Study Guide

The Winter of Our Discontent

by John Steinbeck

The Winter of Our Discontent Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ethan Allen Hawley awakens on a Good Friday morning in April, 1960, and greets his wife, Mary, in his usual manner by making funny faces at her. Mary is amused but a bit unnerved; she disapproves of his constant teasing and flippancy, especially on “serious” holidays. At breakfast she asks him if he is going to close the store early for Good Friday. Ethan works as a grocery clerk in Marullo’s store, a position he resents when he remembers that his Puritan forebears were once influential in the village. His grandfather, in fact, owned a ship, which was mysteriously burned, and his father failed in business.

On his way to work, Ethan chats with Joe Morphy, the teller at Mr. Baker’s bank. “The Morph,” as he is called, is the village “newspaper” and knows the local gossip and everyone in town. This morning, he tells Ethan, purely as small talk between friends, his “philosophy” on how to rob a bank. At the store, Ethan plunges into his daily routine, beginning with his ritual of addressing the shelves of canned goods. It is a ritual he performs half in celebration of life, half in self-deprecation, sensing how far he, a Harvard graduate and veteran of World War II, fell. As he is sweeping, Ethan is greeted by Mr. Baker, president of the bank. A leading citizen of New Baytown and respectable, moneyed, and secure, Mr. Baker reminds Ethan of the money Mary inherited and urges him to invest it wisely. He assures Ethan that in spite of the Hawleys’ setback, he wants to see Ethan and his family succeed for the sake of the Hawley “tradition.”

Later that day Margie Young-Hunt enters the store. An attractive divorcé, flirtatious and sexually predatory, she has on occasion slept with Joe and shared her evenings with other men such as Biggers, the traveling salesman. She is attracted to Ethan. On this morning, she announces to him that she is going to read her cards for Mary that night, and she predicts good fortune for Ethan.

After Margie leaves, Marullo comes in. Half bully, half father figure, Marullo offers Ethan, whom he calls Kid, advice on how to run the store better by thinking more of making money than of friends. At Marullo’s departure, Ethan is approached by an agent for a grocery distributor who offers Ethan a bribe to stock his product; Ethan refuses.

At home, Ethan learns that his children are entering the I Love America essay contest. Disappointed at his son’s attempt to find an easy way to write the essay, Ethan tells him to read the books in the attic, books of the great American orators and statesmen. That night, before going to bed, Ethan walks to his place by the water, where he meditates on the...

(The entire section is 1095 words.)