Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Violence

By John Steinbeck

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"He always got the hell beat out of him. He used to come home all covered with blood. He'd sit beside the cook stove. We had to let him alone then. Couldn't even speak to him or he'd cry. When my mother washed him later, he'd whine like a dog." (7)

Jim tells Harry Nilson about the violent life of his father. Nilson wants to know if Jim will be as wild—or perhaps as willing to scrap—as his dad. But Jim doesn't just reveal his father's need for violent confrontation. He also shows the real toll that anger and hatred take on a person after the venting ends. Jim also points out that his dad's violent streak had no purpose or direction: it all pointed inward and destroyed him.

"They had to break his jaw with a night stick to stop him; then they threw him in the can. Well, I don't know how Joy did much talking with a busted jaw, but he must have worked on the doctor in the jail some, 'cause the doctor said he wouldn't treat a God-damn red, and Joy lay there three full days with a broken jaw. He's been screwy ever since." (18)

Mac gives Jim a quick overview of old Joy's career with the Party. Joy doesn't have talent for rhetoric or for reasoning, for that matter. Joy's main goal in life (as we see in the character Sam later in the book) is to use his fists to show the world the corruption and injustice of the socio-economic system in America. He wouldn't say it like that, of course. He'd just punch your lights out.

This passage points out another, silent type of violence: hatred for fellow men. Doctors take an oath to remember the humanity of their patients. Joy's encounter with the jail doc proves that some are willing to allow suffering in support of a political agenda.

The old man shook his head. "I hope I'm dead before it happens. They'll be bitin' out throats with their teeth. They'll kill each other off an' after they're all wore out or dead, it'll be the same thing over again. I want to die and get shut of it." (53)

Old Dan tells Jim that he wants nothing to do with agitation and striking. He knows that it brings out the worst in both sides, and he's pretty sure he's lived too long to see more of this. So far in the book, nothing like this has really happened. But Dan's own accident will prove that it doesn't take much to set discontented men on a path to destruction.

"Now I'm tellin' you this, if any of your boys touch that property or hurt Anderson, if you hurt one single fruit tree, a thousand guys'll start out an' every one of 'em 'll have a box of matches. Get it, mister? Take it as a threat if you want to, you touch Anderson's ranch and by Christ we'll burn every f***ing house and barn on every ranch in the Valley!" (103)

Pardon the language on this one (take it up with the ghost of Steinbeck), but as you can see, Mac gets pretty riled up by the visit of the "super" at the orchard. The "super" has just laid down the law with the workers: there will be trumped-up charges, biased judicial figures, hundreds of armed men, and a blacklist for the workers who persist in striking. These threats highlight the extreme imbalance of power between the workers and the owners. It's no surprise that Mac responds with an equal promise of epic destruction for the Valley—though it is chilling.

"When you cut your finger, and streptococci get in the wound, there's a swelling and a soreness. That swelling is the fight your body puts up, the pain is the battle. You can't tell which one is going to win, but the wound is the first battleground...Mac, these little strikes are like the infection. Something has got into the men; a little fever had started and the lymphatic glands are shooting in the reinforcements. I want to see, so I go to the seat of the wound." (113)

Doc Burton tells Mac that he's interested in observing "group-man" during the strikes: he wants to know how the individual person changes when he becomes part of a mob. He likens the striking workers to cells that respond to infections in the body and uses his medical know-how to understand how mob mentality takes hold and works. The problem for Doc? This journey to the "seat of wound" leads him to despair and leaves him vulnerable to the plotting of the opposing mob.

Jim looked without emotion at the ten moaning men on the ground, their faces kicked shapeless. Here a lip was torn away, exposing bloody teeth and gums; one man cried like a child because his arm was bent sharply backward, broken at the elbow. Now that the fury was past, the strikers were sick, poisoned by the flow from their own anger glands. (142)

Though the other strikers have come down from their fury and begin to comprehend the havoc they have wreaked on the faces of the "scabs," Jim stays stone cold. He doesn't seem to participate readily in the normal emotional waves of the picketing mob, which makes him both valuable to the cause and completely creepy. The gore surrounding Jim has no effect on him—it doesn't inspire him to re-consider the tactics of the group or feel concern for fellow workers on the other side of the fence.

"[...] in my little experience the end is never very different in its nature from the means. Damn it, Jim, you can only build a violent thing with violence." (198-199)

We so love that Doc Burton seems to be the forerunner of Bones in the original Star Trek series ("Damn it, Jim..."). Doc's philosophy on mob behavior differs a whole lot from Mac and Jim's. While the two comrades see violence as a necessary vehicle to achieve their goals, Doc Burton senses that it is a vicious cycle—you can only reap what you sow. Doc seems to advocate for something closer to passive resistance to effect change, something that Thoreau discusses in his famous essay "Civil Disobedience." But the boys aren't biting: they think that a mob needs blood for inspiration, and the public needs it to wake them from their ignorance.

"I want a billboard," said Mac, "Not a corpse. All right, kid. I guess you're for it." The boy tried to retreat. He bent down, trying to cower. Mac took him firmly by the shoulder. His right fist worked in quick, short hammer blows, one after another. The nose cracked flat, the other eye closed, and the dark bruises formed on the cheeks. The boy jerked about wildly to escape the short, precise strokes. Suddenly, the torture stopped." (213)

Mac and Jim have noooo problem using measured violence to benefit the cause. As Mac says, they have to use whatever materials come their way. In this case, a high-school-aged boy with a rifle comes their way, hoping to shoot some fear into the strikers. Mac wants to use the boy as an advertisement back in town so that other whippersnappers don't get it into their heads to use the camp for target practice. In the end, violence against this young boy takes the life out of Mac, but Jim is always there to justify any action that will profit their struggle. At this point, Mac and Jim have sort of traded places.

Women swam through the crowd and looked woodenly at the hanging head. A heavy, sobbing gasp went up from the mob. The eyes flared. All the shoulders were dropped, and the arms bowed dangerously. London still stood panting, but his face was perplexed. He looked down at his fist, at the split and bleeding knuckles. (247)

Not a page before this, Mac tells Jim that the dispirited men really need to see blood to rile them back up so they can fight for themselves. The opportunity arises when Burke, one of the strike leaders, appears and wrongly accuses London of accepting bribes from the Growers. London doesn't take the accusation sitting down, and he manages to break Burke's jaw in full view of the men and women in the camp. Horror at such internal violence quickly gives way to full frenzy, which London (with some help from Jim) is able to transform into something really valuable (if not bloody) for the workers.

"The clearing was full of curious men. They clustered around, until they saw the burden. And then they recoiled. Mac marched through them as though he did not see them. Across the clearing, past the stoves he marched, and the crowd followed silently behind him. He came to the platform. He deposited the figure under the hand-rail and leaped to the stand. He dragged Jim across the boards and leaned him against the corner post, and steadied him when he slipped sideways. (269)

Jim's fate in this work could not be much worse—and Mac wants to make sure that every one of the workers sees it with his or her own eyes. Mac has the ability to set his own grief aside and "use" Jim to the last to stoke the anger and violence of the crowd. While Jim might have approved (he probably would have), the quick exchange of horror for violence makes us question the motives of the strike leaders—and reminds us of Doc's prediction that violent means can only achieve violent ends.

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