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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 4 | Summary



Every evening an "old Chinaman" can be seen walking down the hillside to the beach, carrying a basket. His steps make a flopping sound because of the loose sole on one of his shoes. He disappears beyond the pier to reemerge at dawn with a dripping basket, which he carries back up the hill and out of sight.

A 10-year-old boy named Andy feels compelled to taunt the man with a racist song. When the old man turns to look at the boy, the old man turns into a giant brown eye. The boy sees in the eye a desolate country with no people, only gopher-like animals in front of oddly shaped mountains. The view makes the boy feel afraid because "there wasn't anybody at all in the world and he was left."


Chapter 4 is the first true interchapter—"An intervening or inserted chapter"—in the novel. It includes none of the main characters and its episode does not directly relate to the plot, but it contributes thematically to the novel. Both the Chinaman and the boy's vision return to the theme of isolation. The "old Chinaman" clearly lives if not on Cannery Row, then very close by. He can be seen walking in the area every day, yet no one knows who he is. He is not a part of the community. He is isolated from those around him. The boy's vision is one of a barren world, devoid of people, except for him. The glimpse of his own isolation scares him.

Readers will note the racist song the boy sings to taunt the old man, as well as the author's chosen name for the character. "Chinaman" is certainly not an appropriate way to refer to people of Asian descent, but the name and song serve as a reminder that racism was very much present even in books considered part of the American literary canon.

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