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The Winter of Our Discontent ()


Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

This book reads like a howl of pain from a man who did not like where he saw his country headed.  Sadly, no one was listening.

Ethan Allen Hawley is a Harvard educated descendent of New England shipping captains.  In years past, his family was one of the most important in town.  But now times have changed & after his father lost most of the family fortune & Ethan himself lost the family store, he is reduced to being a grocery clerk in the employ of an immigrant, Mr. Marullo.

Ethan's wife, Mary, and his two children, Ellen and Allen, push him to better the family's lot. Mary, for instance, wants him to invest the $6000 she inherited upon her brother's death.

The town vixen, Margie Young-Hunt, provides a powerful pull to kick over the traces & run a bit wild.   She sends a representative from a food wholesaler to Ethan & he is offered a kickback if he'll buy from them.

Meanwhile, Danny Taylor, his childhood friend & now the town drunk, holds a piece of property that developers are desparate to get ahold of for their planned airport.  The local banker approaches Ethan for help in getting the property away from Danny.

In short order Ethan is narcing on neighbors, betraying Danny, taking bribes & planning to rob the bank.

The ease with which the morally upright Ethan slips into a life of scheming and crime is not particularly believable.  And I'll leave it to others to question the likelihood of a college graduate turned grocery clerk (lawyer/technicians shouldn't throw stones.)

However, Steinbeck had clearly perceived the general decline in morality that was occuring and accelerating as the nation entered the 1960's.  As Ethan considers his schemes, he says, "A crime is something someone else commits".  Here's his description of the year 1960: it was "a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger.  The whole world stirred with restlessness and uneasiness as discontent moved to anger and anger tried to find outlet in action, any action so long as it is violent."

Steinbeck manages to paint an extremely bleak portrait of America & where it was headed, but it's hard to argue that he was wrong.  He offers only two rays of hope.  At one point, Ethan recalls the words of his grandfather, "Only in a single man alone--only in one man alone.  There's the only power--one man alone.  Can't depend on anything else."  This nearly biblical incantation offers the
way out of the predicament that Steinbeck has forecast.  Each man must take responsibility for his own actions.

Then when Ethan has reached the end of his rope & considers suicide, a simple action by his daughter draws him back from the edge & he determines that he must try to help her, "else another light go out."  I found this to be somewhat too little too late, especially as his daughter has already gotten up to no good.

I did find one thing remarkable about the book.  Steinbeck may well have been the last of the significant traditional novelists.  It is such a pleasure to read a straightforward story that doesn't resort to magical realism or interior monologue or other modernistic artifice.  At one point, Ethan says, "A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers.  Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure.  Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of predjudice, some paint it with their own delight.  A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it.  Only then can he accept wonders."  Compare this to The Way of All Flesh, where Samuel Butler stated that he didn't care if anyone ever read his books or to James Joyce's completely inaccessible works.

It seems to me that this novel may stand as the demarcation of the end of a moral and a stylistic era.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "john steinbeck"
    -Nobel Laureate 1962 : John Steinbeck (Official Nobel Site)
    -ARCHIVES : "steinbeck" (NY Review of Books)
    -Center for Steinbeck Studies
    -The National Steinbeck Center
    -Literary Research Guide: John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968)
    -ESSAY : The Author, On 'Grapes Of Wrath'  (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Return to Cannery Row (Herbert Gold, NY Times Book Review)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck  (SparkNote by Ross Douthat)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Grapes of Wrath (Spark Notes)
    -REVIEW : of Grapes of Wrath (NY Times, April 16, 1939)
    -REVIEW : of The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Winter of Our Discontent (London Sunday Times)
    -REVIEW: THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT and TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (July 1961 and August 1962, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of WORKING DAYS The Journals of ''The Grapes of Wrath,''1938-1941. By John Steinbeck. Edited by Robert DeMott (William Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of JOHN STEINBECK A Biography. By Jay Parini (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF JOHN STEINBECK, WRITER. By Jackson J. Benson (ANATOLE BROYARD, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF JOHN STEINBECK, WRITER. By Jackson J. Benson (Kevin Starr, NY Times Book Review)

Comments:

For Steve: Wait til you have your own kids...I found Steinbeck's comments about his children right on the money. You love them, you hate them; they fill you with pride and with loathing; you wonder where you went wrong and ask yourself how they turned out to be so strong and capable. I found the author's thoughts about his offspring right-on realistic.

- Sacha

- Nov-26-2006, 14:30

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This book was horrible. John Steinbeck demonstrated a lack of style by telling the reader what Ethan was thinking instead of allowing the story to reveal the characters' thoughts. I found that there was only about one relevant paragraph per chapter and the rest was mindless blatherings from the character about his horrible life and the random quotes from the Bible. If I am required to read a book I would prefer that it be enjoyable and have a sense of imagination. I put this book next to Charles Dickens's GREAT EXPECTATIONS on my "books to be burned" list. The Winter of Our Discontent is not fit to be read by children because it lacks style and imagination. It also is a bad example of American literature and only fit to be read by adults who have been brainwashed by the sands of time and have nothing better to do than read about a character's bad life and how he thinks about beating his children every five minutes.

- steve

- Aug-20-2006, 00:45

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omg!I love this book. i recomend it to every reader out there.

- mona

- Feb-26-2006, 03:39

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Be more responsible please in your comments regarding Joyce. You owe it to young minds.

- Rick

- Jun-26-2005, 00:09

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