Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Dissatisfaction

By John Steinbeck

Dissatisfaction

"I forgot, you never caught a freight, did you?"

Jim spread his stride in an attempt to walk on every other tie, and found he couldn't quite make it. "Seems to me I never did much of anything," he admitted. "Everything's new to me." (28)

Jim begins his journey by "waking up" from the stupor of hopelessness that defined his early life. But when he awakens, he finds that there's a lot about his life that isn't great. It's not simply the injustice that he faced back home; it's all the missed opportunities (and the lack of opportunity) in his life, and it all comes back to him as he travels to the countryside with Mac to begin his new life.

"You know when you're about to get fightin', crazy mad, you get a hot, sick, weak feelin' in your guts? Well, that's what it is. Only it ain't just in one man. It's like the whole bunch, millions and millions was one man, and he's been beat and starved, and he's getting' that sick feelin' in his guts." (53)

Old Dan has been around the fruit-pickers for a long time, and he can sense when trouble is brewing. He's really talking about the ability to pick up on the discontent and general misery of the crew, which is so strong it's almost palpable to the old-timer. And although he doesn't have the words for "mob psychology," that's pretty much what Dan is describing when he talks about the bunch becoming one in its discontent. This is a new lesson for Jim, who will have some very dicey encounters with disgruntled mobs in this book.

"I joined unions," he said. "We'd elect a president and first thing we knowed, he'd be kissing the ass of the superintendent, and then he'd sell us out. We'd pay dues and the treasurer'd run out on us. I don't know. Maybe you young squirts can figure something out." (52)

Jim tries to involve Dan in a discussion about the possibility of a strike, but Dan's experience of organized labor advocacy hasn't been so fantastic. His criticism of labor unions points up the difficulties that workers meet when they try to gain power against the incredibly organized and powerful companies. When the workers organize themselves, the same type of hierarchy and corruption takes over the show.

Dakin said, "They say we got a right to strike in this country, and then they make laws against picketin'. All it amounts to is that we got a right to quit." (64)

Dakin expresses the frustrations of the workers over conflicting federal and local laws. It means that the workers have the right to protest but not the means to do so—which leads to a totally hopeless situation. In this case, the workers really have only one option: to break the law. While Steinbeck refers to Thoreau's concept of passive resistance or civil disobedience, the strikers feel that passivity and peaceful protest aren't really options for them. They believe they have to lay it all on the line and risk the use of violence if they want to gain an advantage on the other side.

"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, whining around." (77)

Dan has had enough of Jim and his radical, whippersnapper ways. He's discontented by lots of things, including what he sees as a "handout" mentality among the workers. Dan feels that the workers should be picking themselves up by their bootstraps and working harder to improve their lives under the current conditions—not striking to gain leverage against the companies and raise their wages. But Dan doesn't see the irony of his situation. At over seventy years of age, he's still climbing into trees to stay one step ahead of total financial ruin.

On the outskirts of the mob the men began to shout, "Look at the ladder! That's what they make us work on!" The growl of the men, and the growl of their anger arose. Their eyes were fierce. In a moment their vague unrest and anger centered and focused. (78)

The workers have been bubbling with discontent all day, and Dan's accident is just the catalyst they need to send them headlong into strike mode. The broken ladder gives them perfect fodder to spell out everything that is wrong with the current employment model: the company does not care about its workers' needs or well-being.

Mac later says (more than once) that the mob needs blood to focus its anger and turn it into action. Dan's accident proves the truth of this statement: it exposes a scary level of discontent among the workers.

An apathy had fallen on the men. They sat staring in front of them. They seemed not to have the energy to talk, and among them the bedraggled, discontented women sat. They were listless and stale. They gnawed thoughtfully at their meat, and when it was finished, wiped their hands on their clothes. The air was full of their apathy, and full of their discontent. (137)

No matter what experience Mac has had with mobs of workers, he can't quite seem to figure this particular group out. They're manic in their moods, shooting into violent ecstasy at the slightest provocation and then plunging into despair at the drop of a hat. He's finding it hard to stabilize his own emotions with such a crew, especially when he honestly feels that they could be victorious if they could keep their eyes on the prize rather than focus on their own personal misery.

"I was in the army in the war. Just out of school. They'd bring in one of our men with his chest shot away, and they'd bring in a big-eyed German with his legs splintered off. I worked on 'em just as though they were wood. But sometimes, after it was all over, when I wasn't working, it made me unhappy, like this. It made me lonely." (198)

Doc is having an extra hard time coping with this particular bunch of workers. Though he claims to participate in these shindigs to observe firsthand and try to get the big picture, it also seems that he's looking at the workers to figure out where he belongs. He's not one of them, but he also seems not to belong in his own life. This leaves Doc dispirited, unable to see any purpose to the actions of the workers or to his own continued efforts to keep them together physically.

"London ain't done nothing. Just walks around lookin' big. Know what a guy told me? London's got cases an' cases of can' goods in his tent—ever'thing. Corn-beef, an' sardines, an' can' peaches. He won't eat what us poor stiffs got to eat, not him. He's too God damn good." (235)

When a worker in the camp sounds off to Jim (in the toilets, no less), he's just about ready to take the guy's head off. He knows that London is a good person, even if his leadership skills have been a little bit subdued. So while the worker has the perfect motivation to pin his unhappiness on London, it's also incredibly irritating to Jim to hear such an ignorant opinion of his friend. It's a no-win situation, dividing the camp in its loyalties. It's exactly what the Growers want—to sow discontent so that the workers unleash their angry energy on each other rather than on them.

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