What is the social context of John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent?
Richard III was suggested by William Shakespeare to be frustrated with his position in life, the corrective for which involved doing something about it, even though that “something” came at the expense of his blood and his soul. In using the opening line from Shakespeare’s play, “Richard III,” John Steinbeck was presenting a story that, East Coast setting as opposed to his usual West Coast locales aside, continued his proclivity for presenting the America he knew as a morally vacuous place where perfidy could be profitable. As Steinbeck’s protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, systematically sacrifices his morality for greater opportunities in life, decisions prompted by the disapproving views of his apparent complacence as a store clerk by those around him, Ethan’s rise in society is consistently facilitated by his increasingly amoral approach to life. As Ethan reflects upon his life at one point, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” And, later, he suggests that “to be alive at all is to have scars.”
Like many great American authors from the first half of the 20th Century, Steinbeck was very much a product of his environment and his times. As Cannery Row and East of Eden reflected the social and economic disparities of the northern California coastal region around Monterey Bay, so The Winter of Our Discontent reflected the moral decay he perceived in the America to which he returned following a sabbatical in England. The Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University has noted the influence on Steinbeck of the moral decay portrayed in one of his favorite books, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and in the ongoing scandal surrounding Columbia University English professor Charles Van Doren’s public indictment for cheating on a television quiz show with the connivance of the show’s producers. Similarly, as the Center for Steinbeck Studies suggests, the use of the name “Ethan Allen” Hawley references the American political figure whose honesty was the subject of some dispute. Integrity in America, in Steinbeck’s view, was an elusive commodity. [www.as.sjsu.edu/sits/content.jsp?val=works_the-winter-of-our-discontent_home]
The Winter of Our Discontent is a novel of moral ambivalence, which Steinbeck saw as endemic in American society. The author’s cynical perceptions were perhaps best summarized in the following quote from his last novel: “Only God sees the sparrow fall, but even God doesn’t do anything about it.”