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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 23 | Summary



A cloud settles over the boys at the Palace Flophouse. They feel bad about the party and punish themselves in different ways. The story of the party gets changed so some believe the boys trashed Doc's lab deliberately, and Mack and the boys become "social outcasts." The cloud over the flophouse seems to spread to the rest of the city. Dora has to close up her business for a couple of weeks to avoid the wrath of "a group of high-minded ladies in the town." A man named Elmer Rechati loses his legs on the train tracks, and a storm causes damage to some boats. Darling also gets very sick, but Doc's advice saves her. Mack asks Dora what he can do to show Doc he is sorry, and she suggests he throw Doc a party he actually gets to attend. Mack thinks this is a brilliant idea.

Doc tells Robert Frost the residents of the Palace Flophouse are "true philosophers ... [who] survive ... better than other people ... [who] tear themselves to pieces with ambition." Doc believes Mack and the boys are happy because "they can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else." He adds that the very traits that lead to success, like "meanness, egotism and self-interest" are ones society is meant to despise, while the traits society admires like "kindness and generosity" actually lead to failure.


Doc believes Mack and the boys have identified the secret to true happiness, which is humorous because at this moment they are the unhappiest they have ever been. Doc recognizes Mack and the boys avoid the stress of ambition stemming from conventional social expectations of work and success. Rather, they "satisfy their appetites" without shame. He thinks they exemplify the best traits of humanity. This is an example of situational irony in which the results are the opposite of what it would seem they should be. It is ironic the traits of "kindness and generosity" lead to what society considers failure, while success in the eyes of society can only be gained through negative traits like "meanness, egotism and self-interest." It seems the genius of Mack and the boys, according to Doc, is that they have intuited these things and have the courage to live them out.

The author returns to the theme of isolation in Chapter 23. Mack and the boys become social outcasts after their antics at the party are misconstrued as malicious. They already feel bad about what they did, but now no one will speak to them. The author describes their isolation as like a dark cloud hanging over them, a contagious cloud that infects the city with bad luck.

The plot takes a turn at the end of the chapter when Mack gets the idea from Dora to throw another party for Doc. The key difference according to Dora must be that Doc should actually be able to attend this party. The author injects a little humor with Mack's reaction. He thinks Dora's idea is brilliant. The original plot is back on track. The boys want to throw a party to do something nice for Doc, but now the stakes are a little higher.

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