In Dubious Battle
Problem vs Picaresque
John Steinbeck wrote two novels in the thirties concerning human behaviors during the depression entitled The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 and In Dubious Battle in 1936. The Grapes of Wrath is the better novel because it fulfills the requirements of being a picaresque novel while In Dubious Battle does not stand up to the characteristics of a propaganda novel. Typically, the loose characteristics of a novel are that it must be set in the realistic world with believable characters interacting with and revealed by believable actions and events in a long narrative form. Both works are accurately labeled novels, but the real question is whether or not they fit into a novel subcategory. As stated in A Handbook to Literature, Second Edition by C. Hugh Holman a picaresque novel is:A chronicle, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks… Episodic in nature, the picaresque novel is, in the usual sense of the term, structureless. The picaro, or central figure, through the nature of his various pranks and predicaments and by virtue of his associations with people of varying degree, affords the author an opportunity for satire on the social classes. …the picaresque novel nevertheless is strongly marked by realistic methods in its faithfulness to petty detail, its utter frankness of expression, and its drawing of incidents from low life (391).This definition will be the standard for measuring Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In contrast, In Dubious Battle will be measured against the standard of the propaganda novel. The definition listed was, “A novel dealing with a special social, political, economic, or moral issue or problem and strongly advocating a doctrinaire solution” (419).The Grapes of Wrath is a picaresque novel depicting Tom Joad, a former sharecropper on parole, traveling to California. Fitting the description of “a rascal of low degree,” Steinbeck first described Tom as having that “fresh out of jail” look: “The man’s clothes were new – all of them, cheap and new” (9). The clothes did not fit his body or match those of the typical hitchhiker walking alongside the road. By the end of the novel, Tom’s clothes are ragged from the hardships of the preceeding months. His hat is described periodically as being bent further and further beyond recognition. “The hat shrunk from sweat, Tom removed a scrap of newspaper lining the cuff of his hat.”Jim and Mac could also be described as rascals in In Dubious Battle. Mac asked Jim if he had blue jeans and Jim’s response was no. Mac insisted, “Well, we’ll have to go out and buy you some in a second-hand store, then” (39). However, Mac and Jim were not dressed as migrant workers because they were migrant workers, but because they wanted to look as if they were. Failing in this characteristic would not be as bad, but In Dubious Battle also fails to be episodic in nature. The events leading up to the death of Jim are not interchangeable. The novel has a set structure that needs to be followed to maintain the given plotline. A writer could not place the arrival of strikebreakers before the strike and you could not put the arrest of Dakin before the gathering of the strikers in Mr. Anderson’s field. Steinbeck designed a set development for Jim’s character that takes a certain path to accomplish. As seen in the movie The Grapes of Wrath, its sub-stories are interchangeable. The episodes still make sense for the plotline to move, add, or delete.In Dubious Battle does not meet the standards of a picaresque novel, but seems to follow the lines of a propaganda novel. The novel confronts various economic and political problems. The economic problems are seen in the payment of migrant workers and their living conditions. Mac suggested at the campfire that he would pick apples and retire on his income. A man on the opposite side replied angrily, “Know what they’re payin’, fella? Fifteen cents, fifteen lousy cents!” (57). The political problems are displayed throughout the novel as well. Mac and Jim are members of the Party. There is a constant use of the word “comrade” suggesting communists. Steinbeck presents the Party members as being controls in a strike that would have happened anyway. Mac even said after the fall of Dan, “These guys’ll go nuts if we don’t take charge” (107). Mac has hopes of how bad the strike will get before he and Jim ever leave. He tells Jim how hard and exciting Torgas Valley could be:There’s the bulk of power in the hands of a few men. That always makes ’em cocky. Now we start our strike, and Torgas County gets itself an ordinance that makes congregation unlawful. Now what happens? We congregate the men. A bunch of sheriff’s men try to push them around, and that starts a fight. There’s nothing like a fight to cement the men together. Well, then the owners start a vigilantes committee, bunch of fool shoe clerks, or my friends the American Legion boys trying to pretend they aren’t middle-aged, cinching in their belts to hide their pat-bellies- they I go again. Well, the vigilantes start shooting. If they knock over some of the tramps we have a public funeral; and after that, we get some real action. Maybe they have to call out the troops. Jesus, man! The troops win, all right! But every time a guardsman jabs a fruit tramp with a bayonet a thousand men all over the country come on our side. Christ Almighty! If we can only get the troops called out (38-9).Steinbeck illustrates the problem of strikes among the migrant workers and the landowners. He does an excellent job of bringing the problem out into the open, but does not define a clear solution. The title of the work itself suggests that the battle never should have occurred in the first place because it has an assured outcome: defeat. This flaw in the novel ends the argument of In Dubious Battle being a propaganda novel.His other novel, The Grapes of Wrath, fits the rest of Holman’s definition of the picaresque novel. Tom Joad and the rest of the family meet various degrees of people on the road to California. On page 169 the family drove through Oklahoma City and “Ruthie and Winfield saw it all, and it embarrassed them with its bigness and its strangeness, and it frightened them with the fine-clothes people they saw.” They first met the Wilson’s on page 171 and find friends in people just like them. They met their first migrant worker making the journey east on page 243. He was depressed and experienced, but the westward travelers were too optimistic to hear what he had to say. On page 274 Ma Joad met her first deputy sheriff and learned the meaning of the word Okie. The Joad family experienced their first Hooverville on page 312. Tom met his first group of vigilantes on page 359. They get respect from the government camp in Weedpatch on page 366. Tom got his first job in California and met his first landowner on page 377. On page 472 the family met its first strike and became strikebreakers without knowing it. They picked their first Californian cotton on page 524 and felt more at home than when they left Oklahoma. Finally, the Joad’s experienced their first rain in California starting on page 549. The rain turned into a flood and forced the family out of the safety of their boxcar. Most of the people and experiences the Joads came across represented something society had to offer a migrant worker in the thirties.In conclusion, The Grapes of Wrath stands up to the standards of the picaresque novel while In Dubious Battle falls short of fulfilling the characteristics of the propaganda novel. Both pieces were wonderfully written and make strong statements concerning human behaviors during the 1930’s. It is The Grapes of Wrath that is the better novel because it completes the definition of what it is. In Dubious Battle makes the stand, but without a conclusion, and only raises more questions and leaves readers lacking influence for change.Works CitedHolman, High C. A Handbook to Literature. 3rd ed. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1972.