Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Dora Flood is the red-haired madam of Bear Flag Restaurant, the local whorehouse of Cannery Row. She is a fair, compassionate, and competent businesswoman, and a respected pillar of the community. She regularly pays for the grocery bills of the needy, and supports aging and injured girls in her employ—even though her business is illegal. To remain in the good graces of the police Dora must be fastidious about obeying all of the other laws, and donate more generously to charities than anyone else. Only the "twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters" look down on her.

Alfred—Dora's watchman, bouncer, and barman—helps run Bear Flag. Before he had the job, a morose man named William held the position. William got tired of being around women, and wanted to join Mack and the boys across the street in the abandoned lot. They shunned his attempts to join them. When William heard Mack claimed to hate pimps, even though Mack really just didn't like William, his "heart broke [because] the bums would not receive him socially." After expressing his suicidal despair to Dora—who tried to joke him out of his funk—and a drunk prostitute named Eva—who screamed at him about sin—William killed himself with an icepick in front of Lou, the cook. Everyone likes Alfred better.

Analysis

The author develops the character of Dora Flood in Chapter 3. She is more than just a prostitute with a heart of gold, steadfastly kind and generous. Steinbeck complicates the two-dimensional idea by asserting her business and social acumen. Dora takes care of the needs of the community, as well as the girls who work for her. Her business is a mainstay of the city's economy, and she works hard to maintain order and decorum in it, treading carefully around the police. She even gives away money to charities, far more money than anyone else, to keep the community's goodwill.

Chapter 3 explores the idea of acceptance and social belonging versus isolation in two ways. First, Dora must operate carefully to be deemed acceptable according to the letter of the law, but she is still rejected by civilized society, whom the author characterizes as a "twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters." Second, William faces social isolation and stigma because of his connection to Bear Flag. He believes even bums look down on him. The rejection by Mack and the boys drives him to despair, and ultimately to suicide. This demonstrates the power society can have on individuals.

Readers should note William's suicide is the second suicide in just three chapters. Despair over financial worries—like Horace in Chapter 1—and social rejection—as in William's case—can lead to alienation and despair. Suicide is a motif that will appear once more, later in the novel.

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