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The Winter of Our Discontent ()

Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

This book reads like a howl of pain from a man who did not like where he saw his country headed.  Sadly, no one was listening.

Ethan Allen Hawley is a Harvard educated descendent of New England shipping captains.  In years past, his family was one of the most important in town.  But now times have changed & after his father lost most of the family fortune & Ethan himself lost the family store, he is reduced to being a grocery clerk in the employ of an immigrant, Mr. Marullo.

Ethan's wife, Mary, and his two children, Ellen and Allen, push him to better the family's lot. Mary, for instance, wants him to invest the $6000 she inherited upon her brother's death.

The town vixen, Margie Young-Hunt, provides a powerful pull to kick over the traces & run a bit wild.   She sends a representative from a food wholesaler to Ethan & he is offered a kickback if he'll buy from them.

Meanwhile, Danny Taylor, his childhood friend & now the town drunk, holds a piece of property that developers are desparate to get ahold of for their planned airport.  The local banker approaches Ethan for help in getting the property away from Danny.

In short order Ethan is narcing on neighbors, betraying Danny, taking bribes & planning to rob the bank.

The ease with which the morally upright Ethan slips into a life of scheming and crime is not particularly believable.  And I'll leave it to others to question the likelihood of a college graduate turned grocery clerk (lawyer/technicians shouldn't throw stones.)

However, Steinbeck had clearly perceived the general decline in morality that was occuring and accelerating as the nation entered the 1960's.  As Ethan considers his schemes, he says, "A crime is something someone else commits".  Here's his description of the year 1960: it was "a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger.  The whole world stirred with restlessness and uneasiness as discontent moved to anger and anger tried to find outlet in action, any action so long as it is violent."

Steinbeck manages to paint an extremely bleak portrait of America & where it was headed, but it's hard to argue that he was wrong.  He offers only two rays of hope.  At one point, Ethan recalls the words of his grandfather, "Only in a single man alone--only in one man alone.  There's the only power--one man alone.  Can't depend on anything else."  This nearly biblical incantation offers the
way out of the predicament that Steinbeck has forecast.  Each man must take responsibility for his own actions.

Then when Ethan has reached the end of his rope & considers suicide, a simple action by his daughter draws him back from the edge & he determines that he must try to help her, "else another light go out."  I found this to be somewhat too little too late, especially as his daughter has already gotten up to no good.

I did find one thing remarkable about the book.  Steinbeck may well have been the last of the significant traditional novelists.  It is such a pleasure to read a straightforward story that doesn't resort to magical realism or interior monologue or other modernistic artifice.  At one point, Ethan says, "A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers.  Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure.  Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of predjudice, some paint it with their own delight.  A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it.  Only then can he accept wonders."  Compare this to The Way of All Flesh, where Samuel Butler stated that he didn't care if anyone ever read his books or to James Joyce's completely inaccessible works.

It seems to me that this novel may stand as the demarcation of the end of a moral and a stylistic era.


Grade: (B)


John Steinbeck Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Steinbeck
-ESSAY: The Cruelty of John Steinbeck: America’s literary icons produced great stories; but their real lives were also cautionary tales. (Jonathon Van Maren, March 11, 2024, European Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Adopt this book: John Steinbeck: Novels 1942–1952 (Library of America, March 2021)
    -ESSAY: Banning The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 California: The Kern County, CA Board of Supervisors got a lesson in the Streisand Effect back in 1939, when they banned The Grapes of Wrath from their libraries and schools. (Livia Gershon March 27, 2022, Jstor Daily)
    -LETTER: John Steinbeck’s lovely letter to his broken-hearted teenage son is perfect Father’s Day reading. (Jessie Gaynor, June 17, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: John Steinbeck’s Promised Land: The great novelist’s travels in Israel showed him what America had lost (SHALOM GOLDMAN, DECEMBER 19, 2023, The Tablet)
    -ESSAY: How John Steinbeck Inspired the Resistance in WWII (Adam Nettina, November 2021, HistoryNet)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Of Mice, Men, and Murdering Misfits (Dwight Longenecker, April 21st, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Decades Later, a John Steinbeck Classic is Still Inspiring Travelers (and Their Dogs): Could "Travels With Charley" inspire your next road trip? John Steinbeck ( TOBIAS CARROLL, 1/01/20, Inside Hook)
    -REVIEW: Tom Joad and the Quest for an American Eden (Mark Malvasi, December 28th, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder (Vivian Gornick, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Mad at the World (Philip Lopate, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Mad at the World (Margot Enns, University Bookman)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Nobel Laureate 1962 : John Steinbeck (Official Nobel Site)
    -ARCHIVES : "steinbeck" (NY Review of Books)
    -Center for Steinbeck Studies
    -The National Steinbeck Center
    -Literary Research Guide: John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968)
    -ESSAY : The Author, On 'Grapes Of Wrath'  (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Return to Cannery Row (Herbert Gold, NY Times Book Review)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck  (SparkNote by Ross Douthat)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Grapes of Wrath (Spark Notes)
    -REVIEW : of Grapes of Wrath (NY Times, April 16, 1939)
    -REVIEW : of The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Winter of Our Discontent (London Sunday Times)
    -REVIEW: THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT and TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (July 1961 and August 1962, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of WORKING DAYS The Journals of ''The Grapes of Wrath,''1938-1941. By John Steinbeck. Edited by Robert DeMott (William Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of JOHN STEINBECK A Biography. By Jay Parini (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF JOHN STEINBECK, WRITER. By Jackson J. Benson (Kevin Starr, NY Times Book Review)