The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck - 1961
This book, as well as John Steinbeck's complete works, has been on my list of books to read for quite a while. I choose this book for our Sept/ Oct reading selection for our reading club, The Page Turners. The book was not a hit with my book club. I will go on a limb to say it is possibly because after reading East of Eden, and Grapes of Wrath, perhaps the bar is raised to high story and character-wise for some to enjoy this particular work of Steinbeck. Also perhaps this story does not compare to a lot of the more dramatic story/plot driven themes of fictional books that are out currently. So, I think this is going to be a very challenging review for me to write. I will give a little summary and let you make up your own mind.
The book is about Ethan Hawley. He comes from a family that has generations of respect and wealth. The family fortune has drizzled and been depleted by the time we get to the story, all Ethan has is the family house and a small inheritance that came to his wife from her brother. Ethan is a clerk in a store owned by Alfio Maurillo an Italian immigrant. Ethan has also survived serving in WWII so we see how that experience has affected his life and his views on morals and integrity to country, family and self.
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.
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