Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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The Dead Woman Symbol Icon

Because the dead woman that Doc finds in the tidal “flats” of La Jolla elicits such a complicated reaction from him, she becomes a symbol of life’s fundamental complexity. When Doc finds this unknown woman’s corpse stuck in a “crevice” just beneath the waterline, he starts hearing “a high thin piercingly sweet flute” in his head, but the melody reaches “beyond the hearing range.” This strange experience gives Doc “goose pimples,” as he struggles to understand why, exactly, he is reacting this way to seeing a dead stranger. “He shivered and his eyes were wet the way they get in the focus of great beauty,” Steinbeck writes, suggesting that what Doc feels in this moment isn’t abject horror, but an appreciation of “beauty.” At the same time, though, there’s no denying that Doc is deeply troubled by this experience, since he knows right away that the haunting image of this woman’s face is now “burned into his picture memory” forever. In this way, Steinbeck uses the dead woman to embody the complicated emotional response that the idea of mortality elicits from humans—a response that Steinbeck intimates is in and of itself a thing of “great beauty.”

The Dead Woman Quotes in Cannery Row

The Cannery Row quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Dead Woman. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Books edition of Cannery Row published in 2002.
Chapter 18 Quotes

He sat down on the beach in the coarse dry sand and pulled off his boots. In the jar the little octopi were huddled up each keeping as far as possible from the others. Music sounded in Doc’s ears, a high thin piercingly sweet flute carrying a melody he could never remember, and against this, a pounding surf-like wood-wind section. The flute went up into regions beyond the hearing range and even there it carried its unbelievable melody. Goose pimples came out on Doc’s arms. He shivered and his eyes were wet the way they get in the focus of great beauty.

Related Characters: Doc
Related Symbols: The Dead Woman
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Dead Woman Symbol Timeline in Cannery Row

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Dead Woman appears in Cannery Row. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 18
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
...Doc “part[s] the brown algae” and looks down. “Then he grew rigid,” Steinbeck notes. “ A girl ’s face looked up at him, a pretty, pale girl with dark hair.” (full context)
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Reality, Randomness, and Disorder Theme Icon
Looking down at this dead girl , whose body is stuck in a “crevice,” Doc feels as if the image has... (full context)