The Winter Of Our Discontent Summary

John Steinbeck

The Winter Of Our Discontent

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The Winter Of Our Discontent Summary

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Steinbeck’s novel tells the story of Ethan Allen Hawley. Hawley comes from a New England family that once had great wealth and social status, but has seen its fortunes turn. Now, he works as a clerk at a grocery store his family once owned.

Ethan is a dreamy person. He spends a lot of time at the old harbor, thinking about his family’s better days. He is, inherently, an honest man, but the people around him encourage him to devise ways to regain his family’s wealth and glory. Ethan feels judged by these people, because, in light of his past, he should be successful and wealthy.

Under the force of this societal pressure, Ethan to begin planning ways to get his family’s wealth back. First, he begins plotting to rob a bank using the information he receives from his bank teller friend, Joey.

Circumstances prevent Ethan from robbing the bank, however, and his plan changes to target his boss, the current owner of the grocery store. Ethan has learned that the store owner is an illegal immigrant, and Ethan informs on him and gets the owner deported. The owner is unaware of Ethan’s betrayal, and thinking Ethan is a good, honest man, gives Ethan the store.

Ethan’s next scheme sees him pretending to help the town drunk and his former best friend Danny Taylor get sober. Danny owns a strip of land required by local businessmen who want to build an airport. Instead of getting sober, Danny uses money given to him by Ethan for booze and pills, and kills himself in a stupor. Danny leaves the land to Ethan in his will.

Though these various schemes and plots, Ethan begins to reclaim his status in the town. Though he has behaved immorally, Ethan feels like his behavior is justified. Like in war, when one soldier kills another, Ethan’s actions can be explained as necessary evils in order to accomplish his goals.

Ethan and his family are in the midst of celebrating their newly regained success, but Ethan’s conscience begins to get the better of him. They then learn that Ethan’s son has plagiarized an essay for which he’s won a contest. When Ethan confronts his son, he learns that the boy feels no remorse for cheating. Everyone, his son explains to Ethan, cheats to get ahead.

This is the final straw which sends Ethan into a downward spiral. Ethan resolves to kill himself, but his behavior arouses the suspicion of his daughter. She hugs her father and during their long embrace, reaches into Ethan’s pocket and swaps out his razor blades for a family talisman, an odd stone in the family’s collection of heirlooms.

Ethan leaves the house to kill himself. He reaches into his pocket for the razor blades, only to find the talisman there instead. He now realizes his daughter is pure, and the hope for the future of the family. He goes home to return the talisman to his daughter, to preserve her innocence.

Steinbeck wrote to a friend that he intended The Winter of Our Discontent to be a comment on the moral degradation of American culture. Critics, as a result, had mixed reactions regarding this treatment of the American people as a whole. Ethan’s character has been criticized for his implausibility: his swings between morality and ruthlessness seem too abrupt. Still, as a commentary on people’s willingness to put selfish concerns ahead of morality, Ethan’s character serves to highlight how flexible a moral compass can be.

The book’s title comes from the Shakespeare play Richard III. In the first act, Richard mulls over the state of his family and his future:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
(Act 1, scene 1, 1–4)

The speech ties together the book’s themes of hardship, the difficulty of achieving success and the lengths people will go to in order to gain and maintain high status. Both Ethan and Richard face the temptations of power and influence but

Richard is a deeply amoral character, and acts in ways Ethan would never conceive of. Perhaps Steinbeck was suggesting how easy it is to go down a terrible road when you’re dedicated to power and greed. Thankfully for Ethan, he has his daughter to pull him from the depths.

The Winter of Our Discontent was the last novel Steinbeck published before his death. It continues Steinbeck’s commitment to writing about social themes. Many critics rank the novel as on par with better-known Steinbeck work like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

The novel was adapted into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Donald Sutherland in 1983.