Cannery Row - Character Summaries
Based loosely on Steinbeck’s real life friend, Ed Ricketts, Doc is the primary figure of importance on Cannery Row. He is essential for grounding the other characters’ actions. A lover of the sciences, nature, art, music and the shortcomings of humanity, Doc is both the empathizer and the sage on Cannery Row. Steinbeck describes him in these terms: “Doc is rather small, deceptively small, for he is wiry and very strong and when passionate anger comes on him he can be very fierce. He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth” (25). Steinbeck goes on to write that “Doc has the hands of a brain surgeon, and a cool warm mind” (25). While Doc is well-liked by everyone, he is also “a lonely and a set-apart man” (92). Doc serves as the conscience of the story, as nearly all of the plot’s events, whether directly or indirectly, are processed through his viewpoint. Though Doc’s official position in Cannery Row is that of a scientist who runs Western Biological Laboratories, Steinbeck often uses Doc to spout profound observations or truths. Doc also helps the residents of Cannery Row when they need medicine or medical advice. His friends desire to make him feel appreciated and loved spurs much of the novel’s action.
The madam and owner of the Bear Flag, Steinbeck describes Dora as “a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses” (15). Though ostentatious in her appearance, Dora is a bit refined in her character. Steinbeck explains that “through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, [she] made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind” (15). Though she is a strict madam, she treats all of the prostitutes who work for her fairly and is one of the largest charitable contributors in all of Monterey.
The owner of a successful grocery in Cannery Row, Lee Chong is described as “round-faced and courteous” (5) and speaks “English without ever using the letter R” (6). He is the owner of the Flophouse where Mack and the boys live, but he never receives and kind of rent payment from them. While he is known for the expensive prices in his grocery store, “[w]hat he did with his money, no one ever knew. Perhaps he didn’t get it. Maybe his wealth was entirely in unpaid bills. But he lived well and he had the respect of all his neighbors” (6). While Lee Chong always tries to come out on top financially, there are many instances in Cannery Row where he puts people’s needs before a profit.
Mack is the true philosopher on the Row. Described as “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,” Mack is known, and mostly loved, by everyone on Cannery Row. While people are wary of his true intentions, Mack is good at heart and a hard worker when he wants to be. He is instrumental in planning the celebrations to honor Doc.
He makes his appearance “in the dawn, during that time when the street light has been turned off and the daylight has not come, the old Chinaman crept out from among the piles, crossed the beach and the street” (20). He is a mythical character who embodies many of the mysteries of Cannery Row. Steinbeck notes, “Some people thought he was God and very old people thought he was Death” (21).
Also called Alfy, Alfred is the watchman for the Bear Flag. Steinbeck describes him as a man who “knows what men should be there and what men shouldn’t be there [in the Bear Flag]. He knows more about the home life of Monterey citizens than anyone else in town” (16). Unlike his predecessor William, Alfred is readily accepted Mack and the boys.
Andy is the only brave boy of Cannery Row whoever “crossed the old Chinaman” (21). Steinbeck writes that after their meeting, Andy “was never able either to explain or to forget” his encounter. Any remembers looking into the old man’s eyes that “[that] 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 country, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains” (21).
The real name of the man that Mack refers to as “Captain” is never revealed in the story. Described as a man who is both “dark and large” (74), the “Captain” discovers Mack and the boys trespassing on his land in an attempt to catch frogs for Doc and asks them to leave. Instead of getting Mack and the boys to leave, the “Captain” ends up feeling indebted to Mack after Mack helps treat an infected tick bite on his dog’s shoulder. The “Captain” not only allows Mack and the boys to catch frogs on his land, but he also gives Mack a pup and provides Mack and the boys with a great deal of whiskey.
While the “Captain’s” Wife never actually appears in the story, the “Captain” says that his wife “got elected to the Assembly […] and when the Legislature isn’t in session, she’s off making speeches. And when she’s home she’s studying all the time and writing bills” (81-82). She represents a conventional and repressive lifestyle, which the “Captain” rebels against by getting drunk with Mack and the boys.
Given to Mack by the “Captain,” Darling is a puppy described as having “a liver-colored nose and a find dark yellow eye” (86). Darling becomes beloved by all of the residents of the Flophouse Grill and is a catalyst in helping Mack and the boys get over the depression of their first failed attempt to give Doc a party.
As prostitutes at the Bear Flag, “Dora’s girls are well trained and pleasant. They never speak to a man on the street although he may have been in the night before” (17). Unlike many other novels about prostitutes, Steinbeck portrays the life of the girls who work in the Bear Flag as being pleasant and good-humored. All of the women seem to be kind-hearted, going so far as to stay “with the sleeping children [until they] dropped to sleep in their chairs” (91) during the outbreak of Influenza in Cannery Row.
One of Mack’s “boys,” Eddie holds the esteemed position of substitute bartender at La Ida’s. He collects “anything left in the glasses” from customers at the bar and pours the contents into “the winning jug,” a pleasant source of refreshment for members of the Palace Flophouse (38).
A prime example of social ostracism in Cannery Row, Steinbeck writes that Frankie “drifted about like a small cloud. He was always at the edges of groups. No one noticed him or paid any attention to him” (158). Accepted only by Doc, “Frankie began coming to Western Biological when he was eleven years old” (51). Despite his outward appearance - “[h]e had very large eyes and his hair was a dark wiry dirty shock” (51) - Steinbeck describes him as “a nice, good, kind boy” (53). However, Frankie’s home life is unstable and abusive, which leads him to have what could be considered an unhealthy love for Doc.
Known for a “wife who hits him pretty bad” (31), and described as “the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode” (59), Gay becomes a resident of the Flophouse Grill for a short amount of time until he is arrested for being rowdy after a drunken party.
Another of the primary inhabitants of the Palace Flophouse, Steinbeck describes Hazel as “twenty-six - dark-haired and pleasant, strong, willing, and loyal” (29). He may also be a little “touched.” Steinbeck writes that Hazel “did four years in grammar school, four years in reform school, and didn’t learn anything in either place […] [h]e came out of reform school as innocent of viciousness as he was of fractions and long division” (29). The unique thing about Hazel is that he “loved to hear conversation but he didn’t listen to words-just to the tone of conversation” (29). Hazel often helps Doc collect specimens for Western Biological.
Described as “swarthy and morose” (123) Henri claims to be a French painter despite the fact that he is “not French” and “not really a painter” (122). He lives on a boat that he never wants to finish because “he’s afraid of the ocean” (33). He is considered one of Mack’s boys due to his flippant nature. He lives in the Flophouse for brief periods of time.