16 July 2006

Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle is not a book ripe with imagery. The text relies heavily on dialogue; I can't count what the characters say is imagery, since imagery is an expository device. Imagery is used to describe, to provide a picture of what is being discussed. When Steinbeck writes "Lisa looked in, with bird-like interest," he is using the image of a bird to describe the girl. We can picture quick, jerky head movement, hesitating half-steps, and a rustling flutter as she sits. This is an effective use of imagery; it reinforces our idea of Lisa as a timid, cautious girl.

The characters in this book are fruit tramps. They work in orchards; they talk about their work. Much of the novel's exposition is given to describing the settings through which they move, which necessitates detailed description of the out-of-doors. The rest simply reports what they are actually doing. A paragraph from chapter 15 will work as an example of what Steinbeck does with his exposition:

Through the trees they could see Anderson's little white house, and its picket fence, and the burning geraniums in the yard. "No one around," said Jim.

We have four adjectives in this paragraph: little, white, picket, and burning. The whole scene creates a precise image, but there is nothing I would latch onto as imagery, per se, in it except the description of the flowers as aflame.

The most effective imagery, as a rule, is drawn from characters themselves: it rises naturally from what they say, what they do, and where they are. An author who can draw on these areas to create images, to make scenes clear without resorting to set-piece description, blesses his readers. That is what Steinbeck does. He uses food to explain, or stand in place of, the attitudes of the strikers; he uses the over-flowing orchards as symbols for the crimes capitol commits unthinkingly; he lets dialogue do the dirty work of setting tone throughout the book. He writes with great economy, not wasting words on narration when they can be spoken by a character. This gives his characters more depth and believability; it gives his readers a story that moves quickly from page to page; and it makes imagery difficult to discover.

The images we do find are almost all related to the earth: to the soil, vegetation, and animals. When Mac opens Anderson's gate, for instance, the hinges "growled": real imagery, even. More often, the images come from the characters, in dialogue: London calls Mills bombs "pineapples"; Lisa and Jim talk about cats; Mac tells Jim he stands out "like a cow on a side-hill."

Steinbeck's use of imagery, then, is subtle and atypical. By allowing his characters the freedom to speak, without the imposition of a heavy-handed narrative voice, Steinbeck shows us the images they see. This not only makes the story more vivid, as imagery ought, but it also strengthens the characters and keeps the plot moving without the distraction of set-piece description.


Post a Comment

<< Home