The Winter of Our Discontent Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

John Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, had its origins in a short story Steinbeck first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1956, entitled “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank.” More than one critic has noted the story’s clarity and narrative drive. The basic plot is meshed, though somewhat awkwardly, with the broader events surrounding Ethan Allen Hawley’s “temptation” and “fall.” The novel centers on Ethan as a basically honest man whose fall into corruption is paradigmatic of the moral disease of society as a whole. The time of the novel, 1960, was a time of public scandals in America, including a quiz show fraud and cases of payola and other forms of venality. Steinbeck obviously believed that the materialism of American society had weakened the moral fiber of even basically good men such as Ethan. During the late 1950’s, in fact, Steinbeck wrote letters to Adlai Stevenson, then a senator and presidential candidate, and United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, among others, in which he lamented America’s pursuit of “Things.” He was fearful, he wrote, that his sons would not understand the ways of virtue and courage in an age of treachery and deceit.

Such basic pessimism, first notable in Steinbeck’s work after 1945, is the formative principle of the novel. The corruption is so pervasive as even to reach Ethan’s son Allen, who seeks the easy way to success because “everybody does it.” Characters such as Mr. Baker talk of nothing but money; decent people such as Joe Morphy are discontented with their present but uncertain of their future; Margie is unable to keep a husband and is dependent on alimony to survive; Marullo is hardened by the ethos of making money and continually preaches his ethic to Ethan; Danny Taylor keeps the pressure of life at bay with alcohol.

The time of the main action corresponds with the mystery of Easter. The “passion” of Ethan begins on Good...

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