Ethan Allen Hawley, the protagonist of the novel, works as a clerk in a grocery store that his family once owned. With the decline in their status, his wife is restless, and his teenage children are hungry for the tantalizing material comforts he cannot provide. Then one day, in a moment of moral crisis, Ethan decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards.
Many readers consider The winter of our discontent a flawed or weak novel, particularly part one, seems to contribute little to the story. It is the author's provenance to express clearly in words what is difficult for others to describe. An adage remembered by many authors is that showing is better than telling. So, within the space of just under 300 pages, The winter of our discontent is a short novel, John Steinbeck shows us how a man starts doubting himself.
What are morals? Are they simply words? (p.186) Ethan Allen Hawley asks himself. Aren't people thinking anymore? Thinking about their actions, their motives, and whether what they do is moral or immoral, honourable or dishonourable. Ethan concludes that it all depends on whether they succeed or not. What a man thinks does not show in his face, and as long as they succeed, they can get away with anything. To most of the world success is never bad. (...) Strength and success—they are above morality, above criticism.(p.187).
At the beginning of the book,the Hawley family is a happy family. Chapter One starts with one of the lightest, happiest dialogues in literature. Ethan is content with his station is life. But his family members are not. Harking to a more glorious past, when Ethan's ancestors were rich, they want to improve their situation, and have a share in the riches of the world. All around Ethan, people are busying themselves making money or fame, in ways which are morally objectionable to Ethan. But as he is constantly battered by others, suggesting how to do such things and get away with it, Ethan starts contemplating and making steps to get on in life. He considers taking kick-backs, he plans and prepares to rob a bank, he betrays his boss and gets entangled into a business deal, where obstruction rather than cooperation reaps him wealth.
However, Ethan's new lifestyle shows in cracks. He is not as happy as before, and the lightness which characterized part one is gone. Doubt first arises, when his boss, Marullo, whom he has betrayed, bequeaths the grocery store to Ethan, honouring his boundless honesty, a thing Ethan would no longer believe of himself, the irony being that this all comes following his betrayal. However, what brings it all home to Ethan is his son's plagiarism in a National Essay Competition. His son receives favourable mention, and is chosen to appear on television, which is eventually cancelled as it is discovered, belatedly, that the essay is largely plagiarized.
Published in 1961, The winter of our discontent describes a process that Steinbeck saw happening in American society; a transition from the ethos of hard-working and honest citizens in the 1940s-1950s, to the greed and money-driven erosion or morals of the 1960s and subsequent era. The fact that so many readers dislike or fail to understand this book, shows how far we have drifted.
"Joey looked like a horse and he smiled like a horse, raising a long upper lip to show big square teeth. Joseph Patrick Morphy, Joey-boy--"the Morph"--a real popular guy for one only a few years at Baytown. A joker who got off his gags veily-eyed like a poker player, but he whinnied at other people's jokes, whether or not he heard them. A wise guy, the Morph, had the inside dope on everything-and everything from Mafia to Mountbatten-but he gave it out with a rising inflection, almost like a question. That took the smart-aleck tone out of it, made his listener a party to it so that he could repeat it as his own....The Morph knew everybody intimately and never used a first name."
Where the story started to fall into place for me was in the middle of chapter five. Here the annoying banter between Ethan and his wife, Mary, begins to take a back seat to the plot, and the pacing of the story starts to pick up. So, if you are one of those readers who apply the Pearl Rule, you would miss out on a good book because all of this occurs at about page 70, which is almost half way through part one. Ethan is facing a moral dilemma - he comes from a family that once had wealth and prestige in the community, but his father lost the family fortune and so Ethan finds himself working as a clerk in a grocery store instead of owning the store. His family is pressuring him to be more successful and to make more money. Ethan sees no way to honestly improve their fortunes, but he has always been an honest and upright man. He starts manipulating ideas that other people and circumstances place before him, and a plan forms in his head. All the while, Ethan ponders whether or not corruption can be placed aside when you are done with it. Can you simply be corrupt in the moment, and then return to the person you were before you gave into greed or malice?
"“The structure of my change was feeling, pressures from without, Mary’s wish, Allen’s desires, Ellen’s anger, Mr. Baker’s help. Only at the last when the move is mounted and prepared does thought place a roof on the building and bring in words to explain and to justify. Suppose my humble and interminable clerkship was not virtue at all but a moral laziness? For any success, boldness is required. Perhaps I was simply timid, fearful of consequences-in a word, lazy....Suppose for a limited time I abolished all the rules, not just some of them.Once the objective was reached, could they not be all reassumed?....Have any of the great fortunes we admire been put together without ruthlessness? I can't think of any. And if I should put the rules aside for a time, I knew I would wear scars but would they be worse than the scars of failure I was wearing? To be alive at all is to have scars. All this wondering was the weather vane on top of the building of unrest and of discontent. It could be done because it had been done. But if I opened that door, could I ever get it closed again? I did not know"
This book was the last of Steinbeck's work to be published before his death, and although, in my opinion, it does not reach the depth of his writing in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, it is well worth reading. The last few pages especially were beautifully rendered, and there were many gems along the way. I will definitely reread this one.
I didn't know what to make of the first part which served to establish Ethan's personality and position in life and the society of his ancestral hometown. Ethan seemed difficult to understand and his motives were not at all clear, probably reflecting his own state of mind. In the second part, we move into action and one event quickly succeeds another, offering plenty of surprises and drama, but never letting the reader rest from questioning the deeper implications of each event. Steinbeck may have won the Nobel Prize on the strength of this novel, which he wrote to as a commentary on the moral decline of postwar America, but it left me bemused and quite convinced that my appreciation for him as a great writer is based on other novels than this one.
Some people at the time it was published felt it was a wrong turning for Steinbeck ("The Grapes of Wrath", "Tortilla Flat") to abandon both the west coast that had made him famous and brought his considerable social conscience to the world's attention for an east coast grifter's POV. "The Winter of Our Discontent" is a story that has nothing but shades of gray. Everyone in it is shady somehow. That is, I think, what verschmeckled the reviewers and made the public angry. Up until then, there were clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys in every Steinbeck tale. Here...no, no one qualifies as all good or all bad.
The POV is of Ethan, a man who is the degenerate scion of a venerable family. He is married with teenaged kids, and he will do anything to support his family. Including, to their horror, work for an Italian grocer as his clerk. The nerve of the man, a son of the founder of his town, working for someone who *should* be his gardener, according to his friends and his kids.
Well, he thinks, how can I help it, we all gotta eat. So he hatches a plot that will restore the family "honor" by swindling a friend. He goes through with it. He gets what he wants. And, frankly, so does the "swindled" friend, an alcoholic prowling for his next few thousand drinks.
This isn't really Steinbecky stuff, it's too hard to pin down from a moral standpoint. On the other hand, it's superbly told, and it's amazingly well crafted, and it's undoubtedly the best thing Steinbeck wrote after 1950. Reviews were harsh, sales were poor, and Steinbeck lost heart for fiction after that. He published two travel books before his death in 1968, a mere 30 years after "The Grapes of Wrath" burst on the scene. Imagine the wonders he could have produced had he lived to an Updikey 80-plus.
What a wonderful read, and so overlooked...please don't overlook it any longer!
And here’s Ethan’s problem. He can see ways to reestablish his wealth and status, but it would require doing things that while not illegal per se, one could certainly argue that they are unethical if not downright immoral. The characters surrounding him are no saints either so Ethan starts “looking out for number one” as he is advised to do.
It’s no coincidence that the story starts on Good Friday. Ethan makes a choice here to crucify his moral self and, after he accomplishes his goal to get back on top, to resurrect his old moral self. The question is how far will Ethan go to regain his wealth and status in the community? Is anything or anyone off limits? What consequences will Ethan’s actions have for the people around him? Will his temporary suspension of his usual code of conduct affect his kids? How? More importantly, how will Ethan’s actions affect him? How severe will those effects be? After operating in the darkness, can Ethan come back into the light?
This offering from Steinbeck is not the most entertaining novel I have read of his so far (for that see Cannery Row or The Wayward Bus). The story is a little slow at the beginning but Steinbeck’s excellent writing keeps the reader engaged. What I liked most about this particular novel was Steinbeck’s alternate use of the third person and first person narrative. We get to see the self Ethan presents to the world and Ethan’s true inner self. We get a firsthand account of the internal struggles he goes through as he plans and plots his comeback. Because of this, we get a three-dimensional view of Ethan that makes him incredibly human and likeable despite his actions.
The Winter of Our Discontent is not a book you simply read and then place back on the bookshelf. It’s a book that makes you think .
Told partially in first person in spare but very effective prose, the road that Ethan spirals down is brilliantly portrayed, from his 'sermons' to the groceries, to his internal 'conversations' with his grandfather, to the seemingly chance happenings and conversations in his little town that spawns an idea and method for robbing the local bank, to his 'dropping a dime' on his immigrant boss, to his betrayal of his alcoholic friend Danny. Each action and decision proceeds logically from the previous one, each one more step down a path with no end, a path which Ethan continues to tell himself that he can abandon with no lingering aftereffects at any time. Each point is meticulously plotted, with all the proper items set in place before the action, and the choice of time, setting, and materials is rich in irony, a sure mark of an author fully in control of his subject.
The ending is deliberately ambiguous. By the time I reached that point I had been so drawn into Ethan's character I found that his final decision was tremendously important to me. Each reader ultimately must draw his own conclusion about what Ethan will do, but regardless of what answer the reader reaches, no reader can remain unaffected by this book, and will find his life richer for having read it.
Steinbeck was one of the great American writers. His Nobel prize was richly deserved, and this book, while not as well known as his Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, is certainly one of the reasons why, rivaling his other works in power and insightful looks at American society, just as valid today as when it was written, and peopled by a very living set of characters.
"Men don't get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared."
On the inability to know others, even those close to us:
"Does anyone ever know even the outer fringe of another? What are you like in there? Mary - do you hear? Who are you in there?"
In my opinion Ethan could be happy with this life if not for the needs and wants of his wife and children along with social pressure. He is a man with a wonderful work ethic and very high moral ground. He knows that his wife (Mary) and kids (Allen and Ellen) are wanting material things that he can not afford such as cars, TVs, and other things that he can not provide for them. Even a simple family vacation is not in their grasp. He sees signs of moral decay in his children. He sees the decline in respect for their elders and work ethic. Ethan is a man of high moral integrity and he has no desire to bend and stoop to the lowered standards of morality in which seem to surround him and yet he is tempted.
In this story we watch Ethan struggle to justify bending the rules to get ahead in life. We have an inside view to his actions and thoughts via the awesome first person narrative voice. He comes across opportunities to get ahead that very from lightly sinister to very criminal. Through Steinbeck's clever and elegant prose we get to see how these actions and behaviors are justified and played out to bring Ethan the opportunities for wealth. Some of the opportunities are whether or not he will turn in Maurillo for being an illegal immigrant? Will he go after a sexy middle aged seductress? Will he take a surcharge on supplies for the shop? Will he rob a bank?
Opinion and Thoughts
I liked the story. I have a hard time saying, "go get this book and read it, you won't regret it," because I think it could be one of those hit and miss books. It might not seem relevant, and yet it can be relevant. But it took some thinking on my part to see it as relevant. Once my mind got going with moral corruption and decay I couldn't help think in our time we are so desensitized to moral corruption because of all the high profile people in one money, sex, or corrupt scandal after another, that Ethan's actions may seem commonplace. Or maybe we can't see why he is so conflicted.
When the book opened up, it read like a 1960's movie. While reading I was thinking of what the other members were thinking of it and I didn't enjoy it as much as I enjoy it now in my memory. It was witty, sarcastic and well written.
I am a huge John Steinbeck fan and for me the book did not disappoint. I would read it and I couldn't seem to put it down. But I did not find myself rushing to pick it back up even though I knew that each time I didn't want to put it down. I read it in three to four sitting over a month. That is rather strange for me for a book that I like. The first time I stopped to keep pace with the group. Then it felt like a chore to pick it up. Perhaps I knew I knew I wouldn't get lost in a super plot driven book. And perhaps I knew I would feel Steinbeck's agitation. Yes, I think so! I could feel Steinbeck in there struggling it out with Ethan. Sometimes it was frustrating and seemed like work. Oh! The power of a good writer!
The book has lingered with me and even today in my office I sit here observing others and wonder if they are having an "Ethan Hawley" moment. For me that mean holding high moral integrity, or being able to justify the wrong action as reasonable, as an end to a means. For East of Eden fans, this will bring to mind Timshel. I believe that John Steinbeck had this always in his mind and his thoughts and in his writing. And that is why I continue to be a fan and will continue to savor his works. This was the last work published before he died. A year later he won the Nobel Prize for literature. It was a prize he didn't feel he deserved. I firmly believe as much as any one has ever deserved it, he did.
I can see though why this book might not be a favorite of some. It's difficult to watch a man sell his morals for money and struggle to come to terms with his own failure. For anyone who has ever been impoverished, or even just misanthropic at times, I'm sure they can relate to parts of this book a bit too much.
So, I suppose that the bottom line for this difficult review is this, for lovers of Steinbeck, you will continue to love, but for newcomers, wait to read this book until you have more of a feel or understanding for his work. And skip the introduction until AFTER you read it, because it gives a lot away.
"Ethan Hawley, a descendant of proud New England sea captains, works as a clerk in the grocery store owned by an Italian immigrant. His wie is restless, his teenage children are troubled and disoriented, hungry for the tantalizing material comforts he cannot provide. Then one day, in a moment of moral crisis, Ethan decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards."
I love John Steinbeck. This book is no exception. This book is a powerful indictment of middle class materialism, of the emptiness and hurt that is necessary to reach the 'top' ranks of society, and the moral depravity that is necessary to get there. Ethan starts out as a morally superior person, who is forced - through love of his family, and the wish to give them what they most desire (materially) - sells himself out for monetary gain and social position.
I also loved the writing style of this book. Ethan's narrative, while sometimes rambling, was brilliant to read, and in it, Steinbeck struck at the heart of many of America's ills. Truly brilliant book.
Ethan comes from money. The founders of New Baytown included his family. Whalers and supposed pirates, their fortunes were amassed over generations. through a series of bad decisions and bad advice, Ethan’s father loses it all. Ethan finds himself stuck working as a clerk at a local, immigrant owned grocery.
The main character, Ethan Allen Hawley, took some getting used to, but after 20 pages or so, i was very endeared to his character. He has a strange reserved quality that keeps everyone at a distance, even his family and friends. Strangely though, no one recognizes his reservations as he hides it all behind a veneer of humor and silliness. People see his shiny exterior and, blinded by the glare, do not look further in.
His story lends itself to the reader in a manner that makes him very likable. Stuck in a self perpetuating cycle of sameness, Ethan cannot be happy with the world he is in, but is far too afraid of change to do anything about it. his wife and children depend on him and taking chances could lose him all he holds dear. This all changes when Ethans wife has her fortune read by a friend, Margie Young-Hunt. This reading of the cards starts a Ethan thinking that his world is of his own making and no one can change his world except himself, the cost of this change is negotiable.
The whole story takes place between Easter and July 1960. Reading it gives a Unique insight into the era, which is only intensified by the workings of Ethan’s mind, sense of humor, and utter need for something better than what he is.
The following passage was my favorite two paragraphs from the book. It is the internal thinking of Ethan as he goes up to the attic to help his son, Allen, locate some research material.
I remember thinking how wise a man was H.C. Andersen. The king told his secrets down a well, and his secrets were safe. 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 prejudice, 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. The tale I may tell to Allen must be differently built from the same tale told to my Mary, and that in turn shaped to fit Marullo if Marullo is to join it. But perhaps the Well of Hosay Andersen is best. It only receives, and the echo it gives back is quiet and soon over.
I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were most interested in what is than why it is.So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.
Ethan runs the store and others approach him to take some cuts in the form of money. Everybody does it, bribes..
Mary his wife wants more for her and the kids. She has money from her family that she hopes he will turn into more by investing.
Others in town want him to buy some stocks and bonds, others want him to buy real estate.
He's quite happy with what he has and wants Mary to save the money for her future, if he's not around.
His boss tells him how to charge more money for food they sell by not cutting off fat or the bread edges..
Love the legend and talk of the widow's walk and the history of the whaling industry in the town.
Love the cave he found to really think about things..
His father had gambled their money away and he's very reluctant to gamble his wives money...
His children also are involved in a contest, write how you love America and they hope to win money..
He has the opportunity to change their lives...
What was also very striking from the first chapter on, is Steinbeck’s ability to read the soul. I felt he could have been writing about my life, and I was Ethan Hawley, and whatever choices he made, impacted directly on my own loss or redemption. It is a very rare specimen of writer that could accomplish such a cross-generation, cross-cultural and cross-gender shift in spiritual comprehension.
Further, even though the themes are ages old - of right and wrong, loyalty and betrayal - Steinbeck’s writing gives such ideas a fresh perspective, and greater meaning at the mundane level. I believe Steinbeck consummated his mastery of such a style with this book, the last he’d written prior to achieving the Nobel Prize.
For all its excellences, however, I do have to note that the jump between third person narration, and the first person of Ethan, and the digression from Ethan to the dangerously voluptuous Margie Young-Hunt, is a bit disjointed at times. I do not see the necessity of the switch in styles and narratives; I’m a firm believer in using and manipulating the format to further the plot, however in this case, not much furtherment (my own word) was reached as a result.
Harsh words aside, I see this book as a crowning achievement for an exceptional writer.
The story is set in an old whaling village on the tip of Long Island (think Sag Harbor), where we find Ethan Allen Hawley, descended from an illustrious local family and recently suffering from financial reverses so severe that he has taken the menial job of grocery clerk. Day after day, Hawley is bombarded by reminders of his families prosperous past and the relative poverty in which he finds himself, most annoyingly by his wife, son and daughter.
Throughout the novel, Hawley plays the naïve, unambitious simpleton, while at the same time engineering his return to prosperity and riches through a series of cold blooded, calculating and ruthless maneuvers. Relatively entertaining and worthwhile, it nevertheless fails to measure up to some of Steinbeck’s better work.