275 of 287 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This novel brought me back to Steinbeck
After reading Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and The Pearl in high school, I was not an admirer of Steinbeck, but when I picked up The Winter of Our Discontent as an adult, I was awed by the author I had once shunned. Steinbeck's keen sense of character and a mastery of the language carries this novel from first page to last. The story revolves around Ethan Hawley, a...
Published on November 11, 2004 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Summer of Our Moral Holiday
John Steinbeck's last work of fiction, 'The Winter of Our Discontent', examines the 'moral flabbiness' of post-war America, particularly that of the late 1950's. Its stated question, posed by the main character Ethan Allen Hawley in a first person monologue, is whether an ethical man can set aside his principles, do what is required to advance himself in the world, and...
Published on December 30, 2009 by Bryan Byrd
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275 of 287 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This novel brought me back to Steinbeck,
After reading Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and The Pearl in high school, I was not an admirer of Steinbeck, but when I picked up The Winter of Our Discontent as an adult, I was awed by the author I had once shunned. Steinbeck's keen sense of character and a mastery of the language carries this novel from first page to last. The story revolves around Ethan Hawley, a descendent of proud New England stock whose life seems betrayed by circumstances as he struggles to provide for his family. His wife Mary urges him to be more ambitious, and his restless teenage children exhibit signs of being morally corrupt. When Ethan decides that his ethics no longer matter in this demanding world, he enters his own compounding crisis.
In perfectly rendered language, Steinbeck explores the themes of two Americas - the old Puritanical and morally staid one, and the one where every man fights for himself. The corruption in New Baytown is rampant. Issues about privilege and entitlement, family values, skewed priorities, flagging morality, and work ethics simmer underneath. Steinbeck's depiction of Ethan and Mary's marriage is witty, biting, and affectionate, demonstrating both his humor and his talent for dissecting domestic issues as well as the grander, social ones.
A fine novel by a recently underappreciated author, The Winter of Our Discontent is worth every minute spent with it.
98 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fantastic Book,
By A Customer
To any of you who are considering reading this book, the following points may be helpful:
* Of all the Steinbeck novels I've read, I consider this one to be his wittiest, funniest and most intelligent. The dialogue is great and the main character (Ethan Allen Hawley) may be my favorite Steinbeck character of all-time.
* This book focuses on thought rather than plot. We are taken on detailed journeys through Ethan Hawley's mind (in fact, some of the chapters of this book are written in the first-person rather than the third-person, such that Hawley speaks to us directly). What we are shown are the motives and means through which a conscientious human being trades a life of good deeds for a life of deception and acquisitiveness, and the result is jarring.
* As indicated above, however, this book is NOT plot-driven. Therefore, some readers may not like it as much as, say, "The Grapes of Wrath" or "In Dubious Battle". Do yourselves a favor and read the first page or two of the book before buying it. If you are drawn into the dialogue on these pages, you'll probably love the book - it represents the general tone of the novel throughout, though toward the end the book gets much darker as Ethan's abandonment of his morals and the consequences thereof are driven home to the reader.
This truly great novel will stick with the reader long after the last page has been turned. Read it - I don't think you'll be disappointed.
172 of 187 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Loss and American Regeneration,
"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 has backround 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 preminently in the book), and in America's political and cultural heritage. In the old town of
New Baytown, America's history figures prominently with speeches from American statesment such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln tucked (suggestively) in the family attic. The book is set against a backround 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.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars America, 1961 and 2001,
This is a frightening book, with more real horror than ten of the standard fare. By detailing one man's sliding morals, it holds up a mirror to everyone, as we all have faced similar decisions between doing what is right and doing what is convenient. And facing ourselves can be truly horrifying -- especially when
the collective result of everyone's decisions is clearly evident in the ethical morass of today's world, from a President trying to re-formulate the English language to the Enron financial fiasco to wide-spread cheating on exams at our military academies.
For this novel Steinbeck decided to remove himself from his normal California setting in favor of the East Coast. By doing so he availed himself of a milieu where tradition and 'old money' set the standards for acceptance into 'society'. Ethan Hawley is a man whose family used to be part of that 'society', but due to bad financial decisions he now finds himself clerking for an immigrant who owns the grocery store he himself used to own. With a wife quietly but constantly chiding him about her desires for a better life, to be able to hold her head up in society, and two kids constantly clamoring for more things, Ethan finds himself at a crossroads between a rigid moral code instilled in him by his aunt and grandfather, and providing a better life for those he loves.
Told partially in first person in spare but very effective prose, the road that Ethan spirals down is brilliantly portrayed, from his 'sermons' to the groceries, to his internal 'conversations' with his grandfather, to the seemingly chance happenings and conversations in his little town that spawns an idea and method for robbing the local bank, to his 'dropping a dime' on his immigrant boss, to his betrayal of his alcoholic friend Danny. Each action and decision proceeds logically from the previous one, each one more step down a path with no end, a path which Ethan continues to tell himself that he can abandon with no lingering aftereffects at any time. Each point is meticulously plotted, with all the proper items set in place before the action, and the choice of time, setting, and materials is rich in irony, a sure mark of an author fully in control of his subject.
The ending is deliberately ambiguous. By the time I reached that point I had been so drawn into Ethan's character I found that his final decision was tremendously important to me. Each reader ultimately must draw his own conclusion about what Ethan will do, but regardless of what answer the reader reaches, no reader can remain unaffected by this book, and will find his life richer for having read it.
Steinbeck was one of the great American writers. His Nobel prize was richly deserved, and this book, while not as well known as his Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, is certainly one of the reasons why, rivaling his other works in power and insightful looks at American society, just as valid today as when it was written, and peopled by a very living set of characters.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moral distinction,
This book is amazing in a very specific and unusual way. It chronicles the slow slide, not to the depths of immorality that come to mind when we use that term, but merely to one step down on the morality ladder. There is not a mountain of difference between the man on page one and the man who stands on the beach on the final page, contemplating suicide. He has committed no crime, has resisted cheating on his wife, and has tried to save the life of his drug-addicted friend... the tiny difference lies not in the things he hasn't done wrong, but in the things he didn't do quite right. This difference is all the difference in the world. Steinbeck's power is in his portrayal of the nuances that make up personal experience. Where Grapes of Wrath was a powerful epic, the depths of poverty the characters endured enabled us to keep the experience at a distance, since few of us will ever know such poverty. The Winter of Our Discontent allows us no such respite. Each of us experiences temptation on a daily basis, and the risk of moral poverty that we all face and either resist or become accustomed to, is at the heart of this book. The final page is, oddly enough, a mystery, though this fact can easily escape you. All the members of my family read this independently, and only when we discussed it several years later did we find that we each had interpreted the end in different ways. Does he commit suicide or not? We were firmly split, and the wording Steinbeck uses is ambiguous. The answer is in the story that emerges from you as you read the book. Perhaps the most subtly powerful book you will ever read, if you are willing to allow it to affect you.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Considered and thought provoking,
I liked this Steinbeck offering. I liked the fact that it's about small town morality, and ultimately society's morals too. The narrative raises questions about our attitudes towards the mundane and the everyday humdrum things like friendship, honesty, ambition, deception, fidelity, sex, family, avarice, petty corruption and to those of us who fall between the cracks.
Okay, so that may sound very traditional and staid, perhaps it isn't sexy enough, but that's exactly why I admire Steinbeck's work. He writes about the real and our day-to-day lives and in this novel he highlights questions of morality through the story of failed businessman Ethan Hawley and New Baytown in late '50s early '60s America.
I found it a compelling read, it wasn't an obvious story to tell and so I never really knew where the story was going to turn. It grabbed me with some clever structure and brilliant characterisation. I was particularly struck by the finely observed relationship between that of the protagonist and of his wife Mary, "My Mary".
Steinbeck's power for social realism shone out, describing the life of New Baytown and its occupants in minute detail and through it showing the quiet nobility of ordinary working people. It reminded me strongly of similar evocations in his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
This is a quirky and deceptively well-written book, with snappy dialogue, memorable characters and an intellectual seriousness lying behind the seemingly innocuous events. Recommended.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read,
As social commentary on the "spirit of capitalism" as it manifested itself in small towns in the coastal U.S. this is as good as it gets. In stunning prose and articulate style, we are taken into the world of the mind of a man who was born into a world where he never felt he belonged. Upon returning home after becoming a decorated war hero, the protagonist discovers that running the family businesses is a different ballgame. After losing the "family farm" but keeping the house, this Ivy league literature graduate pines away tending shop for a successful Italian immigrant-entrepreneur. Then one day he snaps and the story really begins. Having taught several classes on political science and political economy, I can honestly say this is one of the best expositions of the pervasive power of capitalism to drive a good man to do "ruthless" things. Never black and white, Steinbeck portrays an endless array of ethical dilemmas while keeping a nail-biting dramatic tension throughout. To the reader who chooses to put oneself in the character's shoes, there is much to be gained from an honest reading of this slim volume. I can see why the Nobel committee considered this book to have put him over the top in earning the prize in 1961
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Greatly Underrated,
The Nobel Prize committee mentioned THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT in awarding the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature to Steinbeck--and in so doing touched off a critical backlash against both the novel and Steinbeck's entire body of work. The novel had not been popular with American critics or American readers, and the author was savagely attacked as "past it," his current works dismissed as irrelevant and his earlier works as overrated. Steinbeck was so humilated that he did not publish another novel in his lifetime.
Part of critical reaction was due to the novel's structure, which jumps from third person to first person narrative and from character to character in an extremely jarring manner--and which in terms of plot seems prepared to run off in a dozen different directions but never actually does. But it may be more accurate to say that the bedrock of critical animosity was the nature of the story itself: an unflattering tale of America at its most hypocritical and corrupt. Given the tenor of the times, it was not a portrait that American critics or the reading public cared to embrace.
Ethan Hawley is a descendent of a notable New England shipping family--but the advent of petroleum products destroyed the whaling industry and the family fortune declined. As the novel opens, Ethan is a clerk in the very grocery store he once owned. His wife loves him, but is embarrassed for him; his two children, hungry for the luxuries of the small town upper class, are less discreet in their sentiments. At least Ethan has the satisfaction of knowing that he is a man of integrity ... but one day, for no significant reason at all, his eyes are suddenly opened to the truth. He can have it all. But there is a price to pay: his conscience.
Steinbeck's works frequently deal with the struggle between personal integrity and worldly success, but THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT is quite unlike his other works, for instead of painting the battle in broad strokes Steinbeck explores a gray area that gradually darkens to black--and suddenly ends the novel on a slightly ambiguous note, leaving the reader to wonder if Ethan will fight his way out of the darkness or merely strive to protect his family from knowledge of it.
Perhaps more so than other Steinbeck novel, THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT requires a careful reading. Yes, the structure is jarring, and yes the plot seems to run hither and yon, but at the same time these elements actually mirror the disconnected nature of the characters in a way that becomes increasingly disconcerting as the book progresses. And while there is no doubt that the book is deeply flawed, there is no denying the author's power, a power that seems to arise as much from his failings as from his virtues. As always, Steinbeck takes great risks in his work, and part of the pleasure in reading one of his novels is in seeing how well the gamble pays off.
I would not place THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT in the first rank of Steinbeck novels--but it certainly did not deserve the scorn heaped upon it in the early 1960s and which continues, to a certain extent, to dog it to this very day. Memorable, provocative, powerful, and recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the more relevant books for our new millenium,
By A Customer
The Winter of Our Discontent showcases John Steinbeck's trademark understanding of human nature in a unique East Coast venue. My reading of this book was particularly well-timed; I was completing my education and job hunting. Ethan made me realize that the quest for money, power, and prestige is dangerous when it involves the sacrificing of one's happiness, morals, and values. This book is all about the danger posed by our society's defining success by monetary achievement. Human nature is funny: it is just when we achieve happiness and stability that we find something else to covet -- the endless cycle that makes so many unhappy when they reach their life's end.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So different than the others,
By A Customer
As an avid reader of Steinbeck's works, DISCONTENT blew me away. While lacking the development of a breadth of characters, as we see in EAST OF EDEN and GRAPES OF WRATH, Steinbeck really captures the human spirit in the character of Ethan Hawley.
While not as descriptive in the same way as other Steinbeck novels, he makes up for this with great use of language. However, there is no lack of description, and one gets a true picture of what is going on. This book is a quicker read than other novels of similar size, such as THE WAYWARD BUS, and is well worth ones time. It is an incredible experience to see the mind of Ethan Allen Hawley at work.
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The Winter of Our Discontent (Penguin Classics) by John Steinbeck (Paperback - August 26, 2008)