When most people think of John Steinbeck, they think of titles like The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, two of Steinbeck’s epic novels that are long, famous, and usually mandatory reads in high school. But people rarely think of Steinbeck’s last work, a short novel called The Winter of Our Discontent.
The Winter of Our Discontent follows the story of a man named Ethan Hawley, a middle aged man with a wife, son, and daughter. He was from a well off family, but that wealth has disappeared. Now he works as a grocery store clerk, and his family is discontent with their middle class lot in life. But Hawley doesn’t share his family’s discontent. He is comfortable with his station in life, supported by his sense of morality and integrity. These are the things that matter to him, and as long as he has those he is content.
But as the novel progresses, Hawley interacts with various characters who question or challenge his honest and content character. They plant ideas for misdeeds, whether bank robberies of infidelity. Through dealings with other characters Hawley’s integrity is tested—and often found wanting. He regains some of his affluence, but through less than honest means. The book culminates in a relatively quiet climax. Hawley discovers that his son has won an essay contest but only because he plagiarized like there was no tomorrow. This irritates Hawley’s sense of integrity, but then he realizes that he has slowly lost the integrity he once had.
The Winter of Our Discontent is not an epic book like Steinbeck’s two most famous novels. There is no grand journey traversing the country. It is not 600 pages long, nor is it a dramatic story like Of Mice And Men. But the book won Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in Literature 1962, and though American critics were skeptical at first, the book slowly won critical acclaim over the years.
Steinbeck said the book was a commentary on the disintegration of American morality during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a quiet commentary, a quiet story about the man next door and the internal struggles of life in middle class America. But that’s the beauty of it. The writing is subtle, but beautiful. The themes are calmer than in books like The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck muses on the effect money has on people, the importance of honesty and morality, and how small flaws in a child grow to become detrimental to a generation.
This is my favorite Steinbeck book. Though I love his grand stories in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, and though I love the short but sweet and heart-breaking Of Mice and Men, The Winter of Our Discontent is beautifully written and its subtlety underappreciated. If you are a fan of American literature or were forced to read Steinbeck in high school or just looking for a great book, read The Winter of Our Discontent. Then take a look in the mirror and ask yourself the same questions Ethan Hawley asks himself. Hopefully your answers are better than his.
P.S. The title of the book is a reference to William Shakespeare’s play Richard III:
“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”