Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Suffering

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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.

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