Moral Twilight: Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent

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By Clover Carroll

Many authors, from Dostoevsky to Poe to Wilde, have pondered the question of what crimes would man commit if he knew he would not get caught? Would we cheat, steal, or betray our friends to get ahead if we could get away with it? Have you ever lied about your taxes, plagiarized a paper, or cheated on an exam? If so, did your conscience bother you afterwards, or did you tell yourself, as Ethan’s son says in Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, that “everybody does it, just read the papers”? Do personal ethics really matter? These are the questions raised by Steinbeck’s subtle and disturbing last novel, which was discussed at the Crozet Library Book Club on Monday evening, January 4. Due to publication timing, I am unable to reflect those comments in this article.

Published in 1961, this lesser known novel was Steinbeck’s last fictional work, followed only by the travelogue Travels with Charley before his death in 1968. It concerns Ethan Allen Hawley, a modern-day Everyman whose two namesakes—the historical Revolutionary War patriot who helped found the state of Vermont, and his grandfather, who was ruined when his whaling ship burned and sank—link him to the traditional American values of integrity and honor. Ethan, a Harvard graduate and World War II veteran, lives in his venerated family’s ancestral home in New Baytown, New York, with his wife Mary and their two children. More a poet than a businessman, Ethan works as a clerk in the grocery store that he inherited from his father but lost through mismanagement. Humiliated by this position and plagued by shame and simmering resentment of his Italian immigrant boss, Marullo, Ethan wards off boredom by sermonizing the canned goods in the store, quoting Milton and Shakespeare, inventing imaginative nicknames for Mary (such as ‘Miss Mousie,’ ladybug, and sugarfoot), and holding imagined conversations with the spirit of the ‘Old Cap’n’ Hawley during his late-night visits to the ruins of the Hawley dock in the harbor. As we later learn, Ethan’s “puritan-pirate ancestors” symbolize the moral conflict raging inside him.

During the first few chapters, Ethan is subject to a series of temptations that remind him of his failure as an economic provider and as a representative of his family name. A friend gives him tips on how to rob a bank, the banker—whose father Ethan suspects of burning his grandfather’s ship for the insurance money—advises him to risk Mary’s small inheritance on investments, his boss admonishes him to cheat customers and put profit before customer service, a travelling salesman offers him a bribe in exchange for the store’s business, and his family tells him they wish they had more money so they could hold their heads up in town and buy a TV, better car, and new furniture. At first, Ethan demonstrates his inherent (and inherited) integrity by standing up to these many unethical offers. But eventually the pressure of the evidence convinces him to become cynical and opportunistic like them. “In business and in politics,” he reflects, “a man must carve and maul his way through men to get to be King of the Mountain. Once there, he can be great and kind—but he must get there first.” This is the central fallacy of Ethan’s thinking—or is it? Many would agree with him.

Steinbeck begins his story on Good Friday, when in effect Ethan experiences a moral death. “Where money is concerned, the ordinary rules of conduct take a holiday,” he tells his canned congregation as he decides to take fate in his hands and get rich by any means necessary. By Easter, he admits to undergoing a metamorphosis, an ironic ‘rebirth’ as a new man. “Bring new eyes to a world or even new lenses, and presto—new world.” According to Howard Levant in The Novels of John Steinbeck (1974), Hawley “determines at last to avenge his felt injustices by playing the clever scoundrel.” But this is a destructive resurrection, as he makes secret plans for a series of actions that include betraying his friends, accepting the bribe, and even committing a crime. As the intricate plot unfolds, and with suspense mounting as more is implied than stated, he carries out all but the worst of these plans, outsmarting both Marullo and Baker, to whom he proudly announces near the end, “you see, I am not a pleasant fool.” The only costs are guilt, his self-respect, and his peace of mind. “I understand how people once believed the devil could take possession” he notes.

Though written in Steinbeck’s typically straightforward and lucid prose—enriched by stunning metaphor, imagery, and literary allusion—I found this dyspeptic novel hard to read. The slowly mounting sense of foreboding and moral crisis that hangs over the protagonist as we watch him slide by slow increments into evil and corruption makes us queasy. Our dismay grows into near horror as we witness his “fall” into the quagmire of modern amorality and opportunism. He is only saved from the brink of total destruction by coincidence, and when his son wins a national essay contest by plagiarizing, Ethan recognizes in his son a reflection of his own behavior. Instead of making him happy, the guilt he feels for the pain he has caused in gaining financial security makes him miserable. Realizing that once he gave up his integrity there is nothing left worth living for, he is only saved from a harrowing brush with suicide by the love of his daughter. The book ends on July 4, the birthday of America, when, we presume, he reaffirms his commitment to the historic American values of integrity and honor.

Although the action of the book takes place in the spring and summer rather than the winter, the title is a fitting allusion to the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Shakespeare portrays Richard as an amoral villain whose Machiavellian rise to power is built upon the murders of both his brother, King Edward IV, and the two princes Edward and Richard, who are heirs to the throne (a version of events often disputed by historians). Richard uses the royal “we” as he speaks these lines, but Steinbeck intends it in the sense of a social “we.”

This choice of title brings into play the novel’s central question of whether the ends justify the means, as well as echoing the mood of discontent that pervades the novel; the word itself is repeated at least ten times. “This year of 1960 was a year of change, a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger,” Ethan muses. Mildly defined as “dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances,” “discontent” is the perfect word to describe the corrosive combination of entitlement and envy that leads people to put profit ahead of community.

Published in 1961, this dark but important book condemns the increasing materialism and social acceptance of dirty business practices that Steinbeck saw infecting American society of the late ’50s and early ’60s, as it transitioned from a values-based to a materialist culture. In a 1959 letter, Steinbeck speaks to “… the enemy inside. Immorality is what is destroying us, public immorality. The failure of man toward men, the selfishness that puts making a buck more important than the commonweal.” In combination with his earlier masterpieces, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, this meditation on ethics won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The moral decline he laments seems to have only gotten worse over time, with public figures stretching the truth to make a more entertaining book or news story, and with oil, tobacco, food, and car manufacturers—even the NFL as portrayed in the current film Concussion—systematically putting profit before safety to put lives in peril. Although the book’s ending is hurried and ambiguous, we hope that Ethan ultimately chooses a life of impoverished integrity over one of well-heeled venality.

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