Even when things go badly for our protagonists—and we mean really, really badly—there's a kind of stoicism in Steinbeck's narration that propels the story forward. This is a drama-free zone, so much so that when Jim dies a horrific death, the narrator pretty much keeps it real. Mac and London simply carry on, without judgment from the author:
London saw them at last. He came close, and stopped; and the lantern made a circle of light. "Oh," he said. He lowered the lantern and peered down. "Shot-gun?" (269)
This emotional detachment certainly highlights the numbness that the men feel at the general dehumanization caused by a steady dose of oppression and violence. But it also makes us feel that what we're reading is somehow real or true, or at least truthy.
Steinbeck initially imagined this book to be a work of reportage, a first-person account of a London-like character who was a natural "boss" for a group of workers in the orchards. Steinbeck was particularly keen to keep bias out of the work: note that he's careful not to portray the workers as saintly or without fault.
His publishers convinced him to write this work as a novel instead, and the rest is history. All of this is to say that Steinbeck was committed to showing the life of migrant workers as it was, without much embellishment. Hence, he relied heavily on dialogue rather than long passages of narrative or commentary. Just keeping it 100, people.
Steinbeck gets the phrase "in dubious battle" from a line in John Milton's Paradise Lost (I.104). In that passage, Satan is talking about how he fought with God, lost, and wound up as King of Hell (not as great as it sounds).
While it's difficult to know the precise reasons Steinbeck chose this phrase for his title (check out the our "What's Up with the Epigraph?" section to find out more), there's definitely something questionable about the fight being waged in this novel. The big question is this: who really wants this war in the first place?
Mac likes to remind London and the other men in the camp that this is not his strike. He insists that it belongs to the discontented workers, and he makes a big show of having London take votes every time he means to take action. But we know that Mac and London are manipulating the emotions of the disgruntled men to foment rebellion.
So do they really want the fight? It's hard to know. And that is precisely why this battle is a dubious one—kind of like that more epic one in Heaven.
Oh, the ending. Spoiler alert: make sure you fill up with happy before you get to the end of this book.
Jim's fate may not come as a surprise to you. After all, his wound doesn't seem to be healing, anyway, and Steinbeck gets heavy on the light-burning-out symbolism. However, the exact method of Jim's death truly shocks, as it's meant to.
Steinbeck has Jim maimed in such a way that we have to think of the meaning of his fatal wound. Seriously, Jim literally loses his face, the body part most closely connected with personal identity. This is no coincidence, since Jim has willingly bartered his life and his individuality to become one with "the cause."
By giving up his personal identity to become a Party man, Jim has also given up a major part of his humanity—hence the scariness of his behavior and the phenomenal power he feels coursing through him. He has become something beyond human, so such effacement seems appropriate. (Sorry. We had to do it.)
Don't try to pin this one on Google Earth—it doesn't exist. And despite scholars' best efforts, there is no single location in Central or Northern California that quite matches Steinbeck's description of the Torgas Valley.
It's most likely that Steinbeck mashed up two strike incidents and their locations to create the geography for Mac and Jim's adventures in the apple orchards. Steinbeck is less interested in the specifics of the setting than in giving us something that will encourage us to imagine not just one place or one conflict, but also the many others involved in the economic crises of the day.
Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield;
And what is else not to be overcome?
John Milton, Paradise Lost (I.101-109)
Steinbeck opens his work with a passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost. It's the moment when Satan and his minions have just recovered from their epic fall from Heaven, and Satan is giving a fairly convincing pep talk to the stunned troops.
Satan describes the rebellion against God and makes sure to let us know that he and his forces at least made a little dent in the Almighty's peace and quiet ("and shook his throne"). But Satan calls this fight a "dubious battle." There's never a question that the Man Upstairs is going to win this one, so what, exactly, is in doubt here?
On one hand, Satan has neither the right to make a claim to the throne of Heaven nor the strength to back it up (they don't call God "The Almighty" for nothing). There should never have been a battle between two such uneven powers in the first place. Dubious, indeed.
On the other hand, Satan would have his minions (and us) believe that he gave God a good scare with his own army. He is full of bravado and self-importance, feeling certain that the outcome of that battle on the "plains of Heaven" could have gone his way.
In the end, Satan rallies himself and his troops from their new, harsh reality by revising the story of the Fall to showcase his "admirable" qualities: courage, strength of will, and perseverance in hate. He does such a good job that we literally feel sympathy for the devil.
So, how does all of this apply to Steinbeck's novel? Who is the devil in this scenario, and who is the conquering God?
Milton gives us a complex Satan, a guy with an unconquerable fighting spirit pitted against the oppressive hand of the most worshipped being in the universe. He's also fighting at a disadvantage, and he winds up consigned to Hell (it's really bad there, folks). We could easily see how Steinbeck might have been thinking of his workers when he saw this Satan.
Milton's Satan also knows how to talk. He has zero problem manipulating the disgruntled angels into believing they had just cause for rebellion. This is not unlike Mac and Jim in the orchards. They'd like London and the workers to believe that it's their fight—not Mac and Jim's. But all the while, we see Mac playing to the men's anger, riling them up to action. We never really know whose fight it is.
Yet it's hard to assign Miltonic roles to the characters in Steinbeck's novel. While we could cast the workers (or Mac) as the proud and defiant Satan, we know that Steinbeck doesn't see them as evil. And since he has no good opinion of the Growers, Steinbeck wouldn't bestow upon them the strange nobility of Milton's Prince o' Darkness, either.
It seems then that the epigraph gives us a general framework to think about the strife in the novel. The battle in Heaven offers us with an archetypal battle between good and evil, one that is also unevenly matched in terms of power—just like the battle in the novel.
Steinbeck seems drawn by that title phrase precisely because it questions why in the world such a calamity should ever have taken place. A more precise reading than this is certainly yours for the creating, but we think there's no need to shoehorn the work too hard into a strict metaphor.
Steinbeck's feel for narrative and realistic dialogue make this book a pleasure to read, with very few hitches—except, of course, for the oppression, grinding poverty, and carnage on just about every page. Then there's Steinbeck's use of dialect, which can catch you up until you get used to all the apostrophes sprinkled everywhere.
It also helps to know a bit of background on what was going on during the time period Steinbeck was writing about. But don't worry, Shmoopers—that's exactly what we're here for.
Because this work is primarily carried by dialogue, the writing reflects the personality and speech patterns of the workers. Steinbeck is careful not to be too "high-falutin'" with his language or ideas.
But occasionally, when character and circumstance permits, Steinbeck lets his poetic self hang loose. We see this whenever Doc Burton waxes philosophic on mankind, for example, or when Steinbeck steps back and takes in the bigger picture. Here's an example:
The moment he stopped talking a turbulence broke out. Shouting and laughing, the men eddied. They seemed filled with a terrible joy, a bloody, lustful joy. Their laughter was heavy. (104)
There's no way that London or Dakin would ever use the verb "eddy," nor would they come up with a fancy oxymoron like "terrible joy." However, we're pretty glad that Steinbeck sneaks this poetry into such a bleak landscape, just to spice things up a bit.
Steinbeck goes light on the imagery in this dialogue-driven work, but he sure does bring down the hammer when he describes the lamp hanging in London's tent. This light weakly illuminates a sad scene: we've got Joy's coffin, a feverish Jim, and some pouring rain. The lamp decides to participate in the misery:
On the tent-pole the lamplight yellowed and dropped to the wick. A blue flame sputtered for a while, and then went out. (163)
We could talk about the symbolism of darkness and light, or about how the light of hope once kindled in the workers has given in to the darkness of oppression and poverty. Or maybe we could talk about how the flickering lamp is an acknowledgement of Joy's passing and a foreshadowing of the end for Jim. But we think Steinbeck pretty much hands you this one on a platter.
Outside the extensive dialogue, Steinbeck uses an objective third-person point of view to mimic a journalist's point of view. Of course, Steinbeck's not a reporter, and he's not really objective. Don't believe us? Take a look at this instance, when the workers have just received their marching orders from Mac:
The moment he stopped talking a turbulence broke out. Shouting and laughing, the men eddied. They seemed filled with a terrible joy, a bloody, lustful joy. Their laughter was heavy. (105)
While Steinbeck assigns emotional values to the actions of the workers he observes, he's not delving into the minds of any particular character. As a result, we get insightful narrative, but we have to rely on dialogue to discover anything personal or intimate about the characters.
Jim arrives at Harry Nilson's office in the hopes that working for the Communist Party will make him feel alive again after a lifetime of violence and hopelessness. He wants a life of purpose and utility, something that will help him strike back against a system that seems intent on destroying him.
Jim meets Mac, Dick, and Joy at the flophouse. He tackles his first assignment (typing letters) and feels amazing because he's doing useful work. Mac and Jim hop trains, hobo-style, to get to Jim's first big job in the Valley. He and Mac have a ridiculously easy assimilation into the orchard, find all the resources they need—and Jim scores a pretty sweet point against Dakin's objections, which helps convince the men to go out on strike. Life is good.
Things stagnate for the strikers: they can't parade without the cops harassing them; they can't legally picket; food begins to get scarce. Both Mac and Jim are now marked men, and they barely escape a serious lynching attempt. Jim longs for something useful to do, but Mac wants to protect him. When he finally sees action, Jim gets shot in the shoulder—but nothing much else is achieved.
After the attack on Al and his lunch wagon and the burning of Anderson's barn, Mac begins to fall apart at the seams. The workers will soon be evicted from Anderson's field, so it looks like the strike has failed.
They are all dispirited and terrified after the sheriff makes a big show of force when he delivers the eviction notice. Jim is extremely anxious to try his hand at rallying the men for a fight and doesn't seem to mind if he loses everything. Mac does mind and wants Jim to hightail it out of town.
Jim is feeling all zealous and worked up about getting his big chance to make a difference. He and Mac don't think twice when a boy tells them that an injured doctor (possibly Doc Burton) is lying in a field nearby. Jim runs recklessly toward the field—and is cut down by a spray of buckshot.
Jim Nolan walks away from his failed attempt at a life and is accepted for membership in the Communist Party. He tells essential parts of his story to his recruiter, Harry Nilson. We learn that Jim has felt dead inside for a long time, and he hopes that working for something bigger than himself will energize him. When he meets Mac and begins working, he knows he's made the right decision.
Jim and Mac head out to the Valley to organize the workers and fall right in with London. They garner support from the men, find a place for them to stay, get the Doc on board and set up camp. Mac and Jim have scary encounters with police and vigilantes. Jim is itching to do something active and useful.
Jim finally gets to go out picketing—and he winds up getting shot in the shoulder while clashing with scabs and orchard workers. The scabs arrive on the freight trains and the strikers brave police forces to reach them. Joy appears among them and is assassinated. There is conflict with Dakin, who winds up losing his truck and getting arrested. Vigilantes burn Al's wagon and Anderson's barn.
Mac and Jim figure out that Doc is missing and wonder what to do about it. They try to apologize to Anderson, who won't have any of it. He's had the strikers evicted from his property, and the heavily armed sheriff appears at the camp to give them notice. Mac wants the men to fight back, but they are utterly bummed. Jim is tapped to rally the men for a fight.
Jim and Mac are lured out of camp with the promise of finding Doc, but then they are ambushed. Jim's face is blown off. Oops. Mac brings Jim's body back to camp and shows it to the workers in the hope that it will shock and anger them into action on their own behalf.
Jim joins the Communist Party and begins working with Mac. The two make their way to Torgas Valley to organize the disgruntled workers.
Mac and Jim get the strike underway and move the workers to Anderson's farm.
Anderson's barn is burned, and the strikers are evicted from the property. They're preparing to fight the armed forces that are coming for them.