Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Power

By John Steinbeck

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"They didn't hate a boss or a butcher. They hated the whole system of bosses, but that was a different thing. It wasn't the same kind of anger. And there was something else, Mac. The hopelessness wasn't in them. They were quiet, and they were working; but in the back of every mind there was conviction that sooner or later they would win their way out of the system they hated." (20)

Jim tries to explain to Nilson what drew him to the Party in the first place. Like many conversion experiences, it happens in jail. When Jim meets Party members while serving his 30 days on a trumped-up charge, he begins to see how his hopeless and useless life could lead him to effect change—even in a small way. He figures out that his father got it all wrong—it's no use fighting the man on your own. One person doesn't have the strength to do much. Jim's newfound philosophy fits perfectly with the Party line, as Mac will soon find out.

The old man snarled, "We got no pull, that's what. You got to have pull to get an easy job. We just get rode over because we got no pull." (51-52)

Old Dan sums up the problem for the workers in three sentences. We can do it in one phrase: no power. Jim challenges Dan to think of something to do about this unequal distribution of power, but Dan tells him he's barking up the wrong tree (pun totally intended). While Dan understands the problem, he, like many workers, doesn't see the virtue in going out on a limb to fight back. There's a hopelessness about the workers, represented here in tired old Dan, that keeps them from addressing the problem and advocating for themselves.

The intruder's manner changed. "Watch your step, baby," he said. "We've got the glass on you." He moved slowly away. (73)

Mac and Jim encounter a thug sent by the Growers almost immediately after they arrive. From that moment on, Jim and Mac are marked men. This creepy warning highlights both the resources of the owners and their willingness to use violence to enforce their agenda. It also shows the vulnerability of the workers, who have very little to protect themselves, except sheer numbers.

London went on, "I like to see both sides. S'pose me an' my friends here don't take it, what then?"

"Then we kick you off this place in half an hour. Then we blacklist the whole damn bunch of you. You can't go any place; you can't get a job any place. We'll have five hundred deputy sheriffs if we need 'em. That's the other side. We'll see you can't get a job this side of hell. What's more, we'll jug your pals here, and see they get the limit." (101-102)

London's conversation with the "super" at the orchard shows not only the firepower wielded by the companies, but also the level of organization that the Growers have ready to combat discontented workers. Mac continually suggests that this as the reason why the strikers will probably lose their bid in Torgas Valley, no matter how determined they are.

"We only want to settle this thing peacefully," said Bolter. "American citizens demand order, and I assure you men we're going to have order if we have to petition the governor for troops." (194)

The president of the Growers' Association makes no bones about the Growers' position—even if he does cloak the economic agenda of the companies in the language of order and public safety. Bolter's speech here also highlights the unwillingness on the part of the Growers to acknowledge that the workers are also part of the American public. They are people with as many rights as anyone else, and yet it's clear from Bolter's response here that the Growers will use their considerable pull in the Valley to inflict as much mayhem on the workers as possible if they don't conform.

"We don't want to fight you men," he said. "We want you to come back to work. But if we do have to fight, we have weapons. The health authorities are pretty upset about this camp. And the government doesn't like uninspected meat moving in this country. The citizens are pretty tired of all this riot. And of course we may have to call troops, if we need them." (195)

As it becomes clear that Bolter will not be able to get the men back to work without a raise, he begins to get pretty ugly. The litany of things that the powerful Growers' Association can do to the workers is both impressive and frightening, involving not just run-of-the-mill violence, but also the involvement of state and federal authorities, as well as the ability to sway public opinion to their side. It's a daunting threat, but Mac and London really have no interest in hearing what Bolter has to say. Things are so bad that they really don't feel they have much to lose.

"You been talkin' big, but I know you been wettin' your pants the whole time. I admit you can do all the things you say you can, but look what happens after. Your health service burned the tents in Washington. And that was one of the reasons that Hoover lost the labor vote. You called out the guardsmen in 'Frisco, and damn near the whole city went over to the strikers. Y' had to have the cops stop food from comin' in to turn public opinion against the strike." (196)

Now it's Mac's turn to make a show of strength in front of Bolter. While it's true that the Growers' Association has the power to bring in weapons and civil authorities, Mac wants to make it clear that bringing down the big guns on the workers might not be such a clever idea. By showing Bolter that the biggest liability for the Growers might in fact be their firepower, Mac is also implying that he has no problem exploiting the atrocities of the past to win public support for the strike. In this case, Mac is actually bargaining from a position of strength, even though the workers have very little in the way of supplies and clout.

"We understand each other now. We know what to expect from you. And we know how careful you have to be when you use force. Don't forget the thousands of people that are sending us food and money. They'll do other things, if they have to. We been good, Mr. Bolter, but if you start any funny business, we'll show you a riot to remember." (197)

Mac acknowledges another useful tool in the pouch of the strikers: retributive violence. He makes sure that Bolter understands that the workers won't take being trounced lightly, and that when push comes to shove, the Growers will find that the workers are organized and willing to do just about anything to advance their cause.

Jim said softly, "I wanted you to use me. You wouldn't because you got to like me too well." He stood up and walked to a box and sat down on it. "That was wrong. Then I got hurt. And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I'm stronger than you, Mac. I'm stronger than anything in the world, because I'm going in a straight line. You and all the rest have to think of women and tobacco and liquor and keeping warm and fed." (215)

This is the part when Jim gets a little bit scary. He's taken over leadership—at least, behind closed doors—and begins to boss London and Mac around. Jim has grown restless while waiting to do his part and hoping that the workers will grow some spine and take matters into their own hands.

He's also had a kind of coming-of-age experience on this journey. When he begins it, he's kind of a mess: sleepwalking his way through life, victimized and hopeless. But now he has purpose—and he's pretty single-minded about it. It's a bit of a mystery how Jim gets to this point, or what motivates him to speak this way. Mac recognizes from this moment on that Jim has actually become something very valuable to the movement, even if it is something that he can't quite understand.

"[...] and I tell you, a mob with something it wants to do is just about as efficient as trained soldiers, but tricky. They'll knock that barricade, but then what? They'll want to do something else before they cool off." And he went on, "That's right, what you said. It is a big animal. It's different from the men in it. And it's stronger than all the men put together." (248-249)

Mac explains to Jim that mobs (or "group-men," as Doc puts it) are skittish things. While they have a power that is greater than the sum of the people in them, they are also motivated by things that can't be predicted or named. And once a mob sets into motion, it's difficult to determine when or how they'll cool off. It's a terrifying situation—and it's the flipside of organizing a group of disgruntled workers to advocate for themselves. While Mac tries to harness the energy and power that accompanies dissatisfaction, he also has to find a way to keep it directed outward, toward the "enemy."

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