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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Chapter 6 | Summary



Hazel, one of the boys who live at the Palace Flophouse, collects starfish in the tide pool with Doc. Hazel grew up the youngest of eight children in a poor family. His mother named him after his aunt "who was reputed to carry life insurance." She never bothered to change his name to something more masculine as he grew older. What Hazel enjoys most is listening to people talk. He asks endless questions, but avoids answering them. Searching for an answer in his mind is "like wandering alone in a deserted museum ... choked with uncategorized exhibits." Doc recognizes Hazel's trick to keep him talking, but he feels compelled to answer questions when asked. Hazel is good at collecting specimens from the pool. At low tide, it is filled with creatures and activity, "tranquil and lovely and murderous," and "smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth." Hazel hides some abalones in his bag, and Doc knows he is taking them illegally.

Hazel tells Doc that Gay is going to move into the Palace Flophouse to escape being hit by his wife. To keep the conversation going, Hazel mentions a painter they both know, Henri. Henri has been building the same boat for seven years, which Hazel finds strange. Doc explains Henri is afraid of the water, so he finds reasons to make changes to the boat because he doesn't want to finish it. Doc and Hazel notice some stink bugs with their tails in the air. When Hazel asks why, Doc says scientists don't know, but he guesses they are praying since "inexplicable and strange" human behavior can usually be explained in that way.


After describing Doc in the previous chapter, the author uses action and dialogue to further develop his character in Chapter 6. Readers see Doc at work in the tide pool, and notice his interactions with Hazel. In these interactions, readers learn Doc is a man who likes to answer questions, but he is also aware of Hazel's mental limitations. Despite this, Doc treats Hazel with kindness. Readers learn that Doc is a perceptive judge of character, when relaying Henri's reasons for not finishing the boat. This conversation—as well as his thoughts about the stink bugs—reveals a distinct lack of judgment in Doc's personality. He observes those around him like he observes the actions in the tide pool and the stink bugs. Things simply are. He doesn't worry about the "why," assuming the inexplicable is likely spiritual as it is with humans.

The tide pool is a symbol of life in Cannery Row. It is filled with a variety of creatures interacting in various ways. Like the novel's description of the comings and goings in Cannery Row, in the tide pool one can see all the various stages of life—from procreation, to birth, to death.

The author introduces readers to Hazel. Hazel seems to have some sort of learning or mental disability, and he has trouble organizing and recalling information when questioned. He enjoys conversation and spending time with Doc, and he is good at the manual task of collecting specimens from the tide pool. Hazel admires Doc and looks to him as a source of information and work.

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