The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent
John Steinbeck

Why haven’t I read Steinbeck since high school? I have no idea, especially since I enjoyed his work then. Maybe I thought it was too typical, or something. I don’t know. What I so know is the The Winter of Our Discontent had me hooked from the first page.

I mean, it opens with Ethan and Mary Hawley in bed, making cute little pillow talk. In 1960!

Ethan Hawley is the current head of a once prominent Long Island family. They’ve still got their name, but there’s no longer any money behind them and they’re barely clinging to their privileged existence. Outwardly, Ethan seems content with his life. He may be a bit bitter, but he keeps a smile on his face and a song on his lips.

When the complaints of his wife and children and the condescension of the others in town become too much, he decides to take action. He’ll break from his strict moral code to reestablish his family. He’ll show everyone that he’s not just a clerk in the grocery store his family used to own.

Meanwhile, he’s picking up bank robbing ideas from his children and they are scheming on how to win a patriotic essay contest. Young Allen and Ellen want to win, because it means a trip – one that their father can’t afford to take them on. They spend time exploring the attic, where there are volumes of speeches and other long forgotten artifacts. Their explorations cause their father to muse on why we keep things tucked away in attic, anyway:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything that it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

There’s a lot in this novel that can’t be easily explained – or rather, people would rather the explanations remain tucked away. Who was responsible for the Hawley’s losing their fortune? Why has the town seductress been paying so much attention to Ethan? So if behind every great fortune is a great crime, can Ethan reclaim his fortune? And if so, how will he live with the consequences?

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