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The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

December 5, 2015


I always start off with a Steinbeck book thinking, for some reason, that it is going to be quaint. A nice story about the picturesque way life used to be in America. I’m usually caught off guard by how dark some of his stories can be. This one maybe more so than others.

The Winter of Our Discontent is the story of Ethan Hawley, the descendent of wealthy sea captains who, through some bad luck, has found his fortunes stripped away. He now works for an Italian immigrant in a grocery store in a small New England town that sees little in the way of traffic beyond a slight uptick during the summer holidays.

A friendly, likable man to all (including the reader), Ethan’s dissatisfaction at his station in life, his inability to excite his wife and dazzle his children, and his loss of pride, all collude to bend and misshape his sense of character, of righteousness.

“It’s as though events and experiences nudged and jostled me in a direction contrary to my normal one or the one I had come to think was normal—the direction of the grocery clerk, the failure, the man without real hope or drive, barred in by responsibilities for filling the bellies and clothing the bodies of his family, caged by habits and attitudes I thought of as being moral, even virtuous. And it may be that I had a smugness about being what I called a ‘Good Man.’”

As always, Steinbeck’s characters are rich and complicated and realistic, and he builds his plots in a way to push the characters to reveal to us something true about human nature, something we perhaps recognize in ourselves. Here we watch a man who lets his fallen financial state drag his character down into some murky water. It is surprising, unsettling, and delightful all at once.

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