LITERATURE: Cannery Row – Character as Statement

When a writer wants to express more than a story, when he wants to reveal not just a personality but a human trait, one of the best means is through one of the characters in a segment of story.  Steinbeck has established the character of Doc as knowledgeable, tolerant, patient and kind.  A bit of a loner, too, although he numbers all he knows as among his friends.

The following is a bit of backstory relating to Doc’s early years at University, where he takes off on a walking trip after a bit of a trial.

And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.

Because he loved true things he tried to explain.  He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot.  And people didn’t like him for telling the truth.  They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar.  And some, afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.

And so he stopped trying to tell the truth.  He said he was doing it on a bet–that he stood to win a hundred dollars.  Everyone liked him then and believed him  They asked him in to dinner and gave him a bed and they put lunches up for him and wished him good luck and thought he was a hell of a fine fellow.  Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.  (p. 99)

Ain’t that the truth.  Does honesty scare people?  Do they only understand someone on their own terms?  Do we live in our own created world of normal, exclude anyone different, fear if their aspirations seem loftier in purpose and so degrade it by relegating it to an oddness in another?

And the sentence, "afraid for their daughters or their pigs," — is not, I don’t feel, a leveling of women to animals, but rather a metaphor for what is important to them; honor, and property, the loss of either is more vital to maintain and protect than being open to honesty. 

Steinbeck is religious about reaffirming his images within a few pages of what he has presented.  In this short chapter on Doc, we learn that he carries around a suggestion once made to him to try a beer milkshake.  He realizes, having learned the ways of human nature, that this request would be suspect.  But on this short journey he is making to seek specimens, and after being annoyed by a hitchhiker, the moment is right:

Doc walked angrily to the counter of the stand.

The waitress, a blonde beauty with just the hint of a goiter, smiled at him.  "What’ll it be?"

"Beer milk shake," said Doc.


Well here it was and what the hell.  Might just as well get it over with now as some time later.

The blonde asked "Are you kidding?"

Doc knew wearily that he couldn’t explain, couldn’t tell the truth.  "I’ve got a bladder complaint," he said.  "Bipalychaetorsonectomy the doctors call it. I’m supposed to drink a beer milk shake.  Doctor’s orders."

(…) "It sounds awful," said the blonde.

"It’s not so bad when you get used to it," said Doc.  "I’ve been drinking it for seventeen years."  (p. 101)

And so we go through life, learning what can be openly expressed, and what is best left unsaid, kept to ourselves.  This is the plane of life on which we commonly operate, on which we interact with each other.  Is heaven–if there be one–a place without veils?

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One Response to LITERATURE: Cannery Row – Character as Statement

  1. Mark says:

    Yes, honesty scares people.

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