Can you make an immoral choice and still be a moral, good person? This is the question explored in John Steinbeck’s final novel. It’s been a while since I read either Steinbeck’s previous and more famous works but The Winter of our Discontent strikes me as quite different than his other novels. Not just because it’s set in New England, in a WASPish type of town, dealing with larger upper class folk, but because it deals with the more subtle issues surrounding money and morality.
Ethan Allen Hawley is our protagonist and narrator, most of the time. (Steinbeck makes the interesting choice to begin both sections of the book with an omniscient narrator before then bringing us directly into Ethan’s mind. The year is 1960, in the village of New Baytown, a former whaling ship port. The Hawleys were once one of the wealthy and powerful families of the town but after losing the family money Ethan has to work at the grocery store, owned by an Italian named Marullo. While he maintains his local standing due to his family name, Ethan can see that he no longer has the prestige that he was once used to. At one point, Ethan ponders the fact that his own son will be merely the son of a grocery clerk, rather than an equal amongst the upper class citizens of New Baytown. So when an opportunity arises for Ethan to change his economic and social position, he is tempted, even if it exists in a moral grey zone.
While the idea of the importance of belonging to a certain class might not be as familiar to us today, I think we can all recognize the desire for more, for better. And we can all admit, if we’re being truly honest, the times when we’ve allowed ourselves to blur the line between right and wrong. This is where Steinbeck really succeeds, in my opinion, in making the reader care about and like Ethan. He’s an affable, affectionate, and clever character. He’s charming without being smarmy and I particularly liked his relationship with his wife and the way he talks and thinks about his children. He felt real. I wanted him to succeed.
The timeline of the novel is important too. It is 1960. Ethan is just old enough to have served in the second world war, a time when many rules and morals were set aside for “the greater good”. The United States was full of men who had gone and done and seen terrible things and were then expected to return to their quiet normal lives.
The depictions of women are not great in the book. Ethan loves his wife but they have nothing resembling a relationship of equals. Everyone around him, including her, expects him to make the business decisions for their family. There is a particularly aggravating scene where another man is horrified that Ethan gave his wife cash money since a woman could only foolishly spend it willy-nilly. Another woman is portrayed as a sort of desperate harlot, her life increasingly worthless because she is unmarried and nearing 40. There are hints that Steinbeck understands these women to be smarter and stronger than Ethan views them but overall the sexism and racism is fairly equal throughout the book. Which is to say, there’s a lot of it.
There is a lot in The Winter of our Discontent that dates it and that stands out as different from our world today. But the issues at the very core, the questions of morality and pride, are human issues and still ring true today.