The Winter of Our Discontent

John Steinbeck: 1961

“Money does not change the sickness, only the symptoms” (101)

Apparently this is the book that was instrumental in securing Steinbeck a Nobel prize award.  I’ll concede that there are certainly a lot of juicy ideas buried in the text of The Winter of Our Discontent, however for a Steinbeck novel I found it to be a bumpy ride with a slow start and confusing narrative voices – hardly a Nobel worthy piece. During some chapters it seemed that the narrative voice is a third person whereas in other chapters the narrative is clearly the perspective of the main character, Ethan Hawley.  This device didn’t work so well for me because it didn’t seem that the change in narrative voice added anything to the plot or the story background and therefore it only caused me to loose focus and interest.  It was a slow read that took much longer than it should have for only 276 pages.

I’ll admit that my opinions may be a bit clouded due to an abrupt transition in reading choice after having recently finished a punctuation-sparse Sarramago novel to find myself immersed in Steinbeck’s dialogue heavy style.  However, despite this transition in style and my concerns about the narrative voice changes discussed above, there was something different about this Steinbeck novel that caused it to be lacking.  This is my first Steinbeck novel that isn’t set in his native California and I believe that the change to an East Coast setting affected the tone of the book dramatically.  Most of his works are set in either the Monterrey Coast or the neighboring Salinas valley and it is a pleasure to get lost in Steinbeck’s tributes to these lands, but in The Winter of Our Discontent the New England coastal town of New Baytown is wanting of this charm.  Part of me wants to think that Steinbeck chose this unfamiliar setting purposefully in order to set the backdrop for the novel’s exploration of moral corruption, dissatisfaction, and loss: but even with this perspective the novel fails to impress me.

Now, I won’t say it is a horrible novel.  As I noted in my introduction, there are plenty of juicy ideas and great quotes such as the following:

“You know most people live ninety per cent in the past, seven per cent in the present, and that only leaves three percent for the future.” (166)

I’ll also acknowledge that the first few pages of chapter thirteen are simply marvelous in outlining Ethan Hawley’s self-aware view of his own decline, and I can’t deny that the ending in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two (no spoiler here) did truly satisfy this reader with the exposure of Ethan’s despairing awareness of the effects of his generational sins.  However, for what this novel is worth, Ethan’s sins didn’t seem as bad as he made them out to be.  Yes, he did plan out a bank-robbery, but he didn’t go through with it.  And despite a lot of focus on the seductress Margie Young-Hunt, she never does prompt Ethan to overstep his marital bond.  All Ethan really did was take advantage of a few real estate and business opportunities by betraying his boss and an old friend.  What this novel is about isn’t so much the actions that corrupt a man, but how the choice to be part of the world around oneself causes a man to let go his convictions and become less than who he once hoped he could be, or less than who he thought he was.

For this alone the novel is a worthwhile read and a crafted work of art, however from the tone of my discussion you’ve read thus far, I’m sure it is apparent that I wished that I got more out of this work.  Perhaps the following quote best describes my disappointment as I consider that this wasn’t the right time for me to fullY appreciate the depth of this work:

“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 own measure.  Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through the mesh of their 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.” (70)


About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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