Study Guide

Dora in Cannery Row

By John Steinbeck


If Cannery Row had a first lady, it would be Dora. As Mack says, "there is one hell of a woman" (23.63). At Doc's party, she gets the royal treatment: "Dora sat in a kind of throne, her orange hair flaming" (30.11). She even wears a "green eyeshade" like some sort of crown.

But despite the "magnificent pink silk wrapper," she's no lady of leisure: Dora has a serious job to do.

Heart of Gold

As the madam of the Bear Flag Restaurant—which is actually a brothel—Dora runs a tight ship, but she's got a (say it with us) heart of gold. She gives away boatloads of money to all different kinds of charities, partly because she's a good person and partly … because her business is illegal and she's got to keep the police off her back by donating $50 to their pension fund when everyone else donates $1.

But during the influenza epidemic, she's the only person besides Doc who helps out, sending her girls around with soup and comfort. We learn that "Dora, who was soft as a mouse's belly, could be as hard as carborundum." And she takes care of her girls, even the ones who are "fairly inactive due to age and infirmities." (Lee Chong would probably say that's no way to run a business.) She's even concerned about consent, since she won't let drunk girls work.


Sure, in a lot of ways Dora is like the female Doc. She's kind and caring, and she's got a touch of steel—the "carborundum" that makes Doc punch Mack in the nose and makes Dora marshal her ladies of the night into little Florence Nightingales. She's got the smarts, too. When Mack needs advice about how to make things up to Doc, he visits Dora. Like Doc, she helps take care of the people in Cannery Row.

But Dora isn't Doc. Where Doc stands apart from Cannery Row as an observer and someone who could be doing bigger and better things, Dora is right at home with the bums and prostitutes. She's one of them—just successful. Let's put it this way: there's no Gregorian chant coming from her brothel late at night.