The Winter of Our Discontent

by John Steinbeck

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Critical Evaluation

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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 Friday, and the first stages of his lapse into corruption as a kind of moral death occur ironically on Easter Sunday at Baker’s tea and later in Danny’s shack. Ethan’s total collapse occurs over the Fourth of July holiday, America’s birthday. The connection between the holiest of Christian holidays and the most patriotic of American holidays is clear—moral corruption is all-pervasive. The novel is thus a kind of domestic allegory. The characters, as if in a medieval play, appear in procession, approach Ethan, tell their “story” of greed or disaffection, and then recede, forcing Ethan to contemplate his role and make his next decision.

Steinbeck’s last novel is, in some ways, a disappointment. The plot involves incidents of domestic life hardly distinguishable from those portrayed on television sitcoms of the period, and the action is static, lacking the force and clarity of Steinbeck’s best work. Much of the action is stalled by Ethan’s “philosophizing” and his wry observations, and the story’s direction is further slowed by the rather awkward, if interesting, narrative structure. The first two chapters of each of the two parts use the conventional third-person narrator, but the remaining chapters in each section are told from Ethan’s first-person point of view.

Steinbeck used a similar method in earlier works. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for example, unfolds the action by a series of intercalary chapters that shift the point of view from the Joads and their personal experiences to that of the country at large. Such a technique had the effect of universalizing the Joads’ experience, as one world and one chapter commented on the other. In The Winter of Our Discontent , however,...

(This entire section contains 807 words.)

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the third-person narration neither comments on nor illuminates Ethan’s thoughts and actions.

The characters, too, lack the sense of commitment or mystical brotherhood of many of Steinbeck’s people. Ethan is vaguely reminiscent of Doc in Cannery Row (1945). Like Doc, Ethan often ponders great questions of ethics and laments the loss of honesty and courage in himself and in others. Doc’s philosophy was largely based on a kind of biological determinism, but it was infused with a deeper belief in the ultimate triumph of the group, in humankind as a force in itself. Doc had a zest for living. Ethan’s philosophy, on the other hand, is more cynical and hopeless. His near suicide at the end is testament to his personal pessimism and despair.

It is this aspect of the book, finally, that separates The Winter of Our Discontent from Steinbeck’s previous work. Though Ethan pulls back from the brink of suicide and decides to try living the honorable life, his act is almost like an afterthought. Though he may be saved from a physical death, his spiritual death has already come to pass, a death brought on by disillusionment, failure, and discontent.