I’m making my way through my Steinbeck’s and this year started with the read of The Winter of Our Discontent. I went into reading this book without much of an idea regarding what the book was about. I picked up this vintage like edition several years ago at a secondhand store simply because it was Steinbeck and I liked the cover.
“When a condition or a problem becomes too great, humans have the protection of not thinking about it. But it goes inward and minces up with a lot of other things already there and what comes out is discontent and uneasiness, guilt and a compulsion to get something – anything – – before it is all gone.”
The life of Ethan Hawley is routine and unexciting. After his father suffered a financial crisis, Ethan and his family have seemingly lost their “station” and prestige as a family of “old money” leaving Ethan to earn his living as a grocery store clerk. Ethan’s wife, Mary, and his kids are ashamed of Ethan’s lowly station in life. Although Mary and Ethan love each other, she can never seem to understand when her husband is being serious or if he’s joking. Mary struggles with the stigma attached to her husband’s means of making an honest living. His family and friends are discontent with his attitude and encourage him to take some risks; one way he could do that is to invest some money his wife inherited. Another, more popular way would be to take some shortcuts (bribes) and why not, everyone else seems to be doing it.
Ethan stands on principle in the early part of the book, he considers himself an honest man and tries to instill this in his own children who seem to be oblivious to why integrity and honesty are important. Well meaning friends offer unsolicited advise all the time and Ethan seems to consider this privately on his night time walks since he often can’t sleep.
“My dreams are the problems of the day stepped up to absurdity, a little like men dancing, wearing the horns and masks of animals.”
After repeated conversation from the people in Ethan’s life, you see a shift in Ethan’s attitude about how to quiet everyone down and get them off his back.
Ethan had good motives and I admired him for not being greedy by investing his wife’s inheritance. He shows a level of integrity and self control in contrast to the majority of the people in the book, all out to make money even if it might result in loss to others. As a victim (Ethan feels) to bad advice and dishonesty, Ethan resolve seems to ebb away. Ethan dealings with others becomes a chess game, like a battle wits. He sets out to show people that he will take their advice but on his own terms.
Steinbeck allows us to follow Ethan’s internal musings and struggles and as he plays the game, a series of events unfold changing the lives of many people in Ethan’s life. Ethan goes so far as to leverage his childhood friendship with Danny, the town drunk, another piece in his chess game. What happens to Danny caused me to think this was the point of no return in Ethan’s game.
Not much happens in the beginning plot wise, but this book feels more like a study in human morality. What guides a persons decisions? How long can a person listen to his conscience before he is corrupted by the attitudes and practices of those around him? Steinbeck’s familiar literary showmanship is evident. What does discontent lead a person to do? At what cost and is it worth it?