Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Defeat

By John Steinbeck

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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.

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