Cannery Row by John Steinbeck: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Kevin Watson

Kevin has taught college English and has master's degrees in Applied Linguistics and Creative Writing.

In ''Cannery Row,'' John Steinbeck uses humor in the story's plot and characters to show the lives of down-on-their-luck residents of this seaside area. In this lesson, we discuss the general plot while also getting a picture of the characters as they reveal it.

Characters Leap from the Page

Cannery Row begins by slowly introducing its characters. First is Chinese shopkeeper Lee Chong; he is dedicated to making his store indispensable to Cannery Row, and despite his pragmatic approach, he gives credit kindly until the debt is out of hand. After one client pays his debts and commits suicide, Lee Chong feels a responsibility to look after the family left behind.

The next characters are the unemployed vagabonds known as Mack and the boys. They convince Lee Chong to rent them a shed for cheap. He does because he thinks if he doesn't, they'll probably vandalize it. They are guilty of many offenses throughout the story but never come across as truly bad, just humorously incompetent. The shed becomes known as the Palace Flophouse and Grill. They stop stealing from Chong's store and dedicate themselves to stealing furniture, which they repaint for the Palace.

The next is Dora, who owns a brothel called the Bear Flag Restaurant. She's flamboyant and helps people during the Depression. She keeps her girls in line. One of her bouncers can't make friends and stabs himself to death while the other is well-liked. A mysterious China man is mentioned, one no one knows or likes. He flops around in sandals and collects sea life.

The narrative moves on to Doc, a marine biologist who runs the Western Biological Laboratories. They provides sea life for study. Doc is a good guy who helps others with money, and many people owe him. He has introduced art forms such as literature and classical music to the town. Though he becomes angry toward Mack and the boys for their stupidity, he's quite forgiving.

The next two characters are Hazel and Henri. Hazel is a man named after a rich aunt; he hoped to gain her life insurance but the aunt never came through. He has spent time in reform school but couldn't master the skills of a criminal. He's not too sharp and repeats himself in a way that annoys Doc. Through conversation, the two men introduce Henri the artist. He fears the sea, but for the sheer enjoyment of it, he is building a boat he'll never finish.

Eddie is one of Mack's boys who has a real job bartending. He fills a jug with unfinished drinks to bring to the boys at the Palace. While drinking this mixture, they decide to throw a party for Doc and fund it by selling him frogs at five cents a pop. Doc agrees to buy the frogs but won't let them use his car. They convince Chong to let them fix his truck and use it.

The Author's Digressions

Now and then, Steinbeck digresses to show some other quirky characters. For example, he details Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy; they live in a boiler because of the depression but have become landlords by renting out sections of pipe for people to sleep in. The wife wishes to upgrade the windowless boiler with curtains, but Mr. Malloy won't let her. This upsets her.

We also meet Frankie, a mentally handicapped boy who lives at the lab. Doc tries to help him since his mother is a prostitute, but the boy cannot complete tasks for the lab. He has a moment of success when he delivers a beer to a woman at a party. Doc and the woman praise him for it. Later, at a different party, he tries again. However, this time he spills a tray of beer on a woman. He hides in the cellar out of shame, and Doc is helpless to make him feel any better. Frankie later is put in an institution for stealing a clock as a present for Doc.

A Party for Doc

Gay is one of Mack's boys; he is very good with cars. After he gets Eddie to steal doorbell batteries, Gay gets Chong's truck going. However, with no first gear, they drive in reverse and the truck breaks down. Gay walks back to town for a part but ends up in jail. Eddie heads to another camp to steal it from one of their trucks. Briefly, the narrative digresses to tell about a writer named Josh Billings who died and the French embalmer who got in trouble for dumping his internal organs into a gulch.

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