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in dubious battle

1 October 2003

The title In Dubious Battle is from Milton's Paradise Lost; it's how Satan characterizes his rebellion against God. The word "dubious" was double-edged even for Milton. It can mean "up for grabs," which is how Satan wants us to see it, or it can mean "fishy," the interpretation preferred by God's party. Depending on how you look at the bitter, bloody strike at the center of John Steinbeck's 1936 novel, either meaning fits.

In Dubious Battle is an abstract rendering of themes that Steinbeck would personalize in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Its characters go by single names, like epic heroes or fallen archangels. Protagonists Jim and Mac are sent from the City as emissaries of the Party to the migrant workers of the fictional Torgas Valley. Their motives are indeed dubious. Mac, the veteran, wants bloodshed, headlines, celebrity, and isn't averse to helping some of the strikers to martyr themselves. Jim wants to avenge his father, a lifelong down-and-outer and, possibly, to annihilate himself.

Mac and Jim find allies among the "fruit tramps": equally mythical heroes named Dakin and London, cautious planners prone to streaks of ill-tempered violence, leaders of men who are alternately respected and envied by the rabble. As they fight the growers, scabs, vigilantes, cops, and councilmen of the Valley, Mac comes to realize that the place is "organized like Italy." Nameless forces backed by limitless resources counter every move that the strikers make. Like the hapless cafoni of Ignazio Silone's Fontamara, the strikers in Steinbeck's Torgas Valley are doomed.

In Dubious Battle isn't notable for depth of characterization. Despite its rural setting, it doesn't offer much good place-writing; the place is too generic for that. It's a novel of action, but that action is conveyed mostly through talk. Much of the novel takes place in the tents of the strikers, as their leaders discuss the day's action and plan the next day's.

The novel is at its best when strategies of social action are suddenly made flesh. When a teenage vigilante is captured by the strikers, Mac decides that the boy must be sent back as a "billboard" to warn other vigilantes. He deliberately disfigures the boy, breaking his nose, bloodying his face. Jim watches approvingly, but Mac is appalled by his own actions. In Dubious Battle may be a parable, but it doesn't forget that parables must work as stories of real people.

Steinbeck's weaknesses are on display here. The talk at times becomes redundant, even in this relatively short novel. Some characters exist solely to talk, like the jaded Doc Burton, an educated physician who helps the Party without believing its rhetoric possibly a surrogate for Steinbeck himself. And though both men and women pick apples in Torgas Valley orchards, only one female has a speaking part in the novel: a sensual, ignorant girl who has just given birth, who lies in bed as the men charge around, whose only task, near the end of the story, is to nurse an incapacitated old man – not as literally as Rose of Sharon does in The Grapes of Wrath, but in a way that points to Steinbeck's inability to see women as fully sentient creatures. Instead they're like sources of mana, continually recharging the men around them.

In Dubious Battle was not re-released in 2002 as part of Penguin's Centennial Collection of Steinbeck reprints, but is in print in a Penguin paperback edition. If you want to see in short compass what made John Steinbeck such a powerful commentator on the Great Depression, this is the best place to start.

Steinbeck, John. In Dubious Battle (1936). New York: Penguin, 1979.