42 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Winter Of Our Discontent

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1961

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Summary and Study Guide


The Winter of Our Discontent is the final novel of American author John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Published in 1961, the themes reflect Steinbeck’s concern with the degradation of American culture and morality. In some ways, the novel departs from Steinbeck’s more iconic novels, which include East of Eden (1952), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Of Mice and Men (1937). Steinbeck takes the novel’s title from a line in William Shakespeare’s play Richard III (1597).

The critical reception of The Winter of Our Discontent varied. Prominent critics, such as Edward Weeks of the Atlantic Monthly and Saul Bellow, hailed it as an instant classic and insightful commentary on America’s preoccupation with greed and wealth at the expense of morality. Others believed the novel signaled the weakening of Steinbeck’s literary talent and found the protagonist, Ethan Hawley, unbelievable for his wild swings between criminality and moral piety. Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the novel in 1962.

Steinbeck is one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. He won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s other novels, The Winter of Our Discontent centers on the fate of the everyman in an unjust world.

This guide uses the 2008 Penguin Classic edition of the text. Content warnings include death by by suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, racial slurs, and anti-immigrant bias.

Plot Summary

The novel is set in New Baytown, New York, in 1961. Ethan Hawley is a married man with two children who works at a grocery store his family once owned. Ethan’s late father lost the family fortune through poor investments and an economic depression. Ethan has accepted his lower socioeconomic status and working life, but his family and friends urge him to reclaim his family’s previously illustrious status. Their perception of him as capable of acquiring wealth and influence makes Ethan question his own life choices. He has the opportunity to invest his wife’s inheritance but struggles with the possibility of losing it. However, those around him encourage him to use the money, and he eventually agrees.

Margie Young-Hunt, an unmarried friend of Ethan’s wife, attempts to seduce him, making him question his devotion to his marriage. Danny Taylor, his once-wealthy friend, lives in a shanty and has become dependent on alcohol. His drastic change makes Ethan ponder the downfall of man. Danny and the banker, Mr. Baker, are among those who encourage Ethan to reclaim his past wealth. Alfio Marullo, the Italian immigrant who owns the grocery store that employs Ethan, trusts in Ethan despite Ethan’s secret resentment towards him. His trust makes Ethan question how well people know one another.

At the beginning of the novel, Ethan is upstanding, but he adjusts his moral compass because he fears the judgement of those around him. Ethan’s friends and family prevail upon him to become what they consider a better version of himself, one focused on wealth and acquisition rather than people and ideas.

One of Ethan’s friends, Joey Morphy, is the teller at Mr. Baker’s bank. Joey tells Ethan stories of bank robberies and unwittingly gives Ethan confidential information about how the bank works. This inspires Ethan to rob the bank to regain his fortune.

Part of Ethan’s plan involves destroying Marullo and Danny. He gives Danny money to use for treatment for his alcoholism, even though Danny warns him that he will likely use the money to buy alcohol and drugs. Danny signs over his family’s last estate to Ethan, guaranteeing Ethan significant wealth in the event of Danny’s death. When Danny dies from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills, Ethan inherits his money.

Ethan’s next plan involves regaining control of his family’s grocery store. He secretly reports Marullo to the Immigration and Naturalization Service on suspicion that he is an undocumented immigrant. He wants Marullo to be deported, after which Ethan can use the money from Danny’s estate to buy the grocery store. Ethan’s plan is successful, but it fills him with guilt. When Marullo learns of his deportation, he leaves the store to Ethan because he believes Ethan is a good man and deserves ownership of the business.

The unexpected visit of the man who is investigating Marullo thwarts Ethan’s plan to rob the bank. Though Ethan’s robbery plan fails, he is wealthy because of his two new assets gained from double-crossing Danny and Marullo.

Ethan’s son, Allen, wins a national essay contest, which makes him a hometown celebrity and earns him a TV appearance. When Ethan learns that Allen plagiarized his essay, he realizes that he has set a bad example for his children. Allen has no remorse about his actions: he has seen how cheating and lying help people succeed in America, and he argues that he was simply doing the same. Wracked with guilt, Ethan plans to end his life using a razor blade that he carries in his pocket. His daughter, Ellen, senses this and swaps his razor blade for a family talisman, a mysterious stone. When Ethan reaches into his pockets for the blade and finds the stone, he realizes that there is hope for America and humanity after all.

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