Book Review: In Dubious Battle - John Steinbeck

I have a pretty good Steinbeck collection, but this wasn’t a book I was going to read anytime soon. But I recently came across the movie adaptation and decided that other Steinbeck titles could wait. James Franco and John Steinbeck is a very attractive combination.

First of all, this book is not about communism. The eponymous battle is not a battle of the classes. It’s more of a battle men fight with themselves. The Communist Party is just a minor device in the plot. A much bigger and apparent device is collectivism. After all, in East of Eden, Steinbeck has defended passionately the creative spirit of the individual mind, so a collectivist is perhaps the last thing he’d be.

Men hate something within themselves.

is a line that repeats a few times in the novel. Spoken first by Dr Burton (loosely based on Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s friend and companion from when he wrote The Log from the Sea of Cortez), the protagonists are reminded of it again and again as the strike they are trying to organize grows less and less hopeful, due to little more than internal strife. Mob mentality, on both sides of the picket line, is a central theme throughout the novel. The breakdown of individual morality and responsibility and the almost religious fanaticism that comes with being a part of a mob has throughout the novel been highlighted wonderfully. The character arc of Jim Nolan, the protagonist, serves as a proxy to this.

Overall, it’s very difficult to place this particular novel anywhere on Steinbeck’s ‘spectrum’. He has almost always written about men, their character and their relationships. Perhaps all he wanted to show was that neither of these make any sense in a mob.

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