Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Manipulation

By John Steinbeck

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"Now when the apples are ripe the crop tramps come in and pick them. And from there they go on over the ridge and south, and pick the cotton. If we can start the fun in the apples, maybe it will just naturally spread over into the cotton." (25)

Mac explains to Jim the goals of their agitation in the apple orchards. Mac has to remind Jim several times that "the cause" is really the thing—not the specific workers in the Torgas Valley themselves or their particular problems. The workers are really merely vehicles to spread an ideology about labor. It's for the benefit, but at this point only in theory; the benefits can't actually come until way in the future.

"Now these few guys that own most of the Torgas Valley waited before most of the crop tramps were already there. They spent most of their money getting there, of course. They always do. And then the owners announced their price cut. Suppose the tramps are mad? What can they do? They've got to work picking apples to get out even." (25-26)

Manipulation is not just a tool in the pouch of the "red" agitators. The Growers' Association knows just how to back their laborers into a corner and to make them do things they don't want to do. By making the workers desperate, the Growers know that they can get their crops picked for less. It's a "like it or leave it" mentality, one that's reinforced by poor economic conditions all over the country and a surplus of desperate workers willing to break the strike.

"We got to take the long view. A strike that's settled too quickly won't teach the men how to organize, how to work together. A tough strike is good. We want the men to find out how strong they are when they work together." (26)

In so many ways, Mac and Jim are not in this fight for the workers in Torgas Valley. Sure, they want the men to win—but not in such a way that the larger cause is compromised. They want things to go their way so that Party ideology takes hold and spreads across the country, no matter what the cost. While Mac's long-range thinking might be admirable on one level, it's pretty chilling on another.

"Jesus, man! The troops win, all right! But every time a guardsman jabs a fruit tramp with a bayonet a thousand men all over the country come on our side. Christ Almighty! If we can only get the troops called out." (26-27)

We're a little worried about Mac just here, when he's actively hoping that some of the workers will get killed or face violent skirmishes with well-armed National Guardsmen. If it seems perverse to you, you're not wrong. Mac and Jim set their sights on a larger ideal and will use any profitable means to achieve it. We don't really see this way of thinking challenged until Doc Burton comes on the scene and tells Mac that violence can only beget violence—but it doesn't make a dent in Mac's single-minded brain.

"We've got to use whatever material comes to us. That was a lucky break. We simply had to take it. 'Course it was nice to help the girl, but hell, even if it killed her—we got to use anything." (48)

Mac calls his intervention in the birth of Lisa's baby "material" that they can use to further the cause. It's not important to him whether the child (or the mother) suffers harm. In this moment, it's clear that people—not just language or goods—are the real commodity in the battle to come.

Mac said, "Well, it's happened. I kind of expected it. It doesn't take much when the guys feel this way. They'll grab on anything. The old buzzard was worth something after all."

"Worth something?" Jim asked.

"Sure. He tipped the thing off. We can use him now." (79)

Mac speaks here of old Dan's accident and his resulting broken hip. While we don't expect Mac to cry salt tears over the injuries of a stranger, it's stunning how quickly his mind finds a silver lining to a personal tragedy-in-progress (it's pretty clear that Dan won't make it). But it's even more than that: Mac is actually happy that Dan has been mortally wounded, because he needed something to motivate the men in the camp. His eagerness for the success of the cause has erased some essential bits of Mac's humanity.

"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. How long you going to last? Maybe one year; and then Torgas Finance takes your place." (89)

Mac points out to Anderson a stark reality: even if the old farmer doesn't side with the workers, the Growers are going to put him out on the street pretty soon. Mac marvels constantly at how "well-organized" the Torgas Valley powers-that-be are, with power distributed into three tight-fisted hands. But aside from this, Mac shows his skills at manipulating the public in order to get what he needs. He's not really concerned about getting justice for Anderson; he just needs a place for his men to stay.

"This here's an old one, but it works. Here's Dick got the sympathizers lined up. We got food and blankets and money comin'. Well, then this comes out. Dick goes the round. The sympathizers say, 'What the hell? The county's feeding 'em.' 'Th' hell it is,' says Dick. And the guy says, 'I seen it in the paper. It says they're sendin' food to you. What you getting' out of this.'" (150)

Mac shows his frustration at the tactics of the Growers' Association. Although he's pretty good at manipulating public opinion himself, we certainly feel the injustice of the Growers' strategy to starve out the workers while making themselves look good. It's a clever tactic, but it's pretty diabolical.

"That's the way it is. If Joy can do some work after he's dead, then he's got to do it. There's no such things as personal feelings in this crowd. Can't be. And there's no such things as good taste, don't you forget it." (160)

Doc cannot believe that Mac would use his friend Joy's dead body to sway the emotions of the men in the camp. But Mac explains that this is just the way things are. He has also told Doc that Joy would have loved being used to manipulate the emotions of the strikers and the public—it's work he believed in. While this is all very utilitarian, it's hard to escape the icky feeling that Mac's humanity tank is not quite full.

"That's what I'm here for, to lay our cards on the table. I told you I own an orchard, but don't think because of that I haven't your interests at heart. All of us know we can't make money unless the working man is happy." (192)

It's important to note that Mac and Jim are not the only characters who exploit people for their own purposes. Bolter, the new president of the Growers' Association, attempts to convince the two men that business has a heart, too. He tries to get on their good side so that he appears truly generous when he offers the workers their jobs back—without a raise. But Mac isn't playing. He has his own agenda to work.

Mac shivered. He moved his jaws to speak, and seemed to break the frozen jaws loose. His voice was high and monotonous. "This guy didn't want nothing for himself—" he began. His knuckles were white, where he grasped the rail. "Comrades! He didn't want nothing for himself—" (269)

If you weren't somewhat afraid of (or put off by) Mac's ability to "use" the people around him, you'll probably get there by the last page of the book. Despite Jim's complaint that Mac had too many friendly feelings toward him to make proper use of him, we see that Mac has only a hiccup of grief before pulling out the stock eulogy to turn the young man's death into something profitable for the cause.

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