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In Dubious Battle (1936)

by John Steinbeck

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,397446,427 (3.82)1 / 145
Set in the California apple country this novel portrays a strike by migrant workers that metamorphoses from principled defiance into blind fanaticism.
  1. 10
    Les "Raisins de la colere" de John Steinbeck (Foliotheque) (French Edition) by Marie-Christine Lemardeley-Cunci (Babou_wk)
    Babou_wk: L'exploitation des travailleurs agricoles aux Etats-Unis. La lutte des classes, l'organisation d'une grève. Les pratiques anti-communistes aux Etats-Unis dans la premiere moitié du XXè siècle.
  2. 00
    The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (Babou_wk)
    Babou_wk: La lutte des classes, l'organisation d'une grève. Les pratiques anti-communistes aux États-Unis dans la première moitié du XXè siècle.
  3. 00
    Germinal by Émile Zola (Babou_wk)
    Babou_wk: La lutte des classes, l'organisation d'une grève. La répression des grévistes par la troupe.

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» See also 145 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
  AnkaraLibrary | Feb 23, 2024 |
This was Steinbeck's first serious contemporary novel, published shortly after Tortilla Flat. It's the story of a strike by seasonal apple-pickers trying to reverse a pay-cut, and a painful analysis of the impossible task faced by ordinary workers taking on a well-organised (and unscrupulous) establishment, egged on by equally unscrupulous communists who know that glorious failure will have as powerful a propaganda effect as success.

It's perhaps all a bit too romantic, and there's a lot in the text, especially the dialogue, that feels unnecessarily didactic at this distance, but the storyline remains gripping, and we can't help being drawn into sympathy for all the people who get hurt in the course of the book. And any novel that draws on a Milton quotation must have something going for it... ( )
  thorold | Mar 21, 2023 |
Certainly not a book to read for entertainment, "In Dubious Battle" is a terrifyingly relevant novel about disaffection, polarized groups, manipulation, mob mentality, and the brutality that lies just under America's veneer. Brutality is the core of this novel, and Steinbeck does not hesitate to lay it bare. Again, Steinbeck's portrayal of individuals in speech and behavior is pitch-perfect, but the rub is how they work as mobs:

"It's different from the men in it. And it's stronger than all the men put together. It doesn't want the same things men want-"

While no "side" has clean hands here, and only a few more innocent characters (like the young mother, Lisa) stand apart from the conflict, the bosses and vigilantes take initiative and act while the disenfranchised and unarmed strikers react. What goes on between these groups is identical to race and ideological group behavior in the USA of 2021. And as for the vigilantes -- the empowered, armed, white, paranoid, xenophobic heavies -- well, Steinbeck calls them out by name.

“Why, they're the dirtiest guys in any town. They're the same ones that burned the houses of old German people during the war. They're the same ones that lynch Negroes. They like to be cruel. They like to hurt people, and they always give it a nice name, patriotism or protecting the constitution.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. ( )
  MLShaw | Oct 2, 2021 |
As a straightforward novel about striking apple pickers, this is a good look at the mechanics of strikes and yet another good look from Steinbeck at the psychology of people placed in nearly impossible situations. The book follows Jim, the son of a famous Communist Party fighter, and his own journey from just another unemployed worker to Party organizer himself. He joins fellow Party men Mac and London in the fictional Torgas Valley and its fight against exploitative farm owners. Steinbeck uses Jim and Doc, the doctor, as the primary mouthpieces for his trademark vernacular philosophizing - Jim slowly changes from bystander to violent vanguard, while Doc is always the cool voice of reason, theorizing on the peculiar characteristics of the mass of men the Party is trying to build out of the unorganized mob of desperate strikers.

A big theme is the way that people get used for bigger things; not only Jim and the "his name is Robert Paulson"-type scene at the end, but throughout the book there are constant discussions of how bloodshed will turn the mob into a machine, an entity that will rampage over the callous and malignant growers. Eric Hoffer must have read this book several times before writing his own The True Believer on the nature of members of mass organizations, and in In Dubious Battle I also see echoes of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in terms of how the organizers see the Communist Party as savior. What's interesting is that aside from glancing mentions of Hoover (who would have been out of office by the time book is set) there is basically no mention of the government. Steinbeck was probably trying to isolate the characters in the tiny valley setting for dramatic effect, but you could probably write an interesting paper on how the pro-labor liberalism of the New Deal with its Wagner Act helped defuse a lot of the Communist Party radicalism seen here.

I wouldn't say this book is as good as The Grapes of Wrath, its most nearly similar Steinbeck book, but I would recommend it to any fan of The Jungle. Steinbeck is incapable of writing a bad book, and while this may seem too political for fans of East of Eden, he does a great job of dramatizing the times, and the eternal conflict between individual, small, antlike people, and the large, collective, powerful anthills they can become. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
“I’ve heard he could lick five cops with his bare hands.”
Jim grinned. “I guess he could, but every time he went out he met six.”

Jim Nolan talking about his father Roy. Pretty much sums up this book - the working man being out muscled by the system. Jim joins up with the "reds" and a guy named Mac and they try to organize a group of apple pickers to strike for higher wages. The story unfolds slowly, but picks up steam at the end. And I felt anger and sorrow throughout, mostly because the plight of the working "stiff" seemed, and seems, unalterable. Even the "reds" seem to take advantage of them even as they fight for them. And the ending really ties the whole thing together - for both sides!

The book really resonates with the time, and with our time. Rich vs. poor. No one really helping the "little" guy. The cyclical sadness of poverty. Whether it be the orchard owner, the police, or Trump, the folks on the lower rung seem to be damned to that lower rung. Err....

On a softer note, it sure was cool to read this as a precursor to "Grapes of Wrath". I didn't even know that this was what it is, sort of the set up story that creates the situation that the Joads will find themselves in. I wish I had read them in order, but reading it now takes nothing away from it. Steinbeck is just that good! ( )
  Stahl-Ricco | Nov 21, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Steinbeckprimary authorall editionscalculated
French, WarrenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kossin, SanfordCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stechschulte, TomNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Velde, Frédérique van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Innumerable force of Spirits armed,

That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,

His utmost power with adverse power opposed

In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven

And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?

All is not lost--the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

First words
At last it was evening.
(page 32) 'Jim,' he said, 'you ought to take up smoking. It's a nice social habit. You'll have to talk to a lot of strangers in your time. I don't know any quicker way to soften a stranger down than to offer him a smoke, or even ask him for one. And lots of guys feel insulted if they offer you a cigarette and you don't take it. You better start.'
(page 236) A lot of guys've been believing this bosh about the noble American working man, an' the partnership of capital and labour. A lot of 'em are straight now. They know how much capital thinks of 'em, and how quick capital would poison 'em like a bunch of ants.
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Set in the California apple country this novel portrays a strike by migrant workers that metamorphoses from principled defiance into blind fanaticism.

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An exploration of the power of the mob - for good and for evil. In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up 'in dubious battle' against the landowners. The group takes on a life of its own - stronger than its individual members and more frightening. Led by the doomed Jim Nolan, the strike is founded on his tragic idealism - on the 'courage never to submit or yield.'
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