One of Steinbeck's tropes is the moral corruption in America with its overriding desire for material gain. When John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for his novel The Winter of Our Discontent, the Nobel Committee observed that he had again resumed his position as "an expounder of the truth...with an instinct for what is genuinely American."
Donning his main character with the morally ambiguous name of Ethan Allen, a Colonial patriot and hero in the Revolutionary War, who was himself embroiled in some legal disputes, Steinbeck portrays the moral ambivalence of the American who is subjected to the materialistic judgments of his culture.
A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many. It changes not only in growing light toward zenith and decline again, but in texture and mood, in tone and meaning, warped by a thousand factors of season, of heat or cold, of still or multi winds, torqued by odors, tastes, and the fabrics of ice or grass, of bud or leaf or black-drawn naked limbs. And as a day changes so do its subjects, bugs and birds, cats, dogs, butterflies and people.
Living under the shadow of his father who failed in business and his own shadow of being a mere grocery store clerk although he has graduated from Harvard, Ethan wrestles with his soul as his "winter of discontent" and the pressures placed upon him by his family name, his culture, and his associates drive him to act outside his moral conscience in order to not be perceived as a failure. Thus, Ethan’s discontent and the pressures exerted by a materialistic society eventually lead him to corruption. After his inner angst and his temptations overpower his conscience, one day, indeed, changes him when he decides to follow the immoral path to success by turning in his boss who is an illegal immigrant and by luring his boyhood friend Danny to trust him enough to bequeath his land that is coveted for a new airport to Ethan. While he does become successful, the sacrifice of his conscience and integrity becomes a greater moral burden than Ethan can finally bear as he realizes that the "world is full of dark derelicts" and he is truly one of them.