Individuality and the Phalanx Theory
The phalanx theory had a primary influence on Steinbeck’s early writing. This is the idea that each person makes up a specific piece of a working unit. People are stronger together than apart, resulting in ten humans collectively being able to lift the load of twelve. During the Great Depression, this mentality gained popularity.
In Dubious Battle and Grapes of Wrath both illustrate the phalanx theory. Each novel includes characters who overcome strife through cooperation. For example, In Dubious Battle includes the story of Salinas Valley who found collective strength by going on strike. In Grapes of Wrath, the reader repeatedly witnesses the resilience of the Joad family as Ma Joad pushes to keep her family together. The family unit is one of the strongest tools for resisting the struggle of the Great Depression (Steinbeck 555).
Due to traveling and worldly experience, Steinbeck eventually altered this theory. This is evident in East of Eden. In his culminating work about the human spirit, Steinbeck writes about characters’ individual journeys rather than their collective strength (Peterson 64).
Caleb and Aron have opposing reactions to this lonesome challenge. While the reader is led to believe that Caleb is the predetermined evil character, it is he that chooses to overcome the guilt of his familial sin. Aron on the other hand, seems morally superior but is also fragile. He turns to denial, pushing away anything that he is unable to accept. He rejects his adolescent sexuality and loses himself in self-absorption, which he mistakes for lovesickness. In a shift away from phalanx theory, Steinbeck reveals that virtue, evil, and fate remain entirely dependent on the individual (Kami 219).
Kami, Yuji. “A Paradoxical World in East of Eden: The Theory of Free Will and the Heritage of Puritanism. In East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, edited by Michael J. Meyer and Henry Veggian. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013.
Peterson, Richard F. “Steinbeck’s East of Eden.” In A Study Guide to Steinbeck, Part II, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979.
Steinbeck, John. In Dubious Battle. 1937. John Steinbeck: Novels 1932-1937. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, New York, 1994. pp. 529-794.