Cannery Row - Plot Synopsis

Cannery Row opens at daybreak on the Row when “all over the town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work” (1-2). Immediately showing the class distinction that exists within the Row, Steinbeck also notes that “shining cars bring the upper classes down: superintendants, accountants, owners who disappear into offices” (2).

Shortly after the opening of the novel, Steinbeck describes Lee Chong, the owner of Lee Chong’s Grocery. Steinbeck writes, though Lee Chong’s Grocery was “not a model of neatness, [it was] a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and to be happy” (5). Though Lee Chong puts on an external front of being profit-driven, his actions show that he ultimately places more value on people than money. Through Lee Chong, Steinbeck illustrates that people are not always what they appear to be.

After Lee Chong, Steinbeck introduces Mack and the boys, “a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment” (9). Mack and the boys are known throughout the Row as being good-hearted but willing to take advantage of people and situations for their benefit.  Steinbeck uses Mack and the boys to critique conventional society.  While conventionality seeks to “destroy everything loveable about them,” the boys refuse to live according to the dictates of polite society to become what the world considers successful (14). As Doc observes later in the story, “[a]ll 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” (129).  Mack and the boys, who strangely exist on the fringe, serve to demonstrate that what is considered normal or desirable by society’s standards is not always right or good.

After introducing Dora Flood, the Madame of the Bear Flag who is “a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses” (15), Steinbeck introduces Doc, the backbone of Cannery Row and a character based loosely off of his close friend, Ed Ricketts. Doc is, as Steinbeck describes, a “lonely and set-apart man” (92) who is held in the highest regard by those around him. The owner and proprietor of Western Biological, a laboratory where “[y]ou can order anything living […] and sooner or later you will get it” (23), Doc is one of the few individuals living in Cannery Row who is educated and cultured. But Doc is loved by all and looks down on no one, no matter who they are, what they may have done, or where they may have come from. He is always there to help, whether it is through giving advice or through providing medicine or other medical services. Doc’s seemingly selfless nature inspires Mack and the boys to try and give Doc a party as a thank you for everything that he has done for the inhabitants of Cannery Row. Mack and the boys’ attempt to throw Doc a party inspires much of the hilarious action of the plot.

Before Mack and the boys are able to give Doc what they consider a proper party, they need money. Even though some of Mack’s boys will take up odd jobs, none are quick to commit to a long-term job to provide funding for Doc’s party. As an alternative, Mack and the boys offer to capture frogs for Western Biological, which are always in short supply, in an effort to raise funds. While Doc agrees to pay them if they do manage to capture some frogs, he refuses to let them use his car or give them money upfront, not only because he was leaving for La Jolla that night, but also because “Doc’s dealings with Mack and the boys had always been interesting but rarely had they been profitable” (48). Undaunted in their quest to provide Doc with the party that they feel he deserves, Mack and the boys go to Lee Chong asking if they can borrow his Ford Model T. While Lee Chong initially refuses, he eventually agrees to let them use the truck if they fix it for him. One of Mack’s boys, Gay, “was an inspired mechanic” (57) and was able to get the Ford Model T running.

Mack and the boys leave to find frogs the next day, just as Doc leaves to go to La Jolla to capture some octopi. Both experience trips much unlike what they had anticipated. While Mack and the boys are able to capture some frogs on private property after Mack helps a man that he calls “Captain” take care of his sick dog, “Nola” (76), Doc has quite a different experience. While Doc captures the octopi that he travelled to collect, he finds something startling in the ocean. Floating in the water beneath the algae “[a] girl’s face looked up at [Doc], a pretty pale girl with dark hair. The eyes were open and clean and the face was firm and the hair washed gently about her head” (101). The deceased young girl floating in the water is just one of the punctuations of life and death that Steinbeck interjects into the underlying narrative of Cannery Row. Through these interjections, Steinbeck shows the fragility of life and the finality of death.

Despite capturing the frogs, Mack and the boys never collected payment for them. Before Mack and the boys were able to turn the frogs into Doc for reimbursement, they attempt to throw Doc’s party as a surprise for when he returns home from La Jolla. While Mack and the boys wait for Doc to return, they end up becoming so drunk that they allow all of the frogs to escape by accident. Through one end of the packing case in which the frogs were being held, “a frog hopped and sat feeling the air for danger and then another joined him” (115) and for “quite a while Cannery Row crawled with frogs - was overrun with frogs” (116). After the attempted party, Doc’s home and the laboratory part of Western Biological was left in shambles and “the lights blazed in the laboratory. The front door hung sideways by one hinge. The floor was littered with broken glass. Phonograph records, some broken, some only nicked, were strewn about” (115).   

When Doc, a usually level-headed individual, comes home to find the wreckage that was once his home, his “eyes shone with a red animal rage” and his “small hard fist whipped out and splashed against Mack’s mouth” (118). After collecting himself, Doc apologizes to Mack; but as Mack tells Doc from beneath his broken lip, “I got it coming” (119). It is in the stillness of this moment that Steinbeck reveals another layer of Mack to his readers; a side that is both serious and full of regrets. Mack tells Doc honestly, “[i]t don’t do no good to say I’m sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain’t no new thing. It’s always like this” (120). Mack then goes on to tell Doc how he once had a wife, but she left because “[s]he couldn’t stand it anymore” and how he never brought her any good, only hurt (120). He then goes on to promise Doc that he and the boys will pay for the damage that they caused to Western Biological. Before Mack is able to go too deeply into his apology speech, Doc stops him abruptly and says, “[n]o you won’t, Mack. […] You’ll think about it and it’ll worry you for quite a long time, but you won’t pay for it.” He continues, “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 for it anyways” (121). After realizing that Doc is right, Mack quietly exits the laboratory.

After the failed party, circumstances for Mack, the boys, and the other citizens inhabiting Cannery Row start to sour. The citizens become listless, as if under a cloud. But it is when Darling, the beloved pup and unofficial mascot of the Flophouse Grill has a close brush with death, that Mack and the boys are forced to change. Shortly after Mack and the boys begin to change, “all of Cannery Row and probably all of Monterey felt that a change had come” (143). Steinbeck goes on to write that “a kind of gladness began to penetrate into the Row and to spread out from there” (143). With the new joy that began to take over Cannery Row, the plan to throw Doc another party, a proper party, began to grow steadily. According to Steinbeck, people knew about the party but “let it grow gradually like a pupa in the cocoons of their imaginations” (45). 

Throwing Doc a party becomes a community effort for the people of Cannery Row, and each person makes the effort to give Doc a gift. Mack and the boys decide to give Doc the gift of twenty-one cats, always in short supply for Western Biological, and Dora’ girls decide to make Doc “a patchwork quilt, a beautiful thing of silk” comprised of pieces from “underclothing and evening dresses” (153). Through the common goal of Doc’s party, Steinbeck shows the true nature of the people inhabiting Cannery Row. This ties into what Steinbeck writes at the beginning of the book when describing what an outsider might have to say about those inhabiting Cannery Row: “[i]t’s inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing” (1). Doc’s party reinforces the deep goodness that resides within each person who is a part of the Cannery Row community.

Despite the community’s best efforts to keep the party secret, Doc inevitably finds out. Instead of calling the party off, Doc prepares himself, and the laboratory, for the oncoming party. In an attempt to protect his most prized possessions, Doc carries his best records into his back room and then moves “every bit of equipment that was breakable back there too” (156). Knowing that his guests would also be hungry, Doc  orders “fifteen pounds of steaks, ten pounds of tomatoes, twelve heads of lettuce, six loaves of bread, a big jar of peanut butter and one of strawberry jam, five gallons of wine and four quarts of a good substantial but not distinguished whiskey” (156).  

When the night of the party finally arrives, it starts out in a mellow way with Mack and the boys making a small speech about how they collected twenty-one tom cats as a gift for Doc. Other guests from the Row begin to trickle in slowly, also accompanied with gifts that they have brought for Doc. Henri the painter brings Doc a pincushion, and Lee Chong comes bearing gifts of China lily bulbs and firecrackers. While “[s]omeone ate the lily bulbs by eleven o’clock […] the firecrackers lasted longer” (169). The party was filled with life, from Eddie - one of Mack’s boys - who “went into the office and did a tap dance” to Mack, who “was personally taking care of the phonograph” (170). Even Doc was “feeling better and better” as the night wore on (170). 

When the party finally comes to a close, Doc reads a mournful poem that causes all of the guests to remember bittersweet memories. The party begins to slip away “in sweet sadness” until “a tramp of feet on the stairs” belonging to a group of men looking for a “whore house” interrupts the melancholy (173). After the fight, the partygoers feel joyful and content. The next morning, “[i]t was very quiet in the street. No one went by at all. Doc heard music in his head - violas and cellos” (179). While Doc begins to clean up the mess from the party, he pauses to read the same poem that had evoked such emotion from his guests the night before. After he reads it, Doc is overcome with emotion, and Steinbeck ends the book with Doc in a blissful state of being--living in a perfect moment where time has stopped and the storm is at bay. In this moment, Steinbeck once again shows his readers the precious, but fragile nature of life and how the good would not be so valuable if not surrounded by the inevitable conflict that accompanies everyday life.