Study Guide

Dan in In Dubious Battle

By John Steinbeck

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Just Another Grumpy Old Man?

Steinbeck has a way of showing us more than one philosophy or point of view in this book. He also has no desire to play favorites. Like Doc Burton, he wants to get at the bigger picture, to see things as they really are rather than limit his view by looking at things through partisan glasses.

The appearance of Dan in the novel shows yet another perspective on the workers' discontent and the situation in the orchards. Dan has worked hard all his life and is now an old man with nothing to show for it. But curiously, he doesn't have any anger about his situation in life. When Jim tries to rile him up about the terrible wages and the fact that an old man like Dan still has to work hard, Dan just doesn't bite:

"They took all the profits from your work," Jim said. "They got rich, an' when you couldn't go up any more, they kicked you out."

"Yes," said Dan, "they did all that, all right. I guess I must be gettin' pretty old, kid. I don't give a damn if they did—I just don't give a damn." (55)

We never really know why Dan just doesn't care anymore—maybe it's strictly because he's tired, tired, tired—but he does take offense at something in Jim's advocacy for the workers. Dan prides himself on the amount of ridiculous work he's done in his time, and he feels that the whippersnappers of the current generation are just lazy and good for nothing:

"You punks got something to learn yet. There's more to work than you ever knew. Like a bunch of horses—you want more hay! Whining around for more hay. Want all the hay there is! You make a good man sick, that's what you do..." (77)

Dan places the blame for social injustice squarely at the feet of the workers. If they would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they too might prosper. But Dan's own experience kind of negates this mindset. No matter how courageous and hard-working he was, and now matter how dangerous the work he did was, he's still having to climb trees on rickety ladders in his old age and to pay exploitative prices at the company store for a can of beans for his dinner.

Quit Yer Whinin'

Ironically, when Dan takes his fall, he becomes the catalyst for the outbreak of the strike. On the surface of it, Dan's fall from a broken ladder reminds the workers that they're mere objects to the Growers, not worthy of safe equipment. But deep down, the men take his injury as a sign: the Growers will continue to beat the tar out of them until they are old and nothing is left. Basically, Dan becomes a cautionary tale.

But it isn't until Dan is close to death that he finds any use for the labor movement. When Jim tells him that he can lead Joy's funeral, Dan indulges in a well-crafted leadership fantasy:

"'I'll lead 'em,' he said gently. 'All those hundreds o' years that's what the working stiffs needed, a leader. I'll lead 'em through to the light. All they got to do is just what I say.'" (170)

His invitation to lead a simple funeral cortege prompts Dan to envision himself as the labor leader who will get things done. Essentially, though, Dan does not see himself as some guy running a fair commune—he fantasizes that he is the master, whipping the lazy younger generation into productive lives.

That's where we leave Dan, awash in his fantasies of benign oppression. By abandoning Dan on Anderson's farm, Steinbeck seems to say that the "pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" theory of social improvement has been firmly debunked.

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