Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Community

By John Steinbeck

Community

"You'll get a vote on every decision, but once the vote's in, you'll have to obey. When we have money we try to give field workers twenty dollars a month to eat on. I don't remember a time when we ever had the money. Now listen to the work: In the field, you'll have to work alongside the men, and you'll have to do the Party work after that, sometimes sixteen, eighteen hours a day." (8)

Harry Nilson explains the rules of the game to Jim as he examines Jim's application to join the Communist Party. Jim is attracted to the Party because it will give him immediate access to a community of like-minded people; he'll no longer have to feel alone and hopeless in his struggles against an oppressive system.

But from the way Nilson describes it here, it's clear that the Party is no utopia. While the men technically get a say in everything, it's pretty clear that's all that will be in it for Jim. Despite the grueling work and lack of personal gain, Jim feels ready to leave everything behind to work together with the Party men.

A change was in the air. The apathy was gone from the men. Sleepers were awakened and told, and added themselves to the group. A current of excitement filled the jungle, but a kind of joyful excitement. Fires were built up. Four big cans of water were put on to boil; and then cloth began to appear. [...] The men seemed suddenly happy. They laughed together as they broke dead cottonwood branches for the fire. (46)

Mac creates a feeling of fraternity in the orchard when he orders the men to find supplies to help with the birth of Lisa's baby. He's teaching the men the value of working together and the necessity for action. Steinbeck seems taken with the idea that apathy—that sleepwalking feeling that Jim has at the opening of the book—can be destroyed by communal effort and participation in something bigger than the individual self.

Men always like to work together. There's a hunger in men to work together. Do you know that ten men can lift nearly twelve times as big a load as one man can? It only takes a little spark to get them going." (49)

Mac delivers his message fifty different times throughout the narrative: men have to work together to get things done. Okay, we haven't actually counted, but he definitely says it over and over to Jim while they're working the strike. It's something we can see in action as the mood of the "mob" at the camp ebbs and flows, and as Mac tries to influence the men's energy by creating a communal activity or crisis. The unfortunate part? Sometimes that spark starts a raging fire—as both Jim and Mac know firsthand (remember when the mob tries to lynch them for a slight insult?).

Jim said, "You didn't need all that cloth. Why did you tell London to burn it?"

"Look, Jim. Don't you see? Every man who gave part of his clothes felt that the work was his own. They all feel responsible for that baby. It's theirs, because something from them went to it. To give back the cloth would cut them out. There's no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it." (49)

We have to give it to Mac here: this is some very clever use of group psychology. He knows from experience that people who work together have to forge bonds of loyalty and fraternity in order to be productive. It's a lucky thing for them that Lisa is kind enough to produce that baby right when they appear on the scene—and that she gives birth successfully, given that Mac actually has no idea how to deliver a baby. Mac is able to use this circumstance to teach the men to work together and to have a vested interest in what they produce from their collaboration.

"And who are your neighbors?" Mac asked quickly. "I'll tell you who they are: Hunter, Gillray, Martin. Who holds your paper? Torgas Finance Company. Who owns Torgas Finance Company? Hunter, Gillray, Martin. Have they been squeezing you? You know God damn well they have." (89)

We all like to think of our home communities as safe places filled with neighbors who look out for each other. Yeah, well, Torgas Valley is not that kind of place. The main men (Hunter, Gillray, Martin) are really looking out for themselves and their bottom lines, much to the detriment of the workers and the small farmers in the area. Mac uses this knowledge to convince Anderson to support the strikers by allowing them to use his spare land for a camp. He has success with Anderson precisely because the old man knows that his prosperous neighbors are really out to destroy his way of life.

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. Into the rooms they swarmed, and carried out their things and piled them on the ground—pots and kettles, blankets, bundles of clothing. (104)

Mac has announced to the workers at the orchard that the "super" has tried unsuccessfully to bribe London to betray them—and that they now have to move off the land because they have been evicted. He uses this opportunity to tell the men and women that they have to keep order and work together to gather all their things for the move to Anderson's farm. The workers are pretty stoked by all this, but it's a dangerous thing. Steinbeck's use of oxymoron here ("terrible joy" and "bloody, lustful joy") tells us that we're going to be in for a wild ride.

"If we could make 'em dig a hole, it'd be as good as anything else. If we can just get 'em all pushing on something, or lifting something, or all walking in one direction—doesn't matter a hell of a lot. They'll start fighting each other if we don't move 'em. They'll begin to get mean, pretty soon." (137)

After the emotional high of marching to the train depot to greet the scabs and experiencing Joy's murder that morning, the workers have hit a low patch. Mac wants to have them do some sort of team-building exercise to keep them motivated(!), but nothing immediately presents itself. Mac wants to teach Jim that mobs are notoriously fickle things, and that convincing the workers that they are a community of support for each other will not be an easy thing.

"We got to stick," Jim cried. "We simply got to stick. If we lose this, we're sunk; and not only us, either. Every other working stiff in the country gets a little of it." (175)

Jim has been moving through the camp, trying to get a sense of how the men feel about the strike and the leadership. He sits down with one group of men and quickly finds a stranger who has been planted in the camp by the Growers to sow discord among the men. Jim's pretty riled up about this and shares with him the major lesson he's learned from Mac: the workers have to come together to work for their own best interests. Jim also adds his own, personal twist to the narrative—it's not just about them. They're all part of a much larger whole that will rise or fall depending on their actions.

"They're mad. Jesus, how a mad crowd can fill the air with madness. You don't understand it, Doc. My old man used to fight alone. When he got licked, he was licked. I remember how lonely it was. But I'm not lonely anymore, and I can't be licked, because I'm more than myself." (199-200)

Jim muses on the nature of mob psychology with Doc Burton. Doc wants to learn more about "group-man" by observing the strikers, and he has some interesting theories that are at odds with what Jim and Mac believe about labor communities. But Jim has some very personal reasons for loving the volatile crowd: they are his safety net, his support. Jim feels very strongly that his individual life has very little value, but as part of a larger movement working to create change, his effort and suffering mean something.

"Now the papers say we're just causing trouble. But we're getting the stiffs used to working together; getting bigger and bigger bunches working together all the time, see? It doesn't make a difference if we lose. Here's nearly a thousand men who've learned how to strike. When we get a whole slough of men working together, maybe—maybe Torgas Valley, most of it, won't be owned by three men." (222)

Mac tells London that he's pretty sure the strike will be lost. But he doesn't want London to despair or to lose a potential new Party member. Even in defeat, the men will have gained the valuable experience of working together toward a shared goal. Yeah, it doesn't seem to us that they've actually learned that lesson in Torgas Valley. But Mac clings to this idea as something that usually happens in a strike situation. And while the three bigwigs of the Valley may not suffer as much as Mac would like, it's possible that the workers are now organized enough to stick up for themselves when they move on to the next venue.

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