In Dubious Battle
by John Steinbeck
In my experience there are two kinds of Steinbeck novels. There are the character-driven stories that are often entertaining (think Cannery Row) and there are the moral tragedies where big lessons are learned (think Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl.) This definitely falls into the latter category. Two men join a group of apple pickers in the 1930s with the goal of getting them to strike for better wages.
Mac and Jim are the men behind the cause, recruiting the local leader, London, to gain the trust of the workers. Jim is new to the world of unions, but not to injustice. He is naive at first, but grows stronger as he focuses on his purpose. The battle escalates and the belief that the men perpetuate is that the ends justifies the means, no matter who is hurt along the way. The men, who are actually fighting for the cause, are often the manipulated pawns of bigger men with bigger goals. The character of the Doctor gave some interesting perspective to the motivation behind Mac’s work.
It's good; the writing is crisp and vivid. But I feel like it's a precursor to greater work. The partnership and friendship that grows between Jim and Mac is better personified between George and Lennie in "Of Mice and Men." The strike for higher wages and the struggle for a better life for the workers are better demonstrated in "The Grapes of Wrath." In Dubious Battle is a good story and a tragic one, but it didn't dig quite as deep for me.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s not my favorite Steinbeck, but he’s written so many that I love. As with his other work this story gives a voice to an often overlooked group of people and I think it would have been particularly powerful during the time in which it was originally released.
“There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it."
“It seems to me that a man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember, into a future he can’t foresee nor understand. And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself.”