The Winter Of Our Discontent

Steinbeck, John. 1961. The Winter of Our Discontent. 304 pages.

When the fair gold morning of April stirred Mary Hawley awake, she turned over to her husband and saw him, little fingers pulling a frog mouth at her.
"You're silly," she said. "Ethan, you've got your comical genius."
"Oh say, Miss Mousie, will you marry me?"
"Did you wake up silly?"
"The year's at the day. The day's at the morn."
"I guess you did. Do you remember it's Good Friday?"
He said hollowly, "The dirty Romans are forming up for Calvary."

Despite it's rather odd opening, The Winter Of Our Discontent held my interest. It is the story of a man, Ethan Hawley, and his family, his good wife, Mary, his son, Allan, his daughter, Ellen. It's a story of the conflict between ambition and honesty. Ethan has always found himself to be a good man, a just man, an honest man. A man who plays by the rules.

Ethan comes from a legacy, a family with a long history in the area. He's as "established" as he can be. But he's not wealthy. Not anymore. His father lost the family fortune. And now Ethan finds himself--a grown man with two kids--a clerk in a grocery store. He's embarrassed that it's come to this. A Hawley, a man who just twenty years--give or take a few--would have been the big man, the boss man, sunk to working for another man--and not just another man, but an Italian immigrant. Marullo.

But Ethan is noticing the world around him. Noticing that businessmen--including his banking friends--are more concerned with money, with making a profit, than by doing right by their customers. Dollar signs have got them mesmerized. They don't see their family, their friends, their neighbors, their acquaintances. They've lived in town their whole life--know practically everyone--yet when it comes down to it--money comes first and foremost over being kind and compassionate and concerned. Everyone is looking out for their selves. Everyone is greedy. Everyone is selfish. If it's good for you--financially beneficial--then it's right for you no matter who else gets hurt. So Ethan begins to contemplate joining them. If everyone does business this way, lives this way, then maybe it's time he joins them, enters the so-called real world; maybe if he does then his wife will have something to be proud of. She wishes--the children wish as well--for more money. And her friend, Margie, says its in the cards. Her tarot card readings have shown that Ethan is about to strike it rich. With this "prophecy" Ethan decides to go for it...step by step. But will this descent into the "real world" be his undoing? Will his ambition lead to a happily ever after ending? Will his actions--some quite cutthroat when you think about it--be something he can be proud of at the end of the day?

The writing is quite good. Better than good when you think about it. I marked passage after passage. The subject matter is interesting--complex. The hard examination of life, love, marriage, and friendship in a community. I can't say that I "loved" this one; but I did appreciate it. The writing. The language. The complexity and substance.

A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many. It changes not only in growing light toward zenith and decline again, but in texture and mood, in tone and meaning, warped by a thousand factors of season, of heat or cold, of still or multi winds, torqued by odors, tastes, and the fabrics of ice or grass, of bud or leaf or black-drawn naked limbs. And as a day changes so do its subjects...(514)
"Way I look at it, it doesn't matter about believing. I don't believe in extrasensory perception, or lightning or the hydrogen bomb, or even violets or schools of fish--but I know they exist. I don't believe in ghosts but I've seen them." (560)
A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders. (569)
What a frightening thing is the human, a mass of gauges and dials and registers, and we can read only a few and those perhaps not accurately. (576)
Sometimes I wish I knew the nature of night thoughts. They're close kin to dreams. Sometimes I can direct them, and other times they take their head and come rushing over me like strong, unmanaged horses. (587)
It's hard to know how simple or complicated a man is. When you become too sure, you're usually wrong. (634)
I wonder about people who say they haven't time to think. For myself, I can double think. I find that weighing vegetables, passing the time of day with customers, fighting or loving Mary, coping with the children--none of these prevents a second and continuing layer of thinking, wondering, conjecturing. Surely this must be true of everyone. Maybe not having time to think is not having the wish to think. (676)