In Cannery Row, Steinbeck examines the nature of kindness, eventually suggesting that Doc’s selflessness and empathy are rare. Indeed, everyone around him wants to demonstrate how much his goodwill means to them, but they often find themselves incapable of doing so. This is because they themselves are unable to embody the selflessness that they appreciate so much about Doc. Most notably, Mack and “the boys’” efforts to celebrate Doc are disastrous, since the parties they throw for him end up centering around their own desire to drink the night away. As such, Steinbeck shows readers how difficult it can be to carry out selfless acts of kindness, even when one truly wants to do something nice for a close friend. At the same time, Doc manages to recognize that Mack and “the boys” only want to show him their appreciation, so he goes along with their shenanigans, ultimately having a fantastic time despite the fact that doing so means allowing his home and possessions to be ruined. In turn, Steinbeck highlights the value of welcoming kindness from one’s friends, even when that kindness is flawed and misguided.
The kindness that Mack and “the boys” exhibit is complicated, since it is simultaneously empathetic and self-interested. For example, when they decide to give him a surprise party, they demonstrate their desire to do something nice for their friend. At the same time, though, there’s no denying that they’re also looking for any excuse to have a party, rendering this act of kindness rather self-motivated. Doc, on the other hand, is an empathetic person who spends a great deal of energy trying to help others without expecting to personally benefit from his actions. For instance, when the entire town comes down with the flu, he drops everything in order to visit and treat sick people even though he isn’t a medical doctor. What’s more, he asks Dora Flood to send her prostitutes to sit with the fevered, thereby proving that he’s not only invested in treating his community members physically, but also wants them to not be scared or lonely. In this way, Steinbeck presents Doc as a model of empathy and kindness—a model that has nothing to do with personal motivations and everything to do with selfless goodwill.
Mack and “the boys,” on the other hand, have trouble separating themselves from their supposed acts of kindness. Even before Mack finishes executing his plan to pay for Doc’s party (which requires taking a trip to collect frogs), he senses that he isn’t being as selfless as he’d like to think. “We worked it out that we wanted to give Doc a party,” he says to his friend. “So we come out here and have a hell of a lot of fun. […] And I ain’t sure we’re doin’ it for Doc. I ain’t sure we ain’t doin’ it for ourselves.” In this moment, Mack realizes that his desire to throw a party for Doc isn’t purely altruistic. Rather, he understands that he likes the idea of having an excuse to go on a trip—a trip during which he and his friends drink, lounge, and “have a hell of a lot of fun.” “I’d just like to give him something when I didn’t get most of it back,” he says, finally understanding that his plan to show Doc his appreciation benefits him almost as much as it benefits Doc. As such, he realizes that the best way to carry out his plan would be to somehow give Doc something that he (Mack) doesn’t also want.
Despite Mack’s newfound conviction to behave unselfishly, he quickly resumes his plan to throw Doc a surprise party, which, unsurprisingly, goes terribly. Trashing Doc’s laboratory and breaking his belongings before he’s even in attendance, Mack and “the boys” leave his home in shambles, thereby failing miserably to express their appreciation of him. By virtue of this, Steinbeck underscores how hard it is to be truly selfless, even when trying to do something nice—a notion that emphasizes the value of genuine, unselfish kindness, which is rare. At the same time, however, Steinbeck doesn’t present Mack and “the boys” as antagonistic characters, thereby hinting that their intentions to be kind ultimately outweigh the fact that they fail so miserably to be thoughtful.
Although Mack and his friends are ashamed of their failed attempt to celebrate Doc, they can’t think of any other way to show him kindness, so they plan yet another surprise party. Interestingly enough, though, when Doc catches wind of this, he doesn’t tell them to stop, but begins to prepare for the potentially disastrous event. And even though the party once again descends into chaos and destruction, Doc simply gives himself over to this, deciding to enjoy what his friends have done for him. “Even Doc was happy,” Steinbeck notes when a fight breaks out, adding that Doc starts “flailing about” and relishing the mayhem. In this way, readers understand that, although it’s quite noble to perform selfless acts of kindness, even selfish expressions of appreciation can be worthwhile, for they can sometimes still manage to communicate a sense of goodwill. Indeed, Doc—wielding his own powers of empathy—understands that what’s most important is not how Mack and the boys celebrate his friendship, but the mere fact that they want to celebrate it at all. As a result, Steinbeck suggests that true friendships can withstand failures of thoughtfulness and empathy as long as there is genuine goodwill at the heart of a person’s intentions.
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship ThemeTracker
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Quotes in Cannery Row
Lee Chong stood in back of the cigar counter and his nice brown eyes were turned inward on a calm and eternal Chinese sorrow. He knew he could not have helped it, but he wished he might have known and perhaps tried to help. It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary. Lee had already underwritten the funeral and sent a wash basket of groceries to the stricken families.
Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment. But whereas most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently.
In Mack’s eyes there was good will and good fellowship and a desire to make everyone happy. Why then did Lee Chong feel slightly surrounded? Why did his mind pick its way as delicately as a cat through cactus? It had been sweetly done, almost in a spirit of philanthropy. Lee’s mind leaped ahead at the possibilities—no, they were probabilities, and his finger tapping slowed still further. He saw himself refusing Mack’s request and he saw the broken glass from the windows. Then Mack would offer a second time to watch over and preserve Lee’s property— and at the second refusal, Lee could smell the smoke, could see the little flames creeping up the walls. Mack and his friends would try to help to put it out. Lee’s finger came to a gentle rest on the change mat. He was beaten. He knew that. There was left to him only the possibility of saving face and Mack was likely to be very generous about that. Lee said, “You like pay lent my place? You like live there same hotel?”
But on the left-hand boundary of the lot is the stern and stately whore house of Dora Flood; a decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house where a man can take a glass of beer among friends. This is no fly-by-night cheap clip-joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who, madam and girl for fifty years, has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind. And by the same token she is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don’t like it very much.
William thought dark and broody thoughts. No one loved him. No one cared about him. They might call him a watchman but he was a pimp—a dirty pimp, the lowest thing in the world. And then he thought how he had a right to live and be happy just like anyone else, by God he had. He walked back angrily but his anger went away when he came to the Bear Flag and climbed the steps. It was evening and the juke box was playing Harvest Moon and William remembered that the first hooker who ever gaffed for him used to like that song before she ran away and got married and disappeared. The song made him awfully sad. Dora was in the back parlor having a cup of tea when William came in. She said, “What’s the matter, you sick?”
“No,” said William. “But what’s the percentage? I feel lousy. I think I’ll bump myself off.”
Dora had handled plenty of neurotics in her time. Kid ’em out of it was her motto. “Well, do it on your own time and don’t mess up the rugs,” she said.
And William saw the change, saw first how the Greek knew he could do it and then the Greek knew he would do it. As soon as he saw that in the Greek’s eyes William knew he had to do it. He was sad because now it seemed silly. His hand rose and the ice pick snapped into his heart. It was amazing how easily it went in. William was the watchman before Alfred came. Everyone liked Alfred. He could sit on the pipes with Mack and the boys any time. He could even visit up at the Palace Flophouse.
The old man stopped and turned. Andy stopped. The deep-brown eyes looked at Andy and the thin corded lips moved. What happened then Andy was never able either to explain or to forget. For the eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye—one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like cows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms. There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound. And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness—the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn’t anybody at all in the world and he was left. Andy shut his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see it any more and when he opened them, he was in Cannery Row and the old Chinaman was just flap-flapping between Western Biological and the Hediondo Cannery. Andy was the only boy who ever did that and he never did it again.
“The remarkable thing,” said Doc, “isn’t that they put their tails up in the air—the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying—so maybe they’re praying.”
We worked it out that we wanted to give Doc a party. So we come out here and have a hell of a lot of fun. Then we’ll go back and get the dough from Doc. There’s five of us, so we’ll drink five times as much liquor as he will. And I ain’t sure we’re doin’ it for Doc. I ain’t sure we ain’t doin’ it for ourselves. And Doc’s too nice a fella to do that to. Doc is the nicest fella I ever knew. I don’t want to be the kind of a guy that would take advantage of him.
In spite of his friendliness and his friends Doc was a lonely and a set-apart man. Mack probably noticed it more than anybody. In a group, Doc seemed always alone. When the lights were on and the curtains drawn, and the Gregorian music played on the great phonograph, Mack used to look down on the laboratory from the Palace Flophouse. He knew Doc had a girl in there, but Mack used to get a dreadful feeling of loneliness out of it. Even in the dear close contact with a girl Mack felt that Doc would be lonely.
Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.
“We’ll pay for it, Doc.”
“No you won’t, Mack,” said Doc. “You’ll think about it and it’ll worry you for quite a long time, but you won’t pay for it. There’s maybe three hundred dollars in broken museum glass. Don’t say you’ll pay for it. That will just keep you uneasy. It might be two or three years before you forgot about it and felt entirely easy again. And you wouldn’t pay it anyway.”
Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think […] that Mack and the boys know every thing that has ever happened in the world and possibly every thing 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.
“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “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.”
Hazel was so taken by the sound of the words that he had not listened to their meaning. But a little world sadness had slipped over all of them. Every one was remembering a lost love, everyone a call.
Mack said, “Jesus, that’s pretty. Reminds me of a dame—” and he let it pass. They filled the wine glasses and became quiet. The party was slipping away in sweet sadness.