Cannery Row Chapter 1 Summary
by John Steinbeck

Start Your Free Trial

Chapter 1 Summary

Steinbeck's novel opens with a poetic description of a town that most people probably would not associate with the poetic ideal. Canneries, by their nature, are smelly places, usually inhabited by the lower classes, men and women of multiple ages and ethnicities, who struggle day-to-day. But Steinbeck sees past the hard work, squalid conditions, and difficult lives. To the author, Cannery Row is not only "a stink" and a "grating noise" but also a "quality of light" and "a dream." Throughout the work, reality and dream will play yin and yang to its denizens: among them are Mack and the boys, who inhabit the Palace Flop House; Lee Chong, who runs the areas only grocery and general supply store; Dora and her "girls" who tend the local whorehouse; and Doc, the wise man and marine biologist who maintains the Western Biological Laboratories and, usually, keeps one step ahead of the residents of Cannery Row. 

Download Cannery Row Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapter 1 begins in Lee Chong's grocery. Here one could find all manner of goods, from the steady supply of "Old Tennis Shoe" whiskey he keeps on hand, to fishing equipment and silk kimonos. The only thing Lee Chong could not supply was women, but Dora, the madam whose whorehouse was across the lot from the grocery, had sexual companionship at the ready. 

Lee Chong was not greedy but he did keep his store open until "the last wandering vagrant dime" had been collected. In addition to taking anyone's money who wanted to spend it, Lee Chong also gave out plenty of credit. There was likely not a single person in Cannery Row who did not owe the Chinese merchant money. Lee's generosity was not without its limits, however. When a tab became too large, credit was cut off until some attempt to repay had been made. For having boundaries and for being fair, Lee Chong earned the respect of his community.

While he enjoyed their respect, Lee Chong could not transfer that respect to trust, and he would have been foolish to have done so. Knowing that he would be taken advantage of if he gave his customers half a chance, Lee did not do so. Instead, whenever anyone came in his store to shop, Lee placed himself strategically between the glass-encased cigars and the whiskey. The cash register was on his left and his trusty abacus sat at the ready on his right. 

Lee had learned to be cautious but one incident kept him from being militant. One evening, a customer named Horace Abbeville, who already owed him a great deal of money, asked for a "pack of spearmint." Lee refused and once again reminded Horace of...

(The entire section is 681 words.)