The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

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New York : The Viking Press, 1961. Book Club Edition. Hardcover. 281 pages ; 21 cm. Unpriced dust jacket. No markings within the pages and binding are firm.

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck's versatility should no longer cause astonishment. Each of his books is apt to be a new departure, differing sharply from the one before. Yet this new novel will probably surprise even his warmest admirers. Instead of being set in the Far West, the scene of most of his books, this one takes place on the northeastern sea-board; instead of depicting simple, uneducated people, this deals chiefly with a well-born, well-to-do society with long traditions behind it. But it deals with it in a way that reveals the continuity within Steinbeck's diversity: through the lives of one family and their friends, he has taken that society apart, shown its frightening shams and shortcomings, and measured it against true human decency. The result is a novel in its very different way as powerful as anything he has done, and certain to stand as a major work in the Steinbeck canon.

Ethan Allen Hawley, an heir to the upright New England tradition, is the focus of this story, which takes place between Good Friday and just after the Fourth of July, 1960. (Steinbeck wrote the first draft of the book during that same time-span—a fact that helps to explain its immediacy.) Ethan, whose forebears had numbered sea-captains and men of property, is working in a grocery store. His wife is restless; his teenage children, along with all the other problems of their age-group, are impatient for more of the worldly goods they see about them. Ethan is aware of the shady tricks, the cheating and under-handedness, that seem to permeate life today in matters of money and success. He knows, too, that the way to wealth of many of the town's respected ancestors would not bear close scrutiny. Why not have some of it for his loved ones? He decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards; to trade temporarily, as he thinks, "a habit of conduct" for "a cushion of security." He never assumes a mask of righteousness for what he is doing, but he knows what he wants and goes after it with great ingenuity. How his plots work out one after the other; how he finds success within his grasp only to have it turn to ashes when his own son falls into the same pattern of dishonesty; and how he finally finds a bitter salvage in hope for his daughter, for whom his deep-seated love overrides the impatience that she sometimes causes him—this is the beautifully plotted core of the novel, whose overtones carry far beyond it.

Mature, disturbing, fascinating, The Winter of Our Discontent attacks unsparingly some of our shoddy attitudes toward honesty and success. This theme of the loss of integrity in our world—the decline in our standards of personal, business, and political morality—has been waiting for a novelist worthy of it, and it is fortunate that Steinbeck, with his warm humanity, was the one to choose it.

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