Friday, August 5, 2011

More About Characters: Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle

by Scott Rhoades

There have been several posts on this blog about characterization, and many have mentioned that your main character should have flaws.

Sometimes, it's the flaws that create the characters.

I just finished reading In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. If you don't know this book, it's the story of two "red" agitators who help a group of maltreated apple pickers organize a strike, probably based partly on a strike in Watsonville, California. Some readers criticize the book for sounding at times like a communist tract, but they are only seeing part of the picture. I'll try to write this post without giving too much away, in case you decide to read it yourself.

It's hard to tell the author's intentions. He masterfully relies on his characters to tell the story. We know from his other works that Steinbeck identifies closely with the worker and the bum, with the regular Joe who is just trying to make a decent life for himself, often against the wishes of those who hold the power. So we can assume he identifies with the poor apple pickers who live in squalid conditions and then had their pay cut.

It't not so clear how much he identifies (or, more importantly, wants the reader to identify) with Mac and Jim, the two agitators. Their portrayal begins with a sympathetic, heroic act, as they help a young woman in the picker camp deliver a baby. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that everything they do is to further the cause. They talk about the importance of helping the worker, but then use the workers mercilessly, without regard for their health or lives.

Perhaps Steinbeck's own position is illustrated best by Doc Burton, a local doctor who helps the strikers, although he does not agree with their methods or even, necessarily, their cause. He does, however, believe in respecting and helping the downtrodden pickers who are being sacrificed, supposedly for the good of pickers as a whole.

We see Mac and Jim and like them, becoming interested in their relationship and the things they learn about themselves during the ordeal. At the same time, we hate them for the way they think about the people they claim to be trying to help. After Doc, the conscience of the strikers' camp, disappears near the end of the book, Mac and Jim descend into dangers to the strikers and to themselves. At the same time, as they grow more terrible, their relationships with each other and some of the others in camp become more poignant. We care about them more than ever, but we also begin to realize that they are irredeemable.

We know the powerful ending is deserved (only a few endings affect me the way this one does), but at the same time it's crushing. We hoped they'd come to their senses.

This book is a wonderful example of how to create characters we care about out of highly unlikable people. It's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, but it seems like the people who hate it often do so because of what they bring to the book themselves, which keeps them from seeing the real picture Steinbeck is painting. That the main characters are communists does not make this a communist tract. It's clear that the author does not want us to see the world the way Mac and Jim do, but he also wants us to see that they are very human men, with inhumane attitudes.

Since I finished the book last night (for the second time--I read it once before, probably close to twenty years ago), it has weighed heavily on my mind. I can't stop thinking about it, mostly because of Steinbeck's characters and they way he made them likable men whose actions are despicable.

I'd love to write something that leaves that kind of impression on readers. Wouldn't you?


Susan Lang said...

To me, characterization is something at which Steinbeck particularly excels. His tales are gripping because of his very carefully crafted prose, but also because it is his characters that tell the story rather than he himself. Excellent post, Scott.

Mick Hiatt said...

I don't think I ever read this. But Doc sounds like the character in Cannery Row (and Sweet Thursday), a humanist of the first order. It also sounds like Steinbeck took on the forces in The Grapes of Wrath but made it more nuanced: the union guys are using the workers as much as the farm owners.

I need to read this before going on.
thanks for this.

Julie Daines said...

Sounds good. I haven't read that book and I'll have to check it out.

Paul West said...

I read that book about two years ago. I hated the message the two agitators were giving. I agree with Scott that wile likable, they were irredeemable communists. I felt Jim was being used by Mac and he was the real agitator until Jim caught the message. Then, I started hating him too.

Steinbeck is truly one of my favorite writers. I love the way he characterizes his characters. They are unforgetable. I truly loved Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row. Great characterizations in both.