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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 17 | Summary



Although Doc has many friends, he is "a lonely and a set-apart man." Mack suspects Doc feels lonely at a party, or even in the company of a woman. Doc packs up his car to take the trip to La Jolla to collect octopi. He stops frequently to eat and drives slowly, so he allows himself over a day to make the 500-mile trip. As he eats a sandwich, he is reminded of someone who suspected his love of beer would lead him to order a beer milkshake one day, and Doc can't stop thinking about the repulsive idea.

Doc is a man who loves truth, but he also knows from experience that people are suspicious of truth-tellers, often preferring a lie that is easier to believe. Doc once walked from Chicago to Florida, and when he told people he just wanted to walk and see the country, they were skeptical. Doc started telling people he was walking the long trip on a dare, and people were delighted. Although he loves truth, "He knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress."

After picking up a hitchhiker who tells him he shouldn't drink and drive, Doc kicks him out of the car and stops at a roadside stand. He orders a beer milkshake. When the waitress reacts with surprise, Doc explains he has to drink beer milkshakes on doctor's orders for his bladder condition.


In Chapter 17 the author explores the theme of truth. Based on his experience walking across the country, Doc learned people don't always like the truth. If it is odd or hard to believe, they feel uncomfortable. Many people would rather hear a lie that is easy to believe and non-threatening. Doc learns his love of truth "is not a general love." In his experience, people were hostile and skeptical when he told them why he was really walking so far, but they were charmed by the lie that he was walking to win a bet. He doesn't change his affinity for truth, but he does change his use of it to accommodate other people. Instead of telling the waitress he just wants to try a beer milkshake, he creates a lie. She is happy enough to make the strange drink for health reasons. Doc is pragmatic about the truth but also about human nature.

Another theme running throughout the chapter is isolation. Doc is characterized early in the chapter as "a lonely and a set-apart man." Unlike most of the people in Cannery Row, Doc is an educated, cultured individual. These distinctions make him different from others, but isolation and loneliness seem to be intrinsic to Doc's personality, not just his situation. Mack believes Doc feels lonely even when he is surrounded by people, or in an intimate situation with a woman. The road trip then becomes a picture of Doc's life. Although he interacts with a lot of people, he is ultimately alone, on a solitary mission.

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