Critic Tetsumaro Hayashi considers 1936 to 1939 the great years of John Steinbeck’s career. The novel that culminated this period of greatness, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), won the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Years later, in 1962, the work of this period contributed to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although In Dubious Battle is a less important book than The Grapes of Wrath, most critics see it as a thematic precursor to the greater work. Steinbeck’s first full-length novel, In Dubious Battle narrates a fictional part of the epic struggle of poverty against wealth and worker against boss. Borrowing his title from book 1, line 104, of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Steinbeck recalls the epic struggle in Heaven between good and evil.
Two important themes in the novel are the idea of waking “sleepers” to social action and the function of the “group man.” Sleepers are people who go through life without trying to improve living and working conditions for themselves or others. Henry David Thoreau used a similar metaphor in his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849). The story opens with the “sleepwalking” young Jim Nolan joining the Communist Party. Jim has no family of his own (both parents are dead); the party becomes his new family. In this sense, Jim is like many other party members in the novel—Mac, Dick, and Joy—who have no families. Other characters who consider joining also have minimal families: Al Anderson has only his father (who has practically disowned him), and London has only his son Joey, Lisa, and a grandchild. Dakin, on the other hand, is slower to join the strike because he has much to lose: a wife, two children, a light truck, and comfortable portable furnishings (when vigilantes later destroy the truck, Dakin withdraws from the group).
Mac’s first objective in organizing the fruit pickers’ strike is to awaken the people to their exploitation by the orchard owners. Mac himself seldom sleeps in the novel. Individuals awakened from their “sleep” join the party, submit to the will of the majority, and come together to function as “group man,” a concept explained by Doc Burton: “A man in a group isn’t himself at all,...
(The entire section is 932 words.)