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The Winter of Our Discontent (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

The Winter of Our Discontent (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) - John Steinbeck Oddly, it seems it was when things were going best for America that some of her brightest Nobel laureate authors distinguished themselves writing about failure, decline, and dissolution. Those are pretty timeless themes, so maybe I’m cherry picking my examples, or seeing patterns where none exist, but hear me out. In 1928-29, when the nation was swept up in the (perceived) prosperity of the greatest stock bubble in our history, William Faulker wrote The Sound and the Fury (TSATF), describing the Compton family’s spectacular plunge from landed Southern wealth into poverty, madness, alcoholism and incest. Then in 1961, when America was enjoying unprecedented wealth and status as an economic, military and political superpower, John Steinbeck wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, about miserable Ethan Hawley living in the long shadow of his family’s past glory.Where TSATF follows the decay of an old Southern plantation family from their antebellum glory to modern disgrace, Winter of Our Discontent traces the New England Hawley family from a successful ship Captain in the mid 1800’s, to his heirs who expanded the business until Ethan‘s father lost it all in the Great Depression. Ethan gets by as a clerk in the local grocery to support his wife (Mary) and two kids (Allen and Ellen), but honest work stocking shelves is a daily assault on his wounded pride, which is only magnified by the fact that the store is owned by a Sicilian immigrant (Mr. Marullo), whose complex business deals strike Ethan as vaguely illegal. Since Ethan is an imperfect narrator, it’s impossible to know whether Marullo’s wealth really is ill-gotten, or whether Ethan’s suspicions are just a manifestation of (anti-Italian) racism, not very different from Jason Compton's racism towards Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. This question of prejudice, in conjunction with his clinging romanticism about his family’s past glory negate any sympathy the reader might otherwise feel for Ethan; they are the refuge of a loser who can’t make it in the world on his own merits. Likewise, Ethan's cynical wit, which allows him to demean the achievements of his hard-working, more successful neighbors. The snarky jokes are entertaining at first, but quickly become tedious and pathetic, as it becomes clear they are more about his low self-esteem than humor. Ethan’s only redeeming character is his honesty, which prevents him from taking a bribe from a produce supplier.Things take an interesting turn when Mary is (mis)led to believe Ethan will soon come into a big fortune. You can enjoy the ironic details for yourself, but this is where The Sound and the Fury and The Winter of Our Discontent part ways: the Comptons are too overwhelmed to fight their cruel circumstances, but Ethan is quite different. As he realizes Mary is being deceived, and no grand riches are on their way, it causes something in his psyche to snap. He resolves to resurrect the Hawley name, by any means necessary. It’s a little bit of a (Gone With the Wind) "As God is my witness, I‘ll never go hungry again!" moment, but it lacks the moral high ground any good indignation should have. It’s more like the "white rage" that keeps Fox News and Rush Limbaugh up in the ratings: a sort of humiliation fused with entitlement, and a bit of racism and nostalgia thrown in. It’s ugly, and only gets uglier, as Ethan hatches mercenary schemes to build wealth at the expense of old friendships and the honesty which had been his one saving grace. This isn’t a traditional "American dream" rags-to-riches story. If anything, it’s a rejection of the hard work and determination that dream is founded on. Pretty soon Ethan is planning a bank robbery, helping an old pal drink himself to death, and engineering an (admittedly clever) real estate swindle. The details make for a rich and captivating story, but it is all a bit too tragic to call enjoyable. By the end of the novel, Ethan is poised to become wealthy and powerful beyond all expectations, but he is also beginning to reap the consequences of his amorality. His son Allen, overeager to contribute to the family’s growing prestige, is disgraced when his national prize-winning essay is discovered to be a plagiary. The story ends with Ethan contemplating suicide in the aftermath of the scandal. So back to where this review started: Why did Steinbeck write such a dark tale during a period when the national mood was so optimistic (the Kennedy administration), and his own personal fortunes were so bright? He always liked to write about tough people enduring difficult times, but this isn’t a story about perseverance and keeping the faith; it’s about giving up on the work ethic, putting ends before means, and money before friends. Even with the moral retribution at the end, Winter of Our Discontent feels subversive. Given his talent as a writer, and his gift for observation, I wonder whether Steinbeck was tapping into some shift in the national character which would have been pretty subtle around 1961. Like Alan Ginsburg, Hugh Hefner and Lenny Bruce before him, was Steinbeck an early leading indicator of the turmoil and discontent that was to surface at the end of the 60’s? And if "yes", what was it that touched Steinbeck so? I’ve always thought the upheaval of the late 60's was largely the product of the Vietnam War and national heartbreak/disillusionment over the Kennedy assassination, but this book calls those assumptions into question, having been written before either JFK’s untimely death or war in Indochina could be foreseen.That’s the sort of book this is: the character development is so-so, and the story itself doesn’t have any Earth-shaking surprises, but wondering what the author meant by it all, and what his inspirations might have been is very interesting indeed. It’s too bad this was Steinbeck’s last novel; I would love to have seen what direction he went from here.