Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932
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, he’s a cell in an organism.” The group acts or retreats as a whole, and Mac realizes that some cells (individuals) must be sacrificed for the organism to survive. When an “infection,” such as poor wages, threatens the organism, the group must rebel as a whole to save itself. Some individuals must die in the workers’ struggle to gain fair profit from their labor, and even party members—first Joy and later Jim—are expendable for the good of the group. The “group man” phenomenon makes the striking fruit workers react in predictable ways. When roused, usually by bloodshed, to fight, they move together as an unstoppable force. However, without an immediate goal, the organism relaxes and weaker members are shed, so the organism must be “fed” repeatedly to prevent the movement’s failure. Damage (loss or injury of an individual) can be repaired as long as the remaining cells work together toward a common goal. In pursuit of the goal, members take advantage of every opportunity, from delivering a baby and gaining the workers’ trust to using the body of a slain comrade to boost morale with a ritual funeral. In “group man’s” moral vision, objects and people can and should be used as a means to an end—the ultimate good of the party. In a larger sense, the striking fruit pickers of In Dubious Battle are being sacrificed for the success of future party efforts. Mac never truly believes the strike will get the workers the fair wages they demand, yet he proceeds with his plans, knowing that workers will be blacklisted, go hungry, and perhaps even die because of the strike. The party justifies its often brutal practices by arguing that the fruit pickers will benefit from their current troubles when, in the future, farmers will be less likely to lower wages for fear of another strike.
Steinbeck’s realistic fiction suggests that it is factual history. Readers should note, however, that although loosely based on historic people and events, the novel is not always historically accurate. Critics have noted the absence of women and Mexican workers among the fruit pickers. London’s thirteen-year-old daughter-in-law Lisa is the only developed female character. Moreover, she is first seen in labor and never thereafter appears without her infant son. Although a minor character, her presence in the book allows the reader to see a human side to Jim, Mac, and other characters through the interest they take in Lisa and her baby. What Steinbeck seems to suggest with her constant breastfeeding and confessed enjoyment of the act is that while a masculine revolution fights for better conditions for “group man,” an underlying femininity will nurture the group and replenish its humanity. Lisa’s character foreshadows Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath, who after the death of her newborn infant offers her breast milk to a starving man, a stranger.
How groups of people react in struggles against society or nature is a common theme throughout Steinbeck’s works. Readers may note, for example, his observation of antisegregation demonstrators outside a New Orleans public school in Travels with Charley (1962). In Dubious Battle fits well in context with other social protest fiction such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Steinbeck’s own The Grapes of Wrath.
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