Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Steinbeck describes Western Biological, the laboratory Doc owns, which also happens to be where he lives. The lab sells marine animals as well as bugs, snakes, and rats. “You can order anything living from Western Biological,” Steinbeck notes. In addition to the laboratory, the building also has an office, a library (which contains Doc’s prized phonograph), and a kitchen. Doc himself is small, and his “face tells the truth.” Rumor has it that he has “helped many a girl out of trouble,” and it’s well-known that he will never hurt anything if he can avoid it.
Although the beginning of chapter 5 is primarily expository, it’s important to note that Doc is someone who’s willing to put himself at risk in order to help others. This is made evident by the fact that he has “helped many a girl out of trouble,” considering that abortion wasn’t legalized until 1973, meaning that Doc performed these procedures at the risk of being arrested. As such, readers see how little he considers his own wellbeing when it comes to helping others. Note also that Doc is a collector of marine animals, which reflects Steinbeck’s story at the book’s beginning about collecting delicate flatworms.
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Doc is “the fountain of philosophy and science and art” in Cannery Row. Many of the locals pass the time in his laboratory, including “the girls from Dora’s,” who hang around and listen to the Gregorian records he often plays on the phonograph. Lee Chong also comes around to Western Biological, where he first heard a record of English translations of Li Po. Henri the painter also often comes by and is frequently inspired to change the “medium” in which he’s working, once even deciding to start making art solely using “nutshells.” “Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon—and his sympathy had no warp.” What’s more, everyone who knows him often says, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”
Considering that so many people visit Doc’s and are influenced by the time they spend in his laboratory, it’s clear that Western Biological is one of Cannery Row’s most important cultural hubs. This, it seems, is because Doc himself is so kind and friendly. In turn, Steinbeck implies that this kind of goodwill is inherently attractive, as people simply want to be around anyone who behaves in this way.
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