In Dubious Battle Summary
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Between the classic novels Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men, American author and Pulitzer Prize winner John Steinbeck published In Dubious Battle in 1936. The main character is an activist for an unnamed political organization, the Party, which likely represents either the American Communist Party or the Industrial Workers of the World. The activist is working to stage a large-scale strike by fruit harvesters with the hope of expanding the scope and awareness of his cause. Set in California, In Dubious Battle explores capitalist exploitation and the plight of migrant workers. In exploring these themes itis a forerunner to Steinbeck’s perhaps most famous work, 1939’s The Grapes of Wrath. In Dubious Battle, however, maintains a focus on politics, as opposed to the attention given to familial concerns in the later book.
The setting for In Dubious Battle is the fictional Torgas Valley, California. Mac McLeod is a labor organizer who, along with Jim Nolan, a young man to whom he becomes a mentor, sets out to develop a strategy for planning and implementing a labor strike against the capitalist owners of apple orchards. An actual labor uprising that took place against the owners of a peach orchard in Tulare County, California is an event that is frequently thought to have inspired Steinbeck’s novel. Steinbeck’s critics frequently accused the author of being a communist, citing not only the events that occur throughout In Dubious Battle,but also his frequent thematic reference to group behavior, social injustice,and the power of the individual to band a group together against an oppressive system.
The novel begins by focusing on a labor conflict between migrant workers who are employed as apple pickers and an association of local growers. Jim Nolan is new to the workings of these systems. His perspective matures as he becomes active in the labor movement and begins to understand the grassroots organizing it requires and the implications of workers’ actions against management. Once Jim is accepted as a member of the Party, Mac McLeod, who is a very experienced field worker, takes Jim under his wing and mentors him in the ways of the Party. A conflict over wages is going on between the owners of apple orchards in the Torgas Valley, and Mac is sent to the site. Mac takes Jim with him as a way to provide the younger man with firsthand experience in doing fieldwork. Mac explains to Jim that it is essential that they remain vigilant and use the situation as an opportunity to convince the workers to support them and their mission, and to agree to organize.
Mac has a knack for recognizing chances to prompt workers to take action and is not above manipulating situations to achieve what he is looking for. London is the leader of one of the groups of men that Mac and Jim are working with. Mac finds out that London’s daughter-in-law is soon to give birth at the makeshift camp where the pickers live. He puts the girl’s life at risk in an effort to establish a relationship with London. Once he has forged that relationship, he uses it to convince the workers on three of the sites to stages strikes against the growers. Next Mac procures private parcels of land on which the workers can set up camp. He also has a doctor, who has done work for the Party in the past, help set up and assure that conditions can be made sanitary for the workers.
Jim finds himself anxious to become involved in the strike but Mac uses him sparingly. Generally Jim’s role is to put himself among the men and get a feeling for the workers’ reactions to what is going on. Jim attends a picketing action with some workers and is wounded. At this point Mac limits Jim’s involvement even more. Jim, meanwhile, pays careful attention to how Mac works, in particular to how he is able to manipulate the men. Jim finds that his mindset, like Mac’s, has become one of centering everything around the Party and above the needs of the individuals.
The strike becomes doomed to fail when the man who let the workers set up camp on his land is the victim of a vigilante action. He ends the offer of his land as a refuge, leaving the strikers without a place to live. They are then faced with the decision of staying to fight until it is no longer possible or leaving without incident. Jim and Mac are duped into going to the orchard, where Mac realizes too late that an ambush awaits them, and Jim ends up being killed. Mac forces himself to remain stoic and brings Jim’s body back to the camp. He places it on a platform for the strikers to see and to use as an incentive to stay united.
Considered his first major work and the first of his labor trilogy, In Dubious Battle (1936) garnered John Steinbeck serious and positive critical attention and provided the reading public with a foretaste of the philosophical speculations about group behavior, social inequality, and human rights that would characterize many of his later well-known works. The novel is loosely based on historical events from peach and cotton strikes in California in 1933, especially the Pixley Cotton Strike, which took place about 50 miles north of Bakersfield, California. Like later, more famous Steinbeck novels, such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle dramatizes humanity's capacity for great moral fortitude and justice in addition to shameful and selfish greed, suspicion, and violence. The reader is left to ponder whether any just solution to labor problems actually exists.