Study Guide

In Dubious Battle Violence

By John Steinbeck

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.

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