The Winter of Our Discontent

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I read this novel for book club. We're trying something new this month - instead of all reading the same book, we are all reading a book by Steinbeck. I chose The Winter of Our Discontent because I had heard the phrase and was curious to know where it came from. Turns out it's actually Shakespeare (forgive me - I'm a science major!) from the play Richard III. I'll have to read that baby sometime.

The premise: Ethan Allen Hawley lives in a New England fishing village. His family once had money, but in recent generations that money has run short and Ethan is now living as a grocery clerk, a role that bothers his family, his neighbors, and himself. He undergoes a transformation as he tries to elevate himself from his situation. I know it can be annoying to hear "the less you know about this book before you read it, the better" but I think it is really true in this case. The plot develops with tension and isolated events build on each other until you're dying to know what happens next - something that doesn't happen to me often with books. I don't want to deprive anyone else of that experience!

Before beginning the novel, Steinbeck leaves this little note: "Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today." And it's true, on multiple levels. The main level, I think, is America's attitude about money. The novel depicts businessmen making less than perfectly honest deals, ripping each other off. It also depicts the desperate drive to acquire more - I love when the narrator explains to his wife, "Oh prince's daughter, there is no such thing as just enough money. Only two measures: No Money and Not Enough Money."

However, on a deeper level it reflects the aloneness we feel in our own minds, the thoughts we all have and wonder if other people have. "No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is suppose they are like himself," Ethan muses. Later, wondering what his wife really feels about their situation in life, he cries desperately in his mind, "Does anyone ever know even the outer fringe of another? What are you like in there? Mary - do you hear? Who are you in there?" This was my favorite part of this book - the experience of being in Ethan's head, of experiencing the twisting of his ideas and the development of the changes in him. His thoughts wander and flit around but somehow they are still easy to follow. And they are written by Steinbeck, so they are beautiful. Here's the mind-candy beautiful passage of the day:

The light-rimmed boundary of the east was July, for June had gone away in the night. July is brass where June is gold, and lead where June is silver. July leaves are heavy and fat and crowding. Birdsong of July is a flatulent refrain without passion, for the nests are empty now and dumpy fledglings teeter clumsily. No, July is not a month of promise or of fulfillment. Fruit is growing but unsweet and uncolored, corn is a limp green bundle with a young and yellow tassel. The squashes still wear umbilical crowns of dry blossom.

My other favorite thing about this book was the relationship between Ethan and his wife. So often literature exposes the dissatisfaction in marriage. While Ethan and Mary are dissatisfied with their lives, it isn't because they don't want to be married to each other. Even though they don't understand each other, they love each other deeply and sweetly. And while Ethan professes to not understand Mary, he makes poignant observations about her that suggest he understands more than he thinks - "My Mary knows she will live forever, that she will step from the living into another life as easily as she slips from sleep to wakefulness. She knows this with her whole body, so completely that she does not think of it any more than she thinks to breathe. Thus she has time to sleep, time to rest, time to cease to exist for a little." He picks her flowers, he calls her pet names, he wants more than anything to erase her shame, despite her love for him, that he is a store clerk. The relationship is refreshing and a fundamental theme in the novel.

Steinbeck won the Nobel for this in 1961, and he deserved it. This, his last novel, is beautiful, poignant, and even thrilling. I have so many pages bent over with the quotes that I love (sorry to all of you wincing because you keep your books pristine). I could go on all day with this review. But I will just leave you with this: READ THIS BOOK. You will not regret it!

Accessibility/Readability: The beginning is weird, and when I read a sample of it, I was almost turned off from this book, ready to go pick up Grapes of Wrath. But after the first ten pages or so, you get used to Ethan's way of talking. There are also a few random shifts in the p.o.v., but they aren't hard to understand - they just might throw you off for a moment.
Aesthetics/literary merit: 5. Definitely.
Plot: 5. It is exciting, and made me eager to know what came next more than any other book I've read in the last several months.
Characters: 5. They are well developed, and you grow to love them. I feel like I know Ethan.
Personal Response: 5. Obvs.
Overall: 5


  1. I've been swallowed up in so many classics and those written pre-1950s, but haven't gone into Steinbeck's works. I might need to fix that soon. I like the reason why you picked this one because of the title -- I would have started with that one, too.

  2. I've read "Of Mice and Men" but only for school. I really should get around to reading some more Steinbeck.

  3. This sounds great! I really need to read more Steinbeck. :)

  4. @Coffee and a Book Chick - You should! I haven't read a ton of Steinbeck, but what I have read I have really loved.

    @Sam - I actually haven't read that one, although I read The Pearl in school, which was more like a fable, I think only 60 pages or so. His more complex words like this one and East of Eden are my favorites.

    @Eva - Me too! I've only read a few. My husband is from San Francisco and we are hoping to be there in a few years, so I feel like I have to so I can fit in with the natives. :)

  5. Your rating system of ranking the novel on various aspects is well done. Nice idea!

    I'm a new reader of your blog and I've passed along an award to you. Do with it as you wish. :) Here's the link to my post below:

    Versatile Blogger Award


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