Ethan Allen Hawley has lost the acquisitive spirit of his wealthy and enterprising forebears, a long line of proud New England sea captains and Pilgrims. Scarred by failure, Ethan works as a grocery clerk in a store his family once owned. But his wife is restless and his teenage children troubled and hungry for the material comforts he cannot provide. Then a series of unusual events reignites Ethan's ambition, and he is pitched on to a bold course, where all scruples are put aside. Steinbeck's searing examination of the ...
Ethan Allen Hawley has lost the acquisitive spirit of his wealthy and enterprising forebears, a long line of proud New England sea captains and Pilgrims. Scarred by failure, Ethan works as a grocery clerk in a store his family once owned. But his wife is restless and his teenage children troubled and hungry for the material comforts he cannot provide. Then a series of unusual events reignites Ethan's ambition, and he is pitched on to a bold course, where all scruples are put aside. Steinbeck's searing examination of the evil influences of money, immorality, greed and ambition on America drew acclaim from the Nobel Committee who hailed him as an 'independent expounder of the truth'. 'Returns to the high standards of The Grapes of Wrath and to the social themes that made his early work ...so powerful' Saul Bellow, author of Herzog
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"The Winter of our Discontent" was published in 1961, just before Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story is set in the late 1950s in New Baytown, a small (fictitious) New York -New England town which, Steinbeck tells us, had flourished during the whaling days of the mid-19th century. The main protagonist of the book is Ethan Allen Hawley. Ethan ("eth" to his friends is descended from early pirates and whaling captains. His family had lost its capital through speculative business ventures during WW II and Ethan, with his background and his Harvard education, is reduced to working as a clerk in a small grocery store he once owned. Marullo, an Italian immigrant, owns the store and calls Ethan "kid".
For a short novel, the book includes a wealth of characters, many of which I found well described. There is Ethan's wife Mary who is impatient with the family's impoverished lots and eager for Ethan's economic success as well as the couple's two children, Allen, who is writing an essay called "Why I Love America" and the sexually precocious daughter Ellen. We meet the town banker, Mr. Baker, a bank clerk and a friend of Ethan's, Margie Young-Hunt, twice married and the town seductress, and Danny Taylor, Ethan's childhood friend who has thrown away a career of promise and become a drunk.
The book describes the deteriorations of Ethan's life as he gradually loses his integrity and succumbs to temptations to lift his life, and the lives of his family members, from its materially humble state to a state consistent with Ethan's felt family heritage and education and with the desire of his family for material comfort. The story is sad and told in a style mixing irony and ambiguity that requires the reader to reflect and dig into what is happening. The story ends on a highly ambiguous note with Ethan's future left in doubt.
The book describes well the lessening of American standards and values. The book seems to attribute the loss to an increasing passion for commercial and economic success among all people in the United States. Juxtaposed with the economic struggle are pictures of, in Steinbeck's view, what America was and what it could struggle to be. I think the images are found in religion (much of the story is, importantly, set around Good Friday and Easter and these holidays figure prominently in the book), and in America's political and cultural heritage.
In the old town of New Baytown, America's history casts a long shadow with speeches from American statesmen such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln tucked (suggestively) in the family attic. The book is set against a background of New England whaling and reminds the reader inevitably of a culture that produced Melville and a work of the caliber of Moby Dick.
The most convincing scenes of the book for me were those where Ethan ruminates his life in his own mind and compulsively walks the streets of New Baytown at night. I was reminded of Robert Frost, a poet of New England and his poem "Acquainted with the Night" which begins:
"I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light."
Steinbeck captures much of the spirit of this wonderful poem.
The plot of the book seems contrived at is climax and depends too much on coincidence. The characters, and their inward reflections on themselves, the descriptions, the setting, and the theme of the book, mingled between a love for our country and a sense of despair, make the book memorable.
Jul 2, 2012
The Quandary of Modern Life
This is my favorite book by John Steinbeck. The life of Ethan Hawley, the main character, is simple and complex. He is a working-class man with a blue-blood lineage. In the small town in which he lives ? his name rings of history and power ? his ancestors were the founders of the village and basked in the glory of their status and wealth for many years. Not so for Ethan. He now lives in the shadow of his great name ? no longer having the funds or status to support his legacy.
The real story of this book, for me, however, was the clash between his status and the material wants/needs/demands of his family. This is the America conundrum ? regardless of how well we do financially ? there is always more stuff (bigger, faster, shinier, newer) waiting around the corner ? contentment is elusive. Ethan is bombarded daily with the wants of his children ? from the latest cereal they?d seen on TV to stories of the vacations their neighbors had recently taken ? all followed with ? ?can we??? Of course Ethan wants to provide these things for his family ? he simply doesn?t have the means or the opportunity to do so.
Then opportunity presents itself. To seize it, however, Ethan must trade his morals and ethics for profit. He takes advantage of a ?friend? and profits greatly ? enabling him to finally provide the many goodies his family has craved. We do not learn much about the family after the fact ? the impact this action had on Ethan, on his relationships with his family or the community. We assume he profited and ?lived happily ever after.?
The real question, posed by Steinbeck throughout this story is: What would you do to profit ? to attain the American Dream? Is the cost worth it? Is the ?dream? worth it?
All of us are asked to do things in our jobs and in our daily living that challenge our personal morality or ethics. Corporations do many good things, but also, as economic engines, they often do things that are pro-business and anti-people: mass lay-offs, off shoring, out-sourcing, questionable environmental ethics, and manipulative tactics to gain position or market share. People are at the levers of these acts ? people who must make decisions that are gut wrenching on a human-scale, but smart business and of great benefit to stock holders.
Everyday, we purchase millions of dollars of products that are produced in factories that would violate every labor law we have here in the states ? yet we are able to purchase it cheaply, which is helpful when one is on a limited budget.
I guess I find it important to know, and understand, the complexity of a global world. There is much good, and much bad. Are we to simply accept the bad and strive for our own personal gain? Should we focus on those we help ? our employees, stockholders and customers ? and ignore those who may suffer as a result of our behavior? It seems that all human activity has some negative and positive outgrowth ? perhaps the best we can do is the best we can do.
This is, perhaps true on a global level ? we can feel for the woman who worked to make the five-dollar t-shirts we are buying at Wal-Mart ? but can we, individually, change this system? I don?t know. To a large degree, I think, we are all individuals stuck in a monstrous-global economic machine that exists outside of any ethical or moral code. The name of the game is ? profit. I am all for the free market ? 100% - however, I do not like to see, nor do I celebrate and entity (private or public) that serves itself first, often at the expense of the individual. The Leviathan-state (or Corporation, or any organization) rarely benefits those it professes to serve.
It seems much more complicated, however, on a personal level. The real question is: What would you do to your neighbor to attain the brass ring? That is what Steinbeck presented with perfect clarity ? the dramatic change between the Puritanical culture that had passed and the new age of economic ambition and material want. The old Ethan held to the Golden Rule ? Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You. The new Ethan held to the Gecko Rule ? Do It To The Other Before They Do It To You.
The future for such a culture seems bleak.
This book is an excellent meditation on personal ethics. It is definitely worth a tumble.
Peace & God Bless!
Mar 5, 2009
Steinbeck in the east.
Classic Steinbeck, set in the east. Shorter in length than East Of Eden, it seems to be a more closely focused counterpart. A late novel by a master story-teller.
Nov 7, 2007
Steinbeck Always Challenges
"The Winter of Our Discontent" by John Steinbeck is not an easy read. We tend to like our heroes to be always right , according to our moral standards. The setting is a small coastal town after World War II, a moral war. (I was born in 1933 so I remember WWII. I have also vacationed many times in coastal Maine. ) As the reader I was disappointed in the hero when he went with the "everyone is doing it" mode. Even more disappointed when on reconsideration he considered suicide in the water. But most of all disappointed when the hero kept the "talisman". And yet maybe we all need a "talisman" to keep us focused. Steinbeck is definitely a challenging writer!
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