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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 12 | Summary



"Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition," and as such, citizens were "outraged over ... a slight to an author." It seems the humorist Josh Billings died in a Monterey hotel. His body was embalmed by a local doctor who had trained in France. As was the doctor's custom, the man's entrails were tossed in the gulch behind the doctor's house. A man out for a walk discovered a boy and his dogs coming out of the gulch with a liver and intestine. He guesses they are human, and after learning of Billing's death, concludes they must be his. When he tells other members of the community of this discovery, they force the doctor to get the organs back just in time from the boy at the beach where he was going to use them as bait. The doctor must "pick out as much sand as possible" and pay for a small box to house the organs inside the larger coffin.


This interchapter is an example of a self-contained story that doesn't relate to the plot in any obvious way, although it relates to some of the themes and characters in the novel. The dark humor and gore of this chapter are reminiscent of the suicide of Horace in the building full of fishmeal in Chapter 1, and William's death with an icepick to the heart in Chapter 3.

The theme of community pertains to this interchapter as well. Although the doctor has no reverence for the body of Josh Billings, the community is appalled at the disrespect he has shown to the humorist by throwing out his organs. They insist on all of Billings's parts being buried ceremoniously in the coffin together. This conformity to social norms distinguishes those who are a part of the community of Cannery Row from those who are not. The doctor is clearly an outsider. A final connection to the rest of the novel is the similarity between Doc and the doctor. As Doc collects and organizes starfish for a customer's order, the doctor treats Billings's body as a specimen to be prepared and disposed of. Both are men of science with a detached, pragmatic view of life and death.

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