Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Themes

  • Violence

    When Bolter tries to negotiate with London, he tells the men that the Growers simply want peace in the Valley. Right, dude.

    Okay, so it's entirely possible that he means it: a violent uprising would hurt the Growers' bottom line and could also drop their street cred in the eyes of the general public.

    But Bolter is also totally being dishonest here. He knows very well that the wealthy owners have the power and the desire to put the hurt on the strikers. His main concern is to make it look like the workers deserved it, that they brought down the wrath of the order-loving Growers by acting like the disgraceful second-class citizens that they are.

    The organizers of the strike in In Dubious Battle see violence in purely practical terms. Because the workers are without money, political power, or much public support, they have to be willing to fight—and fight dirty. Mac knows that a well-timed public massacre (you know, like the death of workers at the hands of the Growers) will garner sympathy and galvanize the dispirited men.

    But such manipulation comes at a price: it deprives individuals of their humanity and identity. Both Mac and the Growers see the bodies of the workers as commodities in their war for public opinion.

    If Mac can show the world how much the workers suffer by exploiting a tragedy, he knows can keep the cause going. If the Growers can scare enough of the men away with the promise of carnage, the strike ends.

    It's a cycle that has no end.

    Questions About Violence

    1. In what ways do leaders on both sides of the strike use violence as a tool?
    2. Why does Mac say that the workers need to see blood?
    3. What does Doc mean when he tells Jim that "... the end is never very different in its nature from the means" (198-199)?
    4. Why is Mac so dismissive of the effects of violence? Think about his comments on the probability that Sam, Jim, and he will be killed in horrible ways.

    Chew on This

    Mac sees violence strictly in terms of utility.

    In this work, Steinbeck is careful not to editorialize specific acts of violence. He leaves us room to formulate moral judgments for ourselves.

  • Manipulation

    Mac's mantra in In Dubious Battle—and his best advice to Jim—is "use everything." This philosophy leads him to take outrageous risks, like pretending to know how to deliver a freakin' baby, and to use people and situations to the benefit of the cause, without regard to either common decency or common sense.

    Here's the thing: it usually works out for him. Whether it's Joy's perfectly timed death or Dick's ability to negotiate between the sheets, Mac makes no scruple about using whatever materials come his way to claim victory for the Party.

    But sometimes those commodities are human lives. Mac wants to draw out the strike as long as possible, hoping that it will turn extra violent so that the workers can own public sympathy. It seems truly brutal that Mac should hold up this philosophy against an already exploited group of people—and in the name of helping them to improve their lives, to boot.

    But Mac and Jim aren't the only ones in this game. The Growers' Association itself has no problem manipulating public opinion through corrupt means. The Growers also do everything they can to side-step the workers' rights to gather and protest, using wealth and position to bend the judiciary and law enforcement to their will.

    Maybe that's the "dubious" part of the battle: both sides are fighting for something that, in a just society, they should not be contending for.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. What means do the Growers use to sway public sympathy in their direction?
    2. How does Mac convince Dakin to support the strike? How about Anderson?
    3. Why does Mac believe that a defeat in the orchards is not such a big deal?
    4. How does Jim convince London and Mac to run with his plan to rally the men? Why do they obey his orders?

    Chew on This

    Steinbeck doesn't take sides in this work; he's willing to reveal the dirty tactics of both Growers and strikers for our scrutiny.

    There is only one thing that both the Growers and the leaders of the strike really fear: public opinion.

  • Suffering

    Pretty much everybody is miserable in In Dubious Battle. Misery hits you right away on page one, and it just keeps on building.

    This sense of despair torments not just Jim: it spreads through the camp and attacks the workers as they wait for better things to happen. It paralyzes them and makes it impossible to take efficient action against the Growers.

    The physical suffering of the workers is totally brutal, and something that Steinbeck wanted to convey to his readers. The biting hunger, the sickness that thrives in unsanitary conditions, and the violence at the hands of the Growers and their minions all highlight the injustice of a system that allows such a huge economic imbalance to exist.

    Suffering in this novel is both personal and universal. Steinbeck looks at the misery of individual characters who have a lot to lose, like Anderson and Dakin, but also at the "suffering of the millions," of workers all over the country who have to endure oppressive and exploitative employment models.

    It's on behalf of the universal that Mac and Jim soldier on, often sacrificing sympathy for others for the greater good. It's worth contemplating just how much suffering is a result, in turn, of their devotion to "the bigger picture."

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Whose suffering do we see most in this work? Where does Steinbeck's attention primarily fall when painting a picture of strike conditions?
    2. How do Mac and Jim respond to the suffering of the workers around them? In what ways are their responses similar or different?
    3. In what ways does violence act as something healing or inspirational?
    4. How do the workers process the deaths of Joy and Jim? In what ways do they behave predictably?

    Chew on This

    The suffering of women in this work is either invisible or treated as something to be mocked.

    Jim's response to suffering—his own or others'—takes away his humanity.

  • Sacrifice

    Let's be real: In Dubious Battle's Mac and Jim have a pretty messed-up take on the misery suffered by Joy, old Dan, and the Andersons: it's a shame and all, but someone has to do it. Tough, tough, Cocoa Puff.

    There's a reason for that attitude, of course: these Party men have zero left to lose in life. Jim makes no bones about the fact that he's hit rock bottom, and he doesn't flinch at the idea of dying for the cause.

    But these dudes also don't recognize that most people around them—including the poor workers in the camp—do have a whole lot to lose. Dakin is almost comfortable with his life; Anderson has his farm, his dogs, and his son; even Lisa and Joey look forward to a better future for their baby.

    Yet there is something to the idea that to make a "universal gain," the individual must sometimes sacrifice something very precious. Whether that something is a shiny new truck, a few hot meals, the hope of personal prosperity—or even a life—a true battle seems to demand a blood offering.

    Unfortunately for Jim and Mac, victory for the many sometimes even requires people to give up some basic things—like their humanity.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Why is Jim so unsympathetic to Anderson's losses?
    2. Why is Mac so unfazed by the death of his old friend, Joy?
    3. How does Mac convince the workers to strike? What makes them willing to give up their wages to try for something better?
    4. Why is Doc Burton willing to risk his medical practice and his life to help Mac and Jim?

    Chew on This

    In Mac and Jim's world, the willingness to give up something for the cause in itself means nothing. The only thing that matters is that a sacrifice can be used as propaganda for their side.

    Mac and Jim are able to think coldly about their own probable violent deaths because they know that ultimately, there's no place for them in American society as it is.

  • Injustice

    As Steinbeck sees it, everyone is motivated by self-interest, including those whose agendas seem benign and even helpful. This inherent selfishness breeds the greed and inhumanity that Steinbeck is so keen to expose in In Dubious Battle.

    And, boy, does he sock it to us. From the grinding poverty of the "fruit tramps" to the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of so few (remember the 1%?), Steinbeck portrays a brutal world of unequal distribution and deep-rooted corruption.

    This America is also a place where violence masquerades as patriotism (we're talking vigilante groups), and dissent is seen as deeply disloyal to the American dream. Mac knows firsthand how elusive that dream is for the many people on whose backs that 1% gets its wealth—and the rest of the country fills that 1%'s belly.

    But it isn't just the greed of corporations that feature in this work. Steinbeck also shows us how ideology—in this case, communism—preys on the discontent or the oppressed. We sympathize with Mac and Jim because their lives have been difficult, and because these guys seem to want to help the workers. But the hard truth is that they have no problem manipulating the workers for their own ends.

    It's an unbearable world to participate in, even for 270-ish pages. But then again, that is totally Steinbeck's point in revealing this part of American life.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. Why does Mac object to Dakin in the end? Why does he think Dakin was ultimately a bad choice to lead the men during the strike?
    2. What are some of the challenges that the workers face in their efforts to strike for better wages? What makes it difficult for them to make their struggle public and successful?
    3. What is the Growers' Association and why is it so powerful?
    4. How do the three largest landowners (Hunter, Gillray, Martin) generally keep the workers "in line"? What powers, other than vast wealth, do they have in Torgas Valley?

    Chew on This

    Mac sees societal injustice as both a positive and negative force in the workers' lives.

    Bolter genuinely believes that there are no differences between his life experiences and those of the impoverished workers.

  • Community

    If you've ever lived in an "organized" neighborhood (neighborhood association, anyone?), you know that the idea of community can be a slippery thing. On one hand, "community" can give you the warm fuzzies: you've got your herd or tribe to circle the wagons when necessary.

    On the other hand, "community" can be another name for "mob" or any other thug organization. In In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck shows us both of these aspects of community.

    While the workers try to come together in solidarity to resolve their problems, they also destroy themselves from within because they are suspicious and discouraged. The Growers are a great community… if you're into oppression and corruption. They're a small community, too, benefiting exactly three people and concentrating power into the hands of those who only have self-interest at heart.

    Doc and Mac have their theories about community. For Doc, group psychology destroys the individual and can provoke some pretty scary stuff, even if the group itself achieves its goals. But Mac believes that organized men are greater than the sum of their parts, capable of overcoming anything on the path to justice. Steinbeck doesn't go easy on us: he makes the character and arguments of both men attractive and compelling.

    Questions About Community

    1. What are the dangers of organizing the workers to strike? What are the benefits?
    2. What does Doc Burton say about the character of "group-man"?
    3. In what ways is Mac part of the group psychology that Doc Burton describes? In what ways does he stand out, if at all?
    4. How does Jim fit into the picture in this work? Is he meant to be hero-leader, standing out above the rest? Or is he meant to be something else?

    Chew on This

    The idea of community is fluid in Steinbeck's novel. Overlapping loyalties and responsibilities make it difficult for the characters to find a place to fit in.

    As Doc Burton says, mobs are actually quite reasonable, considering what they are. Steinbeck's work shows that mob psychology is both a stable and predictable thing.

  • Power

    In Dubious Battle is all about the classic power struggle between impoverished workers and well-organized, huge-bank-account-wielding business owners. It seems like a hopeless cause—the workers have very few resources, either personal or financial—and it pretty much is.

    But Mac knows that even oppressed, impoverished, and uneducated workers have a kind of power, too. If they would only come together, they could unleash a strength greater than themselves. And if they're clever (or lucky?) they can transform their disasters into victories, sort of like what happened with the Bonus Army and Bloody Thursday.

    Mac isn't naïve. He knows that all the inspirational speeches in the world can't overcome the extraordinary—and extraordinarily corrupt—resources of the Growers' Association. He knows that the men need tools to fight, so he teaches London and Jim some classic tactics: how to rile the men, how to manipulate public opinion, how to beat the tar out of the police—and how to turn devastating tragedy into a useful rallying cry.

    The individual battle may not be enough to create sustainable change, but the lessons learned in the fight are meant to follow the workers as they move on. And if the bigger lesson is learned—that group-man is stronger than the sum of its parts—then the workers might have a fighting chance.

    Questions About Power

    1. What, if any, advantages do the workers have over the Growers' Association?
    2. What tactics are employed by the Growers to end the strike? What makes it so difficult for the workers to achieve their goals?
    3. In what ways are tragedy and suffering tools in the workers' toolbox? How can they use it to achieve their goals?
    4. How does personal strength or talent figure into the workers' fight for fair treatment? Is there, in fact, any place for the individual in this battle?

    Chew on This

    Steinbeck's attempt to remain impartial on the subject of inequality and injustice in American society fails miserably in this work.

    The workers can't acquire the strength they need to overcome their adversaries without doing some serious suffering.

  • Dissatisfaction

    There's more than one group in In Dubious Battle that just can't get no satisfaction: the workers, Doc Burton, Jim, Mac, Al, Anderson—heck, pretty much everybody is pretty unhappy. While we're meant to focus on the plight of the workers living in horrendous poverty, we also get an intimate look at the frustrations of those who are trying to make that change happen.

    Mac tells Jim that although the workers have cause, they need something to motivate them to action. Dissatisfaction, it seems, can't overcome fear. And fear comes in many varieties for the workers: they're afraid that they'll lose what little they have if they strike, that they won't ever get a job again, and that they'll die in misery as a result.

    It isn't just "group man" who suffers from discontent. Doc Burton, for one, also finds himself in an awkward position. He's neither a Party man nor a blue-collar worker, and yet he implicates himself in the fates of both groups. It's a lonely place to be, and it's a hopeless cause. He knows that he's trying to put a Band-Aid on a broken arm as he tries to stem the tide of hatred that threatens to devour everyone around him.

    And Jim, who wants to take on the world barehanded, is totally thwarted in his desire to be of use. He wants to splash out and make a big statement with his life for the Party, but Mac's feelings of friendship for him prevent him from taking risks.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. What motivates Mac to participate in hopeless causes? What about Jim?
    2. Why does Doc Burton involve himself with the actions of the Communist party, even though he isn't a member?
    3. What is the most difficult part of organizing the men, in Mac's eyes? What makes it hard for the workers to decide to strike?
    4. In what way is catastrophe a good thing for "the cause"? How does tragedy help the strikers achieve their goals?

    Chew on This

    While the workers draw positive energy from each other on several occasions, it's really their discontent that makes progress possible.

    Steinbeck uses the character of Sam to highlight what becomes of human nature when exposed to constant dehumanization.

  • Defeat

    In one way, the characters in In Dubious Battle are defeated: they're soul-crushed, their desires are dashed, and they're filled with hopelessness. We see this especially in Jim's character, when he approaches Harry Nilson's office.

    But there's a happy side to defeat here: it's a place to begin, the rock bottom on which something greater can be built. Jim finds this something when he goes to jail and meets other inmates who are Party members filled with hope and purpose.

    Mac understands this and tells Jim that losing the strike isn't a bad thing: the men will have learned to organize, and the larger fight for labor rights will press on and on.

    This silver-lining mentality helps the Party boys to find power in the group against hopeless odds. They'll be licked, sure, but they won't be alone. And even if a few of them sacrifice their lives, others will be ready to take up the banner.

    But here's the chilling aspect to this tough-as-nails philosophy: the individual doesn't really count for much. The loss of personal value contributes to the dehumanization of the men who participate in the strike. And yet those who are lost become "useful" even after death, turning their personal bad luck into something noble and beautiful for the greater goal.

    Questions About Defeat

    1. Why does Mac believe that losing the strike won't really matter?
    2. Why is Joy's death seen as a good thing?
    3. Why is Jim so willing to give his life for "the cause"?
    4. Which characters wind up sacrificing something unwillingly in this work? What statement might Steinbeck be making by including such characters?

    Chew on This

    Hitting rock bottom is not necessarily a bad thing for the main characters in this work.

    Doc Burton feels utterly defeated toward the end of the work because he has no greater good to strive for, nothing greater than himself to comfort him.

  • Identity

    In In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck's all about showing us the difficulties that arise when an individual becomes part of something "larger than himself." Just take a look at what happens to Jim. He comes to Party headquarters as a shell of a person destroyed by the injustice of an impersonal and uncaring social system. And without a will to live, there's not much to define his personality. The one defining thing he has is his desire to be somebody—anybody.

    Jim finds the communal spirit of the Communist Party refreshing. Party memberships wakes him up and gives him a sense of purpose again. But in taking on the group identity, Jim has no need to rebuild his own personality after a lifetime of defeat. Instead, he becomes part of "group-man," a term that Doc uses to describe people who have given up their personal identities in the service of a larger "organism."

    Although Jim stands apart from the group because he can lead, he's still little more than fodder for the cause. He quickly surpasses Mac in his willingness to put his humanity aside when the need arises—something that totally freaks out his mentor. In the end, Jim suffers a fate symbolic of his growing dehumanization and his loss of personal identity in service to a larger goal: he becomes literally faceless.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Jim look "drunk" or "asleep" when he first meets Henry Nilson?
    2. What is Mac's philosophy about personal preferences, especially when on assignment for the Party?
    3. In what ways does Doc Burton's description of group-man match that of a mob? In what ways does it differ?
    4. Why does Mac say that he's become afraid of Jim?

    Chew on This

    Jim's destruction, though completely awful, is probably necessary because of his hideous transformation over the course of this novel.

    Mac's ability to "shape shift" when he gets involved with new people shows that he actually has a high degree of empathy with others.