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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2018



Shattered Dreams and Disillusionment : Economic Determinism in Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men

Dr. Arun Khevariya, Formerly Teaching Excellence and Achievement Fellow (USA), KV, Mahoba Road, Chhatarpur, M.P.


Economic determinism is the result of economic mismanagement and maldistribution of economic resources. The first quarter of the 20th century America witnessed the Great Depression. The American economy of the second and third decades of this century was seriously out of balance, and workers as well as farm laborers suffered on account of the economic maladjustment.  The Great Depression was "Characterized by business bankruptsies, bank closings, factory shutdowns, farm foreclosures, low prices, hunger and huge unemployment."( Hurwitz 130).

The result of the economically disturbed state was that the rich were getting richer while the poor were moving towards the dark cave of poverty.  The attitude of business community was heartless and selfish.  The wealthy people refused to make any contribution for the betterment of the poor.  Then in the mid 1930's the dry time came.  It turned the soil into the dust and it spread across half of the eastern continent, some of it settled only when it reached the Atlantic Ocean.

These dust storms were a great threat to health and proved catastrophic for the agricultural sector.  When the topsoil lifted it destroyed millions acres of marginal land and when it fell upon the earth, it fell upon the earth, its suffocating effect played havoc with well-tended crops. These conditions were prevailing in the southern Great plain states so the adverse situation of economy of that area, forced farmers to pick up their belongings and to move for better place.  But they got no relief and their employers exploited them.

The dust bowl witnessed large migration during her economic crisis of the Depression years.  California faced economic chaos and financial ruin through the influx of thousands of new families. The migrant workers tried to survive by doing odd jobs in the fields.  They were defenceless and so vulnerable to exploitation.   Since they were unable to receive state relief for a long time, they accepted whatsoever the wage they got in the fields. California's Growers received the oversupply of laborers with great joy and they took an advantage of the situation.  It had opened, for them, the door of exploitation.  Even in 1936 the Associated farmers officially replied that they met "Okies with hatred."  (Stein 45). In that topsy-turvy condition the groups of haves and have nots emerged.  The Great Depression and the economic misadministration imbalanced the standard of American society.  The laborers, who moved with a little dream of a happy home and a piece of land were totally exploited.  Their lives were disordered and their dreams shattered.

Steinbeck was fully aware of the Californian agriculture and the problems related to the economic maladjustment. The growing misery of the oppressed workers appealed to his sensitive mind and he raised his voice against exploitation of migrants, mismanagement of growers and economic imbalances of the United States of America.  That is why his writings are filled with "indignation at injustice, with contempt for false piety, with scorn for the cunning and self - righteousness of an economic system that encourages exploitation, greed and brutality."  (Gray 09).

In Dubious Battle (1936) is the first novel of Steinbeck which is related to the economic problems of the day. It deals with the economic pressures and their ill-effects upon the workers in contemporary American life. Together with Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) which followed it, this novel indicates Steinbeck's bitter awareness of the economic "conflicts and individual tragedies and disappointments born of the turmoil and deprivation of the Depression years."  ( Perez 47). It describes the strike of nine hundred fruit pickers and its frustrating end.  It is a typical situation of the Depression years and the problem appeared in an aggravated form in California. However, In Dubious Battle "is more than a story of the conflict between a certain group of apple pickers striking for a reasonable wage and an organization of orchard owners who adamantly refuse their demands" (Perez 49). It is a brutal and forthright revelation of exploitation and injustice to the "depressed, propertyless, constantly impoverished segments of American society "  (Fontenrose 42). The exploitation and oppression of pathetic workers are clearly visible in one of the Californian strikes which took place in the same year in which In Dubious Battle was published.  Big capitalists crushed the strike by the sheer force of money during that period:

The local police were bossed by a reserve army officer imported for the job and at the height of the strike all male residents between 18 and 45 were mobilized under penalty of arrest, were deputized and armed.  Beating, tear gas attacks wholesale arrests, threats to lynch San Francisco newspapermen if they didn't leave town, and machine guns and barbed wire all figured in the month - long struggle that finally broke the strike and destroyed the union (Champney 136).

Jim Nolan is the Chief protagonist of this novel.  The main events move around him.  An unemployed and embittered young man Jim seems almost at the end of his life. He is recently released from jail and nearly cut off from his previous life.  He was put into jail because police found him attending a radical meeting, which he accidentally stumbled upon.  He becomes more bitter after his release. He is full of dislike and anger for the current economic system, which devoured his family.  This devilish system has turned his sister into a prostitute, killed his father and made the life of his mother meaningless.  That is why he wants to join a revolutionary party.  He has proper reasons for it.  When Mac asks him to give the reason to join the party, he replies:

... Well - I could give you a lot of little reasons.  Mainly, it's this: My whole family has been ruined by this system.  My old man, my father, was slugged so much in labor trouble that he went punch-drunk.  He got an idea that he'd like to dynamite a slaughterhouse where he used to work.  Well he caught a charge of buckshot in the chest from a riot gun ( In Dubious Battle 08).

Jim Nolan joins the party.  He is commissioned with Mac, an expert and hard-core agitator, to organize a strike among the migratory fruit pickers in the Torgas Valley orchards.  On the way Mac begins tutoring him for his responsibility as a party worker.  "The first nine chapters present the economic conditions, which are the solidly realized background of Jim's education."  ( Levant 78). In the Torgas Valley, their employers cruelly exploit workers.  They announce the wage cut at the last moment when the fruit pickers have finally arrived in the Valley.   Mac explains the situation thus:
They (workers) spent most of their money getting there, of course.  They always do.  And then the owners announced their price cut.  Suppose the tramps are mad?  What can they do?  They've got to work picking apples to get out even.  (In Dubious Battle 21).
The Torgas Valley Growers' Association anticipates the trouble due to the reduction in wages, so the employers are fully prepared to face any kind of reaction from the fruit pickers.  They control the administration by money power.  Mac broods over the situation:

They got this Valley organized.... It's not so hard to do when a few men control everything, land, courts, and banks. They can cut off loans, and they can railroad a man to jail, and they can always bribe plenty.  (124).

Mac is a very clever organizer and agitator.  He manages to get a camp-site for the strikers.  But he faces problems with the health authorities, so he takes Doc Burton's services for maintaining sanitation and health in the camp.  Actually the health authorities are in favor of the Growers' Association, and hence they warn the strikers to maintain proper sanitation. Reacting to this, Mac says:  "They let us live like pigs in the jungle, but just as the minute we start a strike they get awful concerned about the public health" (92). The rich growers control everything.  Even the newspapers of the Valley support the wealthy employers because they are "owned by the guys with land and money " (208). Mac states this partial attitude of newspapers to London:

Did you ever think, London.  We've got no guns.  If anything happens to us, it don't get in the newspapers.  But if anything happens to the other side, Jesus! they smear it in ink, we've got no money, and no weapons, ... (209).

The growers possess every means for coercing the workers.  They are very powerful.  They resort to violence to break the strike.  Even they "import hoodlums as paid strike-breakers and do all they can to drive the strikers from their camp by both spuriously legal and outright illegal use of violence and by using lies to turn the townspeople's sympathies against the strikers" (Lisca 123). The local administration favors the Growers' Association.  The owners have all the advantages of guns, and deputies. Officials harass the strikers. Even then the local newspapers present a distorted picture of the whole situation.  They publish maligned account of the strike.  Sam, one of the strikers, shouts to Boulter on this condition:

... And you get order by shootin' our men from windows, you yellow swine. And in 'Frisco you got order by ridin' down women. An' the newspapers says:       "This mornin' a striker was killed when he threw himself on a bayonet" threw himself!' ( In Dubious Battle 182).
The law provides strong patronage to the growers.  Vigilantes assault and kill the striking workers and the injured strikers are denied medical care by the county.  They are cut off from the help of their supporters and food supply.  London's statement, while talking to Bolter angrily, expresses the misery of the   workers :

'You want peace.  Well, what we done? Marched in two parades.  An' what you done?  Shot three of our men, burned a truck and a lunch-wagon and shut off our food supply (183).

At the end of the novel Jim Nolan is shot dead by the vigilantes. The workers lose their tempo because they are helpless before the money-power of their employers.  They become victims of the powerful farm owners and the strike fails.  Thus the migrant workers of In Dubious Battle do not succeed to get rid of the exploitation.  Heavy economic forces crush their dream and they are doomed to remain helpless before the mercenary powers. 

After showing the failure of workers' strike in In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck presents "tensions created by the capitalistic system" ( Burgum 109) and plight of migrant workers in his next novel Of Mice and Men (1937).  Shifting the scene from helpless fruit pickers to the problem associated with agricultural labor in California, Steinbeck depicts the dream of rootless men and their disillusionment.  Although Of Mice and Men chronicles a personal tragedy, yet the dreams of migratory laborers are "the dreams and pleasure of everyone in the world." (Lisca 134). Joan Steele’s comment in this respect is quite revealing :

Steinbeck chooses a title with a broad scope, one which is meant to imply the universality of the novel's message, but the action  is focussed on the microcosm of two seemingly unimportant members of contemporary society (18).

Living in the Depression world of haves and have-nots, most of the characters in Of Mice and Men are migratory ranch-hands who move in search of employment from one place to another.  These workers are "wandering men who plant crops they never see harvested and harvested where they have not seen the planting, in a soil which refuses them roots." ( Shedd 774). The ambitions of these workers are very limited.  They dream of a small house, a few pigs and chicken.  But their dreams end in failure and frustrations. George Milton and Lennie small are two such characters who share a dream of small land of their own.  They are typical itinerant laborers who represent nearly the whole class of migrant workers. Lester Jay Marks is of the view that "Steinbeck focuses, instead of on the group, on two individuals, migrant workers who might well have been among the strikers of In Dubious Battle but who are now removed from the body of the group and examined as its microcosms" (59). These workers don't get enough money to lead a dignified life.  The economic difficulty makes their problems more severe.  George who is very well aware of his and Lennie's plight, tells him:

... Guys like us, that on ranches, are loneliest guys in the world.  They got no family.  They don't belong no place.  They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're bounding' there till on some other ranch.  They ain't got nothing to look ahead to. (Of Mice and Men 17)
But George and Lennie try to get rid of their undignified position by dreaming about owning land of their own.  They share a dream of independence and talk about it nostalgically.  Lennie loves to hear George giving the details of their dream world where they might cease their wandering and live in simple, domestic peace.  Lennie is particularly fond of rabbits and George tells him:

Some day - we're gonna get the jack together and we're gonna have a little house and  a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs an' ive off the fatta the lan'.  An' have rabbits. (17)

Candy, an old ranch hand, gets attracted to Lennie-George's plan for owning their own piece of land and so George and Lennie are joined by Candy in their dream. Candy's interest is fully aroused in the plan of possessing a farm house and he thus voices his feelings before Crooks, the Negro stable hand:

Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much jus' somethin' that was his.  Some thin' he could live on and there couldn't nobody throw him off it .... I planted crops for damn near ever'body in this state, but they wasn't  my crops, ;and when I harvested 'em it wasn't none of my harvest.  But we gonna do it now, and don't you make no mistake about that. (64-65)

Candy even offers money to materialize the long desired plan, and George too becomes almost convinced of his success.  But Steinbeck seems to suggest that the dream of independence of farm workers usually remains a dream.  The Negro stable buck also knows that these people always dream of a home, but their dreams do not come true.  He knows the futility of such type of aspirations on the basis of his past experience so he remains skeptical about the success of this plan and tells Candy and Lennie:

I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches ... an' every damn one of 'em's got a little piece of land in his head.  An' never a god-damn one of 'em ever gets it.  Just like heavens.  Ever' body wants a little piece of lan' ... nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. (63)

Ultimately Crooks' opinion proves right. One day Lennie accidentally kills Curly's wife and Curly organizes a posse to search and kill Lennie.  Although Lennie is not fully responsible for the death of Curly's wife, yet there is no mercy left under the capitalistic system for miserable ranch workers like Lennie. George knows this fact very clearly.  He is very well aware that the ranch owner's son Curly would kill Lennie in the cruelest manner.  There is no way left to Lennie but to die.  Poor and helpless George cannot protect Lennie by getting killed, but he can protect him from facing the most torturous death so he himself shoots Lennie to save him from the lynching by Curly and his men.  With the death of Lennie, George's dream gets shattered.  His efforts for better prospects in life yield no result in the materialistic world.

There are several factors responsible for this tragedy.  But economic inequality arises as the major determining force in the lives of these migrant laborers.  To lead an independent life, these migrants wish only to own a piece of land of their own.  They just want to get rid of the miserable working conditions in the fields of California.  Steinbeck himself acknowledges the fact that the working condition for laborers is undignified.  He declares, "we regard this destruction of dignity, then, as one of the most regrettable results of the migrant's life"( Steinbeck 70). That is why his migrant laborers in Of Mice and Men try to rise above their station, but even then they remain helpless before the monetary powers.  They suffer silently due to the ill - economic forces.  They are too weak to protect their interest before the giant of capitalism. They cannot even oppose the atrocities inflicted upon them by the rich ranch owners.  Their destiny and lives are determined by the economic power.



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Shedd, Margaret. "Of Mice and Men", Theatre Arts Monthly, 17, 1. Oct, 1937. Print.
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Steinbeck, John.  "Their Blood Is Strong", A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath, ed. Warren French . New York: The Viking Press, 1964. Print.