Study Guide

The Winter of Our Discontent

by John Steinbeck

The Winter of Our Discontent Characters

Characters Discussed (Great Characters in Literature)

Ethan Allen Hawley

Ethan Allen Hawley, a storekeeper, the protagonist. As his name suggests, he is descended from a line of early pioneering Americans, but he has descended, too, into lower-class circumstances. The family fortune has been lost, and although he is a Harvard graduate and a veteran of World War II, he has been consigned to a clerkship in a grocery store. Like his ancestors, Ethan is an independent spirit, discontented with his lot but trying to keep a philosophical spirit about it. He resorts to delivering apostrophes—some learned, some ridiculous—to the shelves of canned goods, and he celebrates his love for his wife, Mary, by making funny faces at her or answering her in puns or circumlocutions. These verbal exercises are a way for Ethan to come to terms with his low fortunes and serve as a contradictory impulse to his real, half-buried ambition to succeed. At first, this desire takes the form of his instructing his son on the old-fashioned virtues of honesty and independence; he even turns down a bribe by a salesman. Ethan’s discontent and the pressures exerted by a materialistic society eventually lead him to corruption.

Joe Morphy

Joe Morphy, a bank clerk and friend of Ethan. A goodnatured but mediocre man, Joe suffers from a form of discontent with his job and his social life. Unmarried and with little chance of advancement, Joe has made the most of his situation. He is friendly, knows everyone in town, and is a kind of factotum, a source of information and advice on life and love. He is a catalyst in...

(The entire section is 645 words.)