Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Defeat

By John Steinbeck

Defeat

"Word came in she was dying. They let me go home with a cop. There wasn't anything the matter with her. She wouldn't talk at all. She was a Catholic, only my old man wouldn't let her go to church. He hated churches. She just stared at me. I asked her if she wanted a priest, but she didn't answer me, just stared. 'Bout four o' clock in the morning she died. Didn't seem like dying at all. [...] I guess she just didn't want to live. I guess she didn't care if she went to hell, either." (7)

Jim recalls his mother's incredibly sad death in response to Harry Nilson's questions about his family. It's a little more than the Party worker was looking for, but it does tell us a lot about Jim's home situation and the origin of his desire to have purpose in his life. Jim's mother lost her reason for living and gave in to the despair that pressed in on her from many sides. Jim will repeat the story of his mother's death several times throughout the book, citing it as the motivating factor for his work with the Party.

"You look half drunk, Jim. What's the matter with you?"

"I don't know. I feel dead. Everything in the past is gone. I checked out of my rooming house before I came here. I still had a week paid for. I don't want to go back to any of it again. I want to be finished with it." (8)

Nilson can't put his finger on what's wrong with Jim when he first meets him. That's because he knows so little of Jim's miserable backstory. At this point, Jim is so far down, he doesn't know if he can ever rally again, but it quickly becomes evident that his desire to join the Party is his very last hope for survival. His inclusion in this group gives him a purpose and the sense that his life has some value—even if its primary value lies in his willingness to give it up for the cause.

"Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work in a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you? Hell, I've got nothing to lose." (10)

Jim has just described the most common misery of the working person in a nutshell. His experience of life has taught him that he cannot win—there's no beating the system as it stands. If he has any hope of clawing his way out of his deadness, it lies in the opportunity to use his skills to change the big picture for the worker, to even out the imbalance of power.

"All the time at home we were fighting, fighting something—hunger mostly. My old man was fighting the bosses. I was fighting at school. But we always lost. And after a long time I guess it got to be part of our mind-stuff that we always would lose. My old man was fighting just like a cat in a corner with a pack of dogs around. Sooner or later a dog was sure to kill him; but he fought anyway. Can you see the hopelessness in that? I grew up in that hopelessness." (19)

Jim's life has been no picnic: there's been poverty, violence, drunkenness, depression—and the loss of his young sister. It's no wonder that he's lost his will to continue in that loop of misery. Jim can't find a way out within himself, but he does find it in the idea of community. He will later understand that defeat isn't so bad if you're not on your own. If he can share losses with his fellows, it makes it possible to hope for something better on the next go around.

Mac said, "Listen, London, even if we lose we can maybe kick up enough hell so they won't go cuttin' the cotton wages. It'll do that much good even if we lose." (65)

Mac articulates here the value of defeat: much has been learned on both sides of the table. He focuses here on what the employers in the Southern markets will learn: that they won't have such an easy time abusing the workers now that they've had the experience of organizing and striking. This show of strength trumps a local defeat any day, so Mac can feel a little satisfaction even if the strike dissolves.

"If we don't win, we got to start all over again. It's too bad. We could win so easy, if the guys would only stick together. We could just kick Billy Hell out of the owners. No guns, no money. We got to do it with our hands and our teeth." (95)

Even though Mac has said that defeat won't be so bad—since the workers at least have learned to organize—he's fond of the work he's done so far and doesn't want to give it up for lost. It's a personal feeling, something that he doesn't often allow in his line of work. It's also a feeling of frustration, since he knows how powerful the workers can be when they suck up their personal discomforts and keep the larger picture in focus. And even though they're down, Mac has a high level of optimism about what can be done if only the workers had the will to do it. Which, of course, they don't.

"... No, I don't think we have a chance to win it. This valley's organized. They'll start shooting, and they'll get away with it. We haven't a chance. I figure these guys here'll probably start deserting as soon as much trouble starts. But you don't want to worry about that, Jim. The thing will carry on and on. It'll spread, and some day—it'll work. Some day we'll win. We've got to believe that." (121)

While Mac waffles about their chances of success, he's beginning to see the reality of the situation. But he knows that both he and Jim will have to move on to another lost cause pretty soon; they can't get personally attached to a local fight like this. The most important thing is to recognize that local defeat does not mean the end of the larger movement: workers will continue to struggle all over the country, and the balance of probability dictates that something good will come out of it at some point. It's a vague hope, but it's really all they've got.

"It seems to me that mankind has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can't remember, into a future he can't foresee nor understand. And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself. How mankind hates itself." (199)

Doc philosophizes to Jim, who really doesn't have much use or patience for Doc's "high falutin'" ideas. But Doc brings up an important point, something that Mac articulates in a slightly different way throughout the work: man is his own worst enemy. He neither knows where he comes from nor what his purpose in the world might be, or even how to get along with others in society. This is the ultimate test for mankind and the biggest obstacle for workers and Growers alike: to admit that the "other" really is just one of us. And, to quote Bono, it's hugely important for us to realize that "there is no them."

"I'm scared they've got us now," Mac said. "They took the heart out of the guys before they could get going." He lay down on the mattress. "What they need is blood," he muttered. "A mob's got to kill something." (244)

Mac's chilling solution to a depressing observation tells us that the movement has hit rock bottom. If we take the body count at this point—Joy (dead); Dan, Jim, Burke, several workers, the Andersons, and possibly Doc (all injured); and some of the Growers (some killed, some injured)—a lot of blood has already been spilled, to no avail. The workers came to the fight without much fight in them, starting from a place far below their opponents. It seems that no amount of blood can rile them enough to make significant headway toward their goal.

"You think we're too important, and this little bang-up is too important. If the thing blew up right now it'd be worth it. A lot of the guys've been believing this crap about the noble American working-man, an' the partnership of capital and labor. A lot of 'em are straight now. They know how much capital thinks of 'em, and how quick capital would poison 'em like a bunch of ants. An' by Christ, we showed 'em two things—what they are and what they've got to do." (252)

Once again, Mac tries to make the best out of a really bad situation. It's clear that the strike probably won't make it another day, and Jim feels out of sorts about it. But Mac tells him that's just ego getting in the way. Sometimes defeat teaches more than victory. But we have to wonder: does Mac really believe this, based on his experiences, or is this just another of his well-rehearsed speeches meant to rouse others to get up and fight another day? We may never know.

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