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A Few Impressions

Group as Character in Steinbeck’s 'In Dubious Battle'

As many of you know, I’ve been performing in a Broadway production of one of John Steinbeck’s best-known works, Of Mice and Men, which is why I'm writing about one of his lesser-read works, In Dubious Battle, a novel that is part of...
April 10, 2014, 8:31pm

As many of you know, I’ve been performing in a Broadway production of one of John Steinbeck’s best-known works, Of Mice and Men, which is why I'm writing about one of his lesser-read works, In Dubious Battle, a novel that is part of Steinbeck's migrant-worker trilogy set during the Great Depression. (The series consists of I_n Dubious Battle_, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath.)

I can argue that In Dubious Battle isn’t as popular because it’s majorly centered on a workers’ strike in California. The novel traces an oppressed class’s steps as it becomes a force of revolt—a revolt only relevant in a bygone era. Compared to the other novels in the trilogy, it relies more on the depiction of the strike and the social structure than on the characters or the mythological and religious underpinnings of the narrative. It reads more like documentary nonfiction than novel storytelling.

While downplaying any association with communism, Steinbeck claimed that he wrote the book to document all the incidents during the strike and to show the forces at play without judgment. Steinbeck seemed to be interested in the mob mentality and wanted to tell a story about how people on opposing sides could escalate their differences into full-out, irreconcilable conflict. This resulted in a book that is vitalized not by the subtle development of character—at least individual character—but rather the development of a group’s character.

Although an apple-picking strike in the 1930s might not seem like the most interesting subject, Steinbeck captures his subjects in a way that makes his novel symbolic of similar conflicts. Even if the surface plot is almost a century old, the book is emblematic of all such conflicts.

The story—a colorful documentation filled with descriptions of hamburgers cooking in an empty diner, or of the scrumptious ingredients that are plopped into a communal stew—starts with a single character, Jim Nolan, and gradually builds to a climactic battle. Jim is an everyman looking for purpose in life—the reader gets little of his backstory—and he is soon brought into the stream of the resistance against the growers, which is the main thrust of the novel. Steinbeck diagrams Jim’s character from a rivulet that quietly starts the story then links him to larger components of the strike. As the storm of men and events accumulates, Steinbeck is almost telling us a story of a natural disaster.

First we have the seed, Jim, who joins a communist protest group led by Mac. Jim is warned of the dangers and hardships that may come from this new association, which both serves as knowledge for the character and foreshadows the outcome of the coming conflict. At this point Mac takes over as the engine for the action, since he’s experienced in organizing strikes; Jim becomes the observer, learning from Mac’s expertise (there is a short story in Steinbeck’s_Long Valley_ called “The Raid” that prefigures this relationship). But since we have an idea of what’s to come, any additional characters or pieces of information fit in a tight puzzle. There is very little excess in this book: It has rising action, and there is hardly any divergence from it. Even a character like Gay, a punch-drunk soldier for the cause who fades from the story early on, is introduced in order to show the possible outcome of such a lifestyle, contrasting with the cool focus of Mac. Each step of the book provides a new obstacle or a turn of the screw as the momentum moves toward the inevitable conflict of the title.

The structure reminds me of a movie I did years ago called, The Great Raid, which projected its raison d'être in its name; very little happened until the end, when everything finally exploded. Before the audience reached the climax, the movie escalated through the conflicting ideologies between the two sides (the Japanese versus the Allies in World War II) and the implementation of the rescue plan. Steinbeck’s book stacks more and more players in the coming upcoming conflict, as Mac subtly corrals and organizes them while the larger situation builds in size and pitch., Thus, the development of the book is not through the characters, but the book’s pulse and movement is located in the group’s accumulation of purpose, resolve, and ultimately its clash with the opposing forces of the other group. Yes, Jim is brought into a unfamiliar world of resistance, and he does learn something new before the end, but his character doesn’t change much; he is simply exposed to methods of uprising. Yes, the other characters are similarly folded into Mac’s plans, but we don’t go inside their heads to register any change in fundamental beliefs or feelings. What is beautiful about Steinbeck’s portrait is that the two sides could represent and mimic any opposing forces anywhere over inequality—specifically economic inequality.