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Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Mack Gets an Idea

Mack and the other bums of Cannery Row move into an old building owned by Lee Chong, a grocer. Lee Chong got it in exchange for settling a debt to a customer who then shot himself in the old warehouse. Its new inhabitants take pride in their home, and it becomes known as the Palace Flophouse and Grill. From their porch, the boys can see Doc's lab across the street. Everyone likes Doc, and Mack has the idea they should do something nice for Doc. The boys decide what Doc would enjoy is a party with drinks. However, they have no money and dislike working steady, traditional jobs, so finding the cash to fund the party requires some creative thinking.

The Frog Hunt

Doc is a marine biologist, and owner of a laboratory that supplies specimens from the sea. He collects animals like frogs and cats, and is willing to pay others to help add to his collection. Mack and the boys believe they can catch enough frogs to sell to Doc to get the money for the party. Mack convinces Lee Chong to lend them his old truck—if they can get it running—to transport them to a good frog-hunting location in Carmel Valley. While Doc is away collecting octopi in La Jolla, Mack and the boys eventually make it to Carmel River, although the truck breaks down, and one of their party gets locked up while looking for a spare part. As they wait for nightfall—the best time to catch frogs—the owner of the property discovers them and orders them to leave. Mack charms the man, offering to treat his lame dog's shoulder. The man they call "Captain" invites them to hunt frogs in the pond next to his house. After drinking the man's homemade whiskey and admiring the dog's puppies, the boys plunge through the pond in a line, forcing the frogs onto the opposite bank where they scoop them easily into bags. When the captain falls asleep on the kitchen floor, Mack thinks it best they leave before his wife returns. They take one of the puppies and a jug of whiskey with them.

The First Party

Mack convinces Lee Chong to take frogs—for which Doc always pays a nickel apiece—in exchange for party supplies. As they await Doc's return all afternoon, the boys drain the whiskey jug they intended for the party. They spend the last of the frogs on more alcohol, and go to the lab to decorate as a surprise for Doc. When it gets late and he still has not returned, the boys cook up the party food and continue drinking. A fight breaks out, and the lab is trashed in the process. All the frogs escape.

When Doc returns the next morning, after a tiring trip in which he found octopi, but also the shocking and upsetting discovery of a dead body, he is incensed to find his home and business in complete disarray. He is angry with Mack and punches him. Doc cleans up the lab alone. Mack and the boys feel terrible about how things turned out, and a cloud of bad luck seems to settle over them. When Mack asks Dora, the madam of the local whorehouse, what he can do to make amends, she suggests he throw a party for Doc that Doc is able to attend.

The Second Party

Mack gets Doc to tell him the date of his birth, although Doc, wary of Mack and familiar with his manipulative ways, gives him a false date. The boys plan a surprise birthday party, and the entire city seems to know about it. Everyone prepares gifts and anticipates the party on October 27. Even Doc finds out about the party accidentally, although he has forgotten the fake date he gave Mack. Everyone gets ready for the party with a few drinks, and by 8 P.M. the party begins awkwardly. It gets into full swing when a car full of outsiders mistake it for the whorehouse. This leads to a fierce, but pleasant, brawl that leaves the lab in shambles and everyone happy. Even the police join the rest of the party. The next morning, Doc faces the task of cleaning up his lab a second time.

Cannery Row Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Mack wants to throw a party for Doc.

Rising Action

2 Mack and the boys hunt for frogs to pay for the party.

3 They drink all afternoon as they prepare for the party.

4 The party turns into a fight before Doc returns.

5 Doc finds his place a mess and angrily punches Mack.

6 Mack decides to throw another party for Doc to make amends.


7 The whole city comes to the party, turned drunken brawl.

Falling Action

8 Everyone is satisfied with the party.


9 Mack cleans up the mess left from the party.

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