Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Lee Chong owns a store on Cannery Row that supplies groceries and a wide range of items. He is a generous but savvy man and helps out locals by selling things on credit. When Horace Abbeville's debt to Lee Chong became so large that Lee Chong cut him off, Horace offered to give Lee Chong a fishmeal warehouse in exchange for calling it even. Lee Chong agreed to cancel Horace's debt in return for ownership of the building. Horace immediately went to the building and killed himself. Lee Chong wished he had known and been able to help, but he did what he could for the two wives and kids Horace left behind.

Mack, the leader of a group of homeless bums with "no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment," asks Lee Chong if they can rent the building, pointing out that having residents in the building will prevent vandalism. Although Lee Chong knows they will never pay him rent, he saves face and avoids potential damage to the building by agreeing. This ensures his tenants' support and continued patronage. The building becomes known as the Palace Flophouse and Grill. The new tenants fill their new residence with castoff items they find. They can see Western Biological Laboratory from their front door, and Doc walking across the street for beer. Mack likes Doc and has the urge to "do something for him."

Analysis

In Chapter 1 Steinbeck introduces readers to two of the main characters, Lee Chong and Mack. Lee Chong is a businessman and a backbone of the community. He supplies the physical necessities, but also social support. His shop is the heart of the community. He is warm, but also wise, and makes very practical decisions. While he knows Mack will never pay rent, he also figures the intangible and secondary benefits make the decision worthwhile in the long run. He can avoid Mack vandalizing the building in retribution and also keep Mack's support and business. Readers also learn something of the character of Mack. Although he is a bum, Mack is happy with a lifestyle that allows him to pursue only what he enjoys. Readers can see Mack is a persuasive guy when he convinces Lee Chong to rent the building to him.

The author also provides the origin story of the Palace Flophouse and Grill in Chapter 1. It earns its unusual name because of its tenants. Mack and the boys manage to do what its previous owner could not, which is to remain content even in the absence of resources. They use their wits to procure a place to live worry-free, and furnish it with what they can scrape together. It is their palace because they choose to make it so.

The end of the first chapter sets the plot of the novel into motion. Mack admires and likes Doc, and he is struck by the desire to "do something for him." This is the impetus for the events to follow, which readers will learn involves throwing him a party.

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