John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle”

I just finished reading the novel In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck.  It is about a strike by fruit pickers in 1930s California. The two main characters are Communist revolutionaries who organize and lead the striking workers.

It is instructive to compare the book with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which I analyzed earlier this year. That book is socialist propaganda, cut and dried.  The perspective of In Dubious Battle is also sympathetic to the communists,  but Steinbeck is a much more nuanced writer than Sinclair, and so he is able to give more thought to the philosophical issues underlying the strike. The character of the Doctor alone is more interesting than anybody in The Jungle, and his ambivalence about the strike raises legitimate questions that Sinclair would never consider.

What I find interesting is that, even though it is a much better piece of literature than The Jungle, it’s not nearly as well-known, or as effective a tool for social change.  Perhaps good literature is bad propaganda, and vice-versa.

Like the other Steinbeck book I have written about, Of Mice and Men, there is an undercurrent of misogyny in this book.  The only major female character is sweet, but very dim.  Other female characters are mentioned only in passing as background elements.  It’s definitely a book about men and stereotypically “manly” things—Steinbeck always describes cars in loving detail, for instance.

I’m not going to give many more details because, well, basically I already have given you the plot summary—it is about a strike.  It’s more about the behavior of the participants than about any specific events in the strike.  I recommend reading it, and forming your own opinion. I will say that it explores the idea of charisma as a force for motivating groups of people, something I love to write about.

Lastly, a bit of trivia: In Dubious Battle is one of President Obama’s favorite books, according to this article (Via Wikipedia).

4 Comments

    1. Interesting point. In fact, while I was reading “In Dubious Battle”, I actually thought that it would work very well as a movie. The ending, in particular, might be more dramatic on the screen than on the page. And yet, amazingly, it seems like Hollywood has never adapted it.

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