The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck.
The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. Viking, 1961.
A classic which probes the values of our society.
Ethan Allan Hawley is the proud descendent of prosperous New Englanders who, in his words, combined Puritan values with those of pirates to acquire their wealth, first raiding ships in the Revolution and later as whalers. But his gentle father had let the family’s wealth drain away. When Ethan returned from World War II to the town where Hawleys had lived for generations, he quickly went bankrupt losing everything but the family home. Working as a clerk in a grocery store he had once owned, he ponders how he can get the money needed to restore himself to the status his wife and children desire.
Steinbeck uses Hawley to explore moral questions of what is legitimate in the struggle for financial success. As a veteran, Hawley had killed other men in wartime. Returning home, he questions whether or not the destruction of others is a similarly permissible in the fight to gain money. I didn’t LIKE Hawley, with his silliness and his pretensions, but he was a thinking man who was facing real moral issues rather than evading them. His dilemma is strangely relevant in today’s world in which increasingly wealth has become justified for its own sake.
Winter of Our Discontent was written in 1960 and has the feel of post-World-War-America. Growing up in that era, I appreciated its details like the scandals on TV quiz shows and the disdain of “eggheads.” At times the book had the feel of an historical novel, yet instead it is a product of the times and prophetic of the challenges which would come in the next decade. I was uncomfortable with how Hawley and Steinbeck treated women, but they both were true to how women were generally perceived in the 50s. Theirs are the attitudes toward women that I have fought for most of my life. Steinbeck just reminded me why.
What surprised me most about the book was simply how much I enjoyed it, and what a fine writer Steinbeck is. This was a classic I had never read, a book picked up casually from a local library shelf. Once I started reading, I realized, as I have before with great books, the writing was a level above so many of the contemporary books I read and even praise. The book wasn’t about a group or place or topic that I typically prefer. Yet I was moved by the descriptions of everything from the town’s springtime beauty to the moral criticism of the lives so many of us live.
I recommend it to all.