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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 5 | Summary



Western Biological Laboratory is across the street from the vacant lot near Bear Flag Restaurant and Lee Chong's grocery. The lab sells all manner of animal life, including live bivalves, barnacles, nudibranchs, and anemones "spiked and nobbed and needly urchins, the crabs and demi crabs," as well as "bugs and snails and spiders." Out back are concrete tanks with larger animals like octopi and sharks. Indeed, one "can order anything living from Western Biological." In addition, the basement houses a laboratory with dead animals, some in jars, and some with veins shot full of contrast dye for dissection. It is filled with smells of "formaline, and dry starfish, and sea water and menthol, carbolic acid" and many other scents. The library is full of books and decorated with reproductions of many pieces of art.

Doc works and lives at the lab. He is a small, bearded man with a face "half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth." Although he procures specimens from tide pools, he fears getting his head wet. He is the city's philosopher and authority on the arts, exposing locals to music and literature. Doc finds eternal curiosity and joy in life. Although he can kill when necessary, he could never hurt someone's feelings on purpose. He is "concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell." Everyone wants to "do something nice for Doc."


The lab is described through a series of detailed lists. The author names the contents of each area of the house in extensive detail, from the types of animals the lab houses to the different smells in the basement. The author uses scientific categorization to describe the lab, the way a scientist would record the contents of a tide pool.

The most interesting thing in the lab, however, is Doc. The author introduces readers to the book's main character only after establishing the setting and suggesting some of the themes of the novel in preceding chapters. Readers get an overview of Doc's personality from the author's description, which is just as detailed—although more poetic—than the description of the lab. Contradictory statements are used to characterize Doc. He is "half Christ and half satyr" in his facial appearance. Christ is the sinless, divine savior of Christianity, while a satyr is a mythical Greek creature, sort of half-man, half-goat known for a love of wine, dancing, and lowbrow humor. Doc is at home in tide pools, but worries about getting water on his head. On the one hand, he is a womanizer, "concupiscent as a rabbit," but he is also "gentle as hell." While he can kill out of necessity, he will avoid even hurting someone's feelings. These opposing elements of Doc's personality help define who he is. The eccentric character portrayed by Doc—well-read, diverse in skills and interests, charismatic, and well-loved—is based on Steinbeck's best friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts who owned and operated a lab down the street from the author's home outside of Monterey, California, on a road known by locals as Cannery Row. In it, Steinbeck depicts what he considers the ideal man. He is a man of the earth, neither afraid nor ashamed of his natural instincts, and striving for more of both the earthly and the universal.

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