Thingy pointed out something I haven’t really addressed in my posts about John Steinbeck: that his preponderance of flat, unlikable and (in the case of Cathy from East of Eden) downright evil  female characters may not have been simply a reflection of animosity towards women on his part, but symptomatic of the era in which he wrote.

Maybe so.  As I said in my comment on Thingy’s blog, I can think of some female characters from other periods who were better than Steinbeck’s, but still, her point is a good one: maybe that was just how things were back then,

I’m glad this came up, because I’d been planning to do a post about this article in The New Statesman by Sophia McDougall. The point of the article is basically that “Strong Female Characters” can be almost as bad as “Weak Female Characters”, in the sense that both imply a dearth of character development.  They are equally simplistic and flat as characters.

I don’t like to list “favorite” fictional characters, because you can get to comparing apples to oranges very quickly.  Nevertheless, if you forced me to choose, I would say my favorite female character in all fiction is (you guessed it) Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II.  In fact, she’s probably my favorite fictional character, regardless of genderAnd the reason is because she’s complicated.

None of Steinbeck’s female characters are that. They are all very one-dimensional.  Now, as Thingy said, some of his male characters are pretty much cut-outs as well, but I can’t think of any female of Steinbeck’s who is as interesting as Mac from In Dubious Battle.

But back to Thingy’s point: was that just Steinbeck’s attitude, or was it the spirit of the time? I think probably both, but I also think it’s significant that I couldn’t think of any ’30s-era female characters in books written by males that I’d consider good examples.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can think of some?

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).

As I mentioned here, I’ve been planning to read some John Steinbeck books.   I haven’t gotten to The Grapes of Wrath yet, but I recently read Of Mice and Men.  It’s very well-written, and effective at describing the scenes and characters. The first and last chapters especially do a good job painting an evocative scene for the reader.  The dialogue is also very good—Steinbeck captured rural, uneducated dialect convincingly while still making it flow naturally, so as to be readable.

The story itself is tragic, and indeed, I was duly depressed at the end of it.  But I couldn’t get past one thing about the tale: the vague undercurrent of misogyny. Curley’s wife—no name, just “Curley’s wife”—is treated as not really even a person.  By Steinbeck’s own admission, she is “not a person, she’s a symbol.” This dehumanization is quite evident in the book, and I found it rather disturbing.

There also is a heavy implication that her ultimate fate is her fault. I mean, who can blame her for flirting with the farm workers, considering what a jerk her husband is? And yet George, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character does blame her for it.  I can’t really decide if this is author’s perspective, or just the character’s perspective, though.

Steinbeck’s quote above notwithstanding, there is some attempt to humanize the character at the end, so it may be the point is just that the farm workers have misogynistic attitudes.  (Interestingly, I notice that the Of Mice and Men article on Wikipedia is in the category “misogyny”, even though no reason for this is given in the body of the article.)

However, it is still a very well-written and powerful  book.  I read that Steinbeck wrote it so that it could be either read as a novel or performed as a play.  That’s a very interesting idea, and I can definitely see how it could be easily adapted to the stage, although I don’t know if the quiet, melancholy nature scenes at the beginning and end could be translated to the stage effectively.