In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck is not a “red” novel. It is not a communist propaganda that seeks to provoke people to fight for the common good. It is not written to encourage people to strike against the status quo. Steinbeck himself was not a communist. In fact, he shared he disliked the communists as people. Yet he wrote the best novel about a strike in world history, a novel that appears to be radical to the core. What could be the explanation of this?
In Dubious Battle is Steinbeck’s first novel, followed by Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, out of the trilogy which focuses on the problems of the common man during The Great Depression in the USA. The book encompasses around ten days, which follow the rise and the development of a strike of Californian apple pickers. Inspired by true events, In Dubious Battle aroused immense controversy when published in 1936. It was seen as a rebellion against the status quo, as a quest for social and economic equality. The whole strike is seen through the eyes of Jim Nolan, a disillusioned young man, who has lost his family in the current regime. Searching for self-realization, understanding, and purpose, Jim joins the Communists. Together with Mac, he becomes entangled in the strike of the migrant workers, prompting them to rebel against the low wages and seeking for supporters for the cause. However, the strike soon turns to disaster, as the workers are forced to live on a farm in unhygienic conditions, to starve, and to fight. Despair and disillusion are in the air and Mac and Jim as agitators must continuously devise ways to maintain the group’s commitment and to prevent the participants of turning against each other. Steinbeck brilliantly follows the birth of an idea, the means to its development, and its tragic but inevitable end.
The title of the novel is adapted from Milton’s Paradise Lost, where “the dubious battle” is Satan’s revolt against God and his means. The similarity between both battles is not that their outcomes are uncertain but that the confrontation is unnecessary and unjustified in the first place. Milton justifies the ways of God to man by pointing out the futility of any resistance to his power; Steinbeck, on the other hand, shows the struggle over how the profits from cultivating fruits of the earth must be shared among the participants. In that sense, Steinbeck’s novel can be read as a propaganda for social equality. However, the title itself foreshadows that the battle is purposeless. Even Mac, one of the main agitators, admits that the situation is fairly hopeless. Yet the struggle continues.
However, the novel is not merely a story about a dubious confrontation, nor it is a meditation on the differences between human beings acting as individuals or within group. It is not a summary of the pros and cons of the communist ideology. In Dubious Battle is actually a portrait of the maturing of a young person, Jim Nolan. The whole novel is centered around his character, starting from his despair and decision to join the Communists and tracking his transformation from a silent loyal follower into an inspiring leader of the masses. At the centre of every scene is Jim, what he learns, how he feels, what he suffers. The reader is taken on a journey of the development of a personal point-of-view, or so called a philosophy of life. Usually, it takes people years to build self-confidence, to find purpose, to feel passion. It takes Jim 10 days to grow from an apathetic boy into a clever quick-witted individual. As the author perceives it, the battle was not dubious because of the uncertainty of the outcome; it was dubious because it should never occurred in the first place. Jim is a capable young individual, who, however, is trapped into a hopeless confrontation. The author attempts to promote understanding, to shake people out of their complacent self-seeking by portraying its consequences, and to discuss the devastating effects of man’s inhumanity to man.
The author’s message thus should not be regarded as a slogan for a red party. It is much more universal than that. Steinbeck aimed to promote the necessity of orderly rational change and to use of the talents of the gifted in facilitating this effort so that all the “dubious” battles might end, leaving way to a more constructive effort towards change.