Dubious Battle, by John Steinbeck. Specifically, it will focus upon how characters represent the various ideas held by capital and labor by the 1930's. "In Dubious Battle" is the story of poor field workers fighting a lost cause against prosperous owners. Rather than a story of reform and revolt, "In Dubious Battle" is really a struggle between good and evil, and the self-destructive behavior that lives in all mankind.
IN DUBIOUS BATTLE
Steinbeck wrote the novel "In Dubious Battle" in 1935, after visiting migrant settlements in the Central Valley of California. Jim Nolan, the tale's main character, is a young man searching for himself when he meets a Communist Party organizer trying to organize the fruit pickers into a cohesive union. One critic noted the fruit farms are an important theme throughout the novel, as are Jim's reactions to what is happening around him. "However, although the beckoning potential of the apple trees hangs heavily over the story throughout the novel, Jim's vision of fruitful farms is undercut by the dark masculine realities of deceit, violence, and death" (Werlock 53). Jim clearly represents the worker's interests, partly because he is so lost, and partly because, after he loses his mother, he begins to see him self consistently as "dead." "She wouldn't speak to me, she just looked at me. She was hurt so bad she didn't even want a priest. I guess I got something burned out of me that night" (Steinbeck 242). He typifies the hopelessness of the workers and their cause, and their ultimate inability to fight the powerful owners, who do not want to pay organized workers any more money. Jim is also introspective and a little afraid as he looks into his own life. "I never look at anything," he blurts out. "I never take time to see anything. It's going to be over, and I won't know -- even how an apple grows" (Steinbeck 239). Jim is decent, but he is easily (too easily) swayed by Mac and his ideals, and here, he represents the self-destructive mechanism Steinbeck believes lives in all people. Jim is clearly on the path to self-destruction, just like his father, and Mac simply helps him choose the path.
Mac represents the Communist Party, but he is a sleazy and selfish man, which seems to be Steinbeck's view about the Party itself. At one point, Mac clearly shows how he regards the women of the camp - only as sex symbols. How can a man who preaches equality for the masses treat women as mere sex objects? "I never saw such a bunch of bags as this crowd.... Only decent one in the camp is thirteen years old. I'll admit she's got an eighteen-year-old can, but I'm doing no fifty years.... Every time the sun shines on my back all afternoon I get hot pants. What's wrong with that?" (Steinbeck 53). Mac is dedicated to his cause, but slimy just the same, and at times his character reminds the reader of a used car salesman.
Clearly, Mac represents evil in the novel, while Jim represents good and decency. In the end, Mac shows his true self when he uses Jim's death to further his cause, just has he has used so many others throughout the novel. He "picked Jim up and slung him over his shoulder, like a sack; and the dripping head hung down behind" (Steinbeck 250). Some critics liken Mac to Satan or the serpent in the Garden of Eden, "As he displays Jim's faceless body, Mac is again like the serpent in the Garden" (Werlock 62). Whomever he represented in Steinbeck's mind, Mac is clearly evil, and therefore what he works for is evil, just as it is in the eyes of the growers. Mac dehumanizes the people around him, just as he dehumanized Jim's death. He is an inhumane man working for what many believe is a humane cause, and so he is a juxtaposition and a fraud, if he ever really takes the time to look at himself. In that he represents the Communist Party, he is certainly a poor representative, for his methods reflect on his Party, and as such, the Party is depicted just as poorly as Mac is.
Women played an important role in the strikes, even though Steinbeck plays down much of their influence in the novel. Two men who researched labor camps in the 1930s, Benson and Loftis, discovered women like Lisa played an important and vital role in the strikes of field workers during this time, and that Jim's character was based on Communist organizer Caroline Decker.
Benson and Loftis cite one incident in which female picketers ran into the fields and cried out to the pickers, "Come on out, quit work; we'll feed you. If you don't, we'll poison all of you." Second, a funeral was held for two workers, a man and a woman, shot and killed in a riot. Third, Steinbeck knew in detail the characters and activities of Communist party members Pat Chambers and the fiery, eloquent, and fanatic young woman Caroline Decker, and almost certainly based the characters of Mac and Jim, respectively, on them (Werlock 48).
The women of the novel have great dignity and grace, as Lisa does. She is always kind and decent, whether nursing Old Dan or befriending Jim. Some see her as a Madonna figure, and some just see her representing some of the power that is present and so necessary throughout the novel.
Lisa's character is richer than the casual reader might perceive. But Werlock also points out how the humanity of other characters -- Mac, Jim, and Doc in particular -- is determined by their relationship with Lisa, and how the "quiet power," of the woman functions throughout the novel (Hayashi xviii).
Other women in the novel also exhibit this power and decency. Even Jim's mother, who appears only a few times in the pay, has a great influence (i.e. power) over Jim. He cannot get her dying out of his mind, "She didn't answer me, just stared.... I guess she just didn't want to live. I guess she didn't care if she went to hell, either" (Steinbeck 5), and it is her dying that has sent him off in search of himself. Even in death, she wields power over her son, and all the women in this novel stand for quite power, which is often the most powerful and influential kind. Each of these women ultimately represent the workers, who, more than anything else, are simply fighting for their rights, decent pay, and appropriate working conditions. It is difficult not to identify with these people who have so little, and only want to be treated decently by the prosperous owners.
Power is a theme also constantly woven through this book. Mac wields power over the workers as he cajoles them to join the party, and the owners wield power over the workers as they refuse to pay them decent wages. It was this power the Communist Party was fighting, and it was not only in the field of apple groves in California. Workers had been organizing in the United States long before the 1930s. After the Civil War, industry really began to grow and prosper in America. Most industrialists capitalized on the cheap labor available in most cities. They worked their people long hours for low pay, and it created unrest and dissatisfaction among the workers, making them ripe for union organization. It was during this time author Upton Sinclair wrote his powerful and classic novel "The Jungle," which embraced Socialism while recounting the horrors of the meatpacking business in Chicago at the turn of the century.
There were men who worked in the cooking-rooms, in the midst of steam and sickening odors, by artificial light; in these rooms the germs of tuberculosis might live for two years, but the supply was renewed every hour. There were the beefluggers, who carried two-hundred-pound quarters into the refrigerator-cars; a fearful kind of work, that began at four o'clock in the morning, and that wore out the most powerful men in a few years. There were those who worked in the chilling-rooms, and whose special disease was rheumatism; the time-limit that a man could work in the chilling-rooms was said to be five years (Sinclair 116-117).
Sinclair clearly wrote on the side of Socialism and reform, and reform was clearly necessary in these cases. Steinbeck, on the other hand, recognized the problems of the field laborers in the Central Valley, but did not write a "reform" novel, he simply wrote a "working-class" novel, conveying the problems facing some of the hardest workers in the country. As one writer noted, "Had Steinbeck wanted the novel to embrace polemics, to be a Communist book, all he would have needed to do was bring Doc Burton back into the struggle to take his place among the rank and file. Instead, he makes him disappear [...]" (Tammaro 101).