The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1961, 281 pp
This is the last one of John Steinbeck's novels, published the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I have now read all of his novels in order of publication from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, forward. Someday I will go back and read his earlier novels but for the purposes of My Big Fat Reading Project I am done with Steinbeck.
With the exception of The Pearl, I have quite liked and sometimes loved these novels. Steinbeck, during his lifetime, was plagued by dismissive if not downright hostile reviews from the East Coast literary establishment. Yet his books sold well and often appeared on bestseller lists. This one was the #10 bestseller of 1961.
I find him unpretentious and even humorous at times. He is the Woody Guthrie of American literature, taking up for the common man and the struggles with virtue faced in lives of under privilege.
Steinbeck was largely self-educated, brought up by his father on Shakespeare. The title of The Winter of Our Discontent is a quotation from the first line of Shakespeare's Richard III. The novel's protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, is the descendant of a prosperous family whose fortunes were made in the days of seafaring and whale oil.
But the last of that fortune was squandered by Ethan's father in one ill-advised investment. All that is left is the family home where Ethan lives in genteel poverty with his beloved wife and two children. He works as a clerk in Bay Hampton's grocery store, owned by an Italian immigrant.
Though Ethan knows his wife would like a higher standard of living so she could hold her head up more proudly in the town, that his kids would like to keep up with other kids at school, he is not himself ambitious. One Good Friday morning he undergoes a sudden change of heart and determines to redirect his economic future by engaging in the dubious practices that currently pass as "getting ahead" in late 1950s American life.
He is not unintelligent nor is he a coward. By availing himself of the political and economic facts from his banker, he betrays his best friend and cooks up a foolproof scheme to restore his rightful place in Bay Hampton.
The 1950s and 1960s were littered with novels about the soul-crushing effects of working for money and status, e.g. the bestselling The Man With the Gray Flannel Suit; the literary Revolutionary Road. Steinbeck comes at the theme as only he could with his gimlet eye of truth, the sensibility of a man who truly loved his wife, the empathy earned by having himself acquired fame and fortune but not happiness.
As he said in a letter to his agent in 1957, "I think it is true that any man, novelist or not, when he comes to maturity has a very deep sense that he will not win the quest. He knows his failings, his shortcomings and particularly his memories of sins, sins of cruelty, of thoughtlessness, of disloyalty, of adultery, and these will not permit him to win..."
In this mood, he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent.
(The Winter of Our Discontent is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)