Places: In Dubious Battle

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1936

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1930’s

Places DiscussedCity

City. In Dubious BattleUnnamed California city at the start of the novel that is probably San Francisco. The signs of the economic Depression are everywhere here. Steinbeck wastes little time describing this setting, but it is in this city that Jim Nolan begins his education, by joining the Communist Party. He has been “dead” in this modern and alienating urban environment for some time, but under the tutelage of Mac, a Party organizer, he makes his commitment to the causes of social justice and begins to come alive.

Torgas Valley

Torgas Valley. Rich farmland full of apple orchards some 150 miles southeast of the city (and closely resembling California’s real Salinas Valley). Mac tells Jim that “Torgas is a little valley, and it’s mostly apple orchards. Most of it’s owned by a few men. . . . when the apples are ripe the crop tramps come in and pick them.” Later, Steinbeck describes one orchard where the pickers are working: “The orchard was alive. The branches of the trees shook under the ladders. The overripes dropped with dull plops to the ground underneath the trees. Somewhere, hidden in a tree-top, a whistling virtuoso trilled.” Figuratively, this is an evocation of the innocence of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The title of the novel is actually taken from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which describes the forces of the fallen angels in league with Satan and, in the line Steinbeck uses as his epigraph, “In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven.” The Torgas Valley is being linked with Milton’s allegory of the figures of good and evil battling in a Christian Heaven, as well as with the mythology of the Garden of Eden.

Anderson place

Anderson place. Ranch owned by the one grower in the valley sympathetic to the workers. When the strike pushes the fruit pickers off other farms, they set up their camp on land owned by Mr. Anderson for the duration of the strike, which will include pitched battles with scabs and confrontations with local vigilantes. Later, the vigilantes burn down Anderson’s barn and his crop, killing his hunting dogs in the process. In the final confrontation, Jim Nolan is shot by the vigilantes and becomes a Christ figure. On the last page of the novel, Mac is using Jim’s murder to rally the disheartened strikers: “This guy didn’t want nothing for himself.”


Torgas. Small town that is the center of life in the valley. Many of the confrontations in the novel between strikers and those leagued against them (owners, police, and scabs) occur in this town, including a funeral march for another murdered organizer, but the town is only sketchily described. The central symbolic struggle in the novel is really between those who own property and those who can only work it, a theme Steinbeck would develop on the broader canvas of The Grapes of Wrath three years later.

BibliographyBenson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Definitive biography considers In Dubious Battle in context with the author’s life and works.Benson, Jackson J., and Anne Loftis. “John Steinbeck and Farm Labor Unionization: The Background of In Dubious Battle.” American Literature 52, no. 2 (May, 1980): 194-223. Situates Steinbeck’s novel within the social conditions from which it emerged. Just as intriguing as the similarities between fact and fiction are the instances in which Steinbeck altered facts, notably his omission of women from the labor movement and Mexicans from the migrant community.French, Warren. John Steinbeck. 2d rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Illustrates Steinbeck’s use of Arthurian legend.Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Collection of essays on Steinbeck’s life and literary achievements during the late 1930’s. Several articles are pertinent to In Dubious Battle.Pressman, Richard S. “Individualists or Collectivists? Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.” Steinbeck Quarterly 25, nos. 3/4 (Summer/Fall, 1992): 119-132. Discusses Steinbeck’s representation and occasional misrepresentation of American communism.
Categories: Places