, and the majority of her employees are religious. By drawing readers’ attention to this fact, Steinbeck destabilizes the beliefs people stereotypically hold about those who participate in illegal activity, ultimately suggesting that these beliefs are reductive and lazy.
Dora “must be twice as law abiding as anyone else” because she lives “against the law.” This means that “if the police give a dance for their pension fund and everyone else gives a dollar, Dora has to give fifty dollars.” This is the case for many of the local institutions, which have come to rely on Dora’s “philanthropic” deeds, though they continue to lament her “dirty wages of sin.”
Not only is Dora an “honest” person despite what people might think, she also uses her profession for good. Unfortunately, though, many people fail to see that she is supporting the entire community, instead condemning her supposed “dirty wages of sin” even as they profit from these “wages” themselves. Steinbeck thus spotlights the hypocrisy of modern society and its superficial obsession with virtue.
Before Alfy worked as the bouncer at the Bear Flag, the bouncer was a man named William who was “lonesome” and depressed. He often used to watch Mack and “the boys” lounging and chatting outside, so one day he tried to join them, but they stopped talking as soon as he arrived. When he returned, he saw that their conversation resumed, and this “saddened him.” As such, he brought whiskey the following day, but this did little to ingratiate him to the group—they drank the whiskey but hardly said a word. “Now William’s heart broke,” Steinbeck writes. “The bums would not receive him socially. […] William had always been introspective and self-accusing.” As such, he “thought dark and broody thoughts” about how no one “loved” or “cared about him.”
In this moment, Steinbeck demonstrates the dangers of living in complete social isolation. Although many of the characters in Cannery Row live on the margins of society and experience a certain kind of existential loneliness, most of them belong to—or could belong to, if they so desired—a community. William, however, is cut off from the people around him. As a result, he’s unable to avoid the “dark and broody thoughts” that assail him, causing him to feel helplessly alone.
Walking into the Bear Flag, William finds Dora and says, “I feel lousy. I think I’ll bump myself off,” to which she replies, “Well, do it on your own time and don’t mess up the rugs.” Even more saddened than before, William seeks out a very “spiritual” prostitute who often goes to confession but who is an “unpredictable drunk.” Again, William says he’s going to kill himself, but the prostitute only yells at him about how suicide is a sin, and then she tells him he’s a “no-good bastard.”
All William wants is someone to listen to him. Indeed, he simply needs someone with whom he can commiserate, someone willing to treat him with kindness. Unfortunately, though, no one cares enough about him to take him seriously when he talks about committing suicide—yet another indication that he is completely isolated from the people around him.
William seeks out the Greek—the house’s cook—and tells him he wants to kill himself. “I hear like the fella talks about it don’t never do it,” the Greek says, so William grabs the ice pick out of his hand. Looking at the Greek, William notices that the cook slowly realizes he’s serious, and this makes him feel like he has no choice but to go through with the act. “He was sad because now it seemed silly,” Steinbeck writes. “His hand rose and the ice pick snapped into his heart.” These days, Steinbeck notes, Alfy is the bouncer, and everyone likes him.
Once again, William fails to find camaraderie when he needs it most. This time, though, he becomes so desperate for attention that he grabs the Greek’s ice pick. The fact that he thinks the entire idea of suicide is “silly” once he knows he must do it ultimately indicates that he never actually planned to go through with this in the first place. Rather, he only talked about committing suicide as a way of encouraging his peers to take an interest in his emotions. Unfortunately, though, no one cares, and so he feels he must kill himself. In this way, Steinbeck shows the detrimental effects of loneliness on people who have no one to rely upon.