Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
City. Unnamed California city at the start of the novel that is probably San Francisco. The signs of the economic Depression are everywhere here. Steinbeck wastes little time describing this setting, but it is in this city that Jim Nolan begins his education, by joining the Communist Party. He has been “dead” in this modern and alienating urban environment for some time, but under the tutelage of Mac, a Party organizer, he makes his commitment to the causes of social justice and begins to come alive.
Torgas Valley. Rich farmland full of apple orchards some 150 miles southeast of the city (and closely resembling California’s real Salinas Valley). Mac tells Jim that “Torgas is a little valley, and it’s mostly apple orchards. Most of it’s owned by a few men. . . . when the apples are ripe the crop tramps come in and pick them.” Later, Steinbeck describes one orchard where the pickers are working: “The orchard was alive. The branches of the trees shook under the ladders. The overripes dropped with dull plops to the ground underneath the trees. Somewhere, hidden in a tree-top, a whistling virtuoso trilled.” Figuratively, this is an evocation of the innocence of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The title of the novel is actually taken from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which describes the forces of the fallen angels in league with Satan and, in the line Steinbeck uses...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
American readers often find In Dubious Battle a disturbing novel. The principal characters, especially Jim, are presented with insight and sympathy; however, the views they represent often seem to be opposed to traditional American values, since they are professed Communists. The novel is Steinbeck's first attempt in fiction to deal with the plight of workers in California who were being exploited during the Great Depression. The novelist's handling of this volatile issue was met with mixed reviews by those who read the novel immediately upon publication, since his apparent sympathy for Communist principles was not regarded favorably by a majority of Americans.
1. The two principal figures in this novel are openly affiliated with "communism." What does Steinbeck mean by this term? Is he associating these men with the brand of communism practiced for nearly a century in the Soviet Union?
2. As he does in a number of his novels, Steinbeck includes a number of scenes of graphic violence in the work. How do these serve his aesthetic purpose? How are they used to illustrate sociological or political themes?
3. The title of the novel is borrowed from a speech in Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Satan proclaims his defiance for God by declaring his "unconquerable will" will give him the courage to defy his Maker in the face of all odds. How might this be seen as an appropriate epithet for the story of Mac and Jim?
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More than in any other novel, Steinbeck uses the techniques of drama to focus on characters, in conflict in In Dubious Battle. Little attention is given to description, and there is almost no authorial intrusion. Characters speak and act; the reader gets a sense of action and of significance from what is said and done. In fact, at one point, the text itself is set up in the form of a dialogue, with characters' names set beside their speeches as one might find them in a prompt book.
As he does in other works, Steinbeck uses animal imagery to highlight the significance of actions: One can judge characters by observing how they relate to animals, or the way in which their own physical characteristics remind one of certain animals. Finally, Steinbeck is careful to focus on faces as a means of delineating identity. This technique reinforces the central irony of the book: the growing depersonalization of the Party Worker, seen in the character of Jim Nolan, who performs his final great service when his dead body, face blown away by a shotgun blast, is used as a rallying point by the strikers.
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In Dubious Battle takes its title from Milton's Paradise Lost, Book I (1658), in which Satan vows to engage the forces of heaven "In Dubious Battle" even if it means eternal vanquishment. That reference sets a tone for Steinbeck's novel, and suggests a way to view the main characters: as Satan like figures, not because they are inherently or necessarily evil, but because they are determined to persevere in their battle against capitalism even when odds for success are overwhelmingly against them. The novel may also be viewed as a bildungsroman, a work that focuses on the initiation, education, and maturation of Party worker Jim Nolan.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Definitive biography considers In Dubious Battle in context with the author’s life and works.
Benson, Jackson J., and Anne Loftis. “John Steinbeck and Farm Labor Unionization: The Background of In Dubious Battle.” American Literature 52, no. 2 (May, 1980): 194-223. Situates Steinbeck’s novel within the social conditions from which it emerged. Just as intriguing as the similarities between fact and fiction are the instances in which Steinbeck altered facts, notably his omission of women from the labor movement and Mexicans from the migrant community.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck. 2d rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Illustrates Steinbeck’s use of Arthurian legend.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Collection of essays on Steinbeck’s life and literary achievements during the late 1930’s. Several articles are pertinent to In Dubious Battle.
Pressman, Richard S. “Individualists or Collectivists? Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.” Steinbeck Quarterly 25, nos. 3/4 (Summer/Fall, 1992): 119-132....
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