Study Guide

Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle

By John Steinbeck

Doc Burton

A Real Stand-Up Guy

Mac has worked with Doc Burton many times over the years, but still he knows very little about the Doc's motivations. It might also strike us as funny that Doc doesn't seem to be a card-carrying Party member, and yet he is deeply invested in the health and well-being of the workers. What's up with that?

Well, at first, Doc has a pretty philosophical answer to give Mac for his participation in Party antics:

"I want to see the whole picture—as nearly as I can. I don't want to put on the blinders of 'good' and 'bad,' and limit my vision. If I use the term 'good' on a thing I'd lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don't you see? I want to look at the whole thing." (113)

Okay, so Doc doesn't want to pass judgment on the Communist Party and its workings until he sees things up close and personal. But intellectual curiosity seems to be a pretty thin reason to risk life, limb, and professional integrity.

Yeah, there's something greater in Doc's interest in helping Mac and company. When things start to go south, Mac comments that Doc is probably the only person who would stick with him to the bitter end—even though Doc himself doesn't believe in the cause. Doc tells Mac that it's because he "believes in men," and he gives Mac an analogy:

"Maybe if I went into a kennel and the dogs were hungry and sick and dirty, and maybe if I could help those dogs, I would. Wouldn't be their fault they were that way. You couldn't say, 'Those dogs are that way because they haven't any ambition. They don't save their bones. Dogs are always that way.' No, you'd try to clean them up and feed them. I guess that's the way it is with me. I have some skill in helping men, and when I see some who need help, I just do it." (153)

This point of view makes Doc the most reasonable guy in the work, for sure. It might make him the best guy you've ever met, too. (Never mind that he just compared the workers to dogs.)

Mob Psychology and Infections

Doc tells Mac that there's something else in his observations. He has a theory about how individual men function in a group: they're not like themselves at all. Doc is particularly interested in mob psychology and how "group-man," as he calls it, works like a little cell in a larger organism. The cell is a separate thing, but it can't escape the directives of the organism as a whole. (113)

Doc sees social injustice in biological terms: it's like the wound that gets infected and becomes a battleground between germs and blood cells. Group-men, says Doc, are always fighting some kind of infection. But men in a group—like cells rushing to defend the organism—can't be individuals. They don't think about their enemies; they just attack. Sometimes quite mindlessly.

Mac doesn't much like this way of thinking, but this reasoning gives some clarity to Doc's understanding of what's happening around him. While the workers are legitimately fighting an entity that is trying to destroy their lives (the Growers), they are nevertheless attacking without thought.

Love is All You Need?

But Doc himself is not a group-man, and group thinking doesn't cut it for him. The level of hatred and despair in the camp gets on his nerves pretty quickly, and he begins to feel an inexplicable loneliness in the middle of all the bodies surrounding him. He tries to explain his depression to Jim, the most gung-ho of all the Party men:

"The other side is made of men, Jim, men like you. Man hates himself. Psychologists say a man's self-love is balanced neatly with self-hate. Mankind must be the same. We fight ourselves and we can only win by killing every man. I'm lonely, Jim. I have nothing to hate." (199)

Jim would prefer that Doc just shut his pie-hole and let the men smash something. Yet Doc has some good points to make—and he appears to be the only one in the novel outside the influence of "group think" and mob psychology. That's enough to make him feel like the only sane person in the world.

Perhaps that's the reason Steinbeck made Doc simply disappear. In the dystopia that is the Torgas Valley, neither side values—or deserves—the thoughtfulness and dogged humanitarianism of the good doctor.

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