The Winter of Our Discontent

 Context

Overview

When John Steinbeck was a young boy, his aunt gave him the book that would spark his lifelong fascination with words -- a copy of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. So late in his life when he decided to update Malory’s Middle English for the modern reader, he was undertaking a project that was perhaps more personal than anything he had done before. The work appealed to both the scholar and the creative writer in Steinbeck. He and his wife Elaine settled in Somerset, England, for most of 1959, where he had access to research materials and could get a feel for Arthur’s world. What started out as a straightforward translation turned into an ambitious retelling, and Steinbeck returned to America with the work unfinished.

The Steinbecks arrived in America just in time to witness the media frenzy surrounding Columbia University English Professor Charles Van Doren. He had recently admitted to cheating on the popular TV game show Twenty One. What Steinbeck perceived as the chief problems in Malory’s time – greed, ambition above integrity, and immorality – he identified in America, an ailing culture made weak from prosperity and abundance. The scandal with Van Doren, who hailed from a distinguished family of letters, further cemented this conviction that Americans cared more about fame and money than honesty and basic morality. His remedy was to write The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), a book about an ordinary family in contemporary America, confronted by these very problems.

Winter weaves together some of the most important influences on Steinbeck: Malory’s Arthur, The Bible, Shakespeare, history, mythology, and even the modern literature of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It was the novel that once again positioned Steinbeck as a social critic. Like The Grapes of Wrath,Winter is another richly textured work set in the present day; in this case, 1960 America. The story follows Ethan Allen Hawley from Good Friday to Independence Day, as he negotiates the financial and ethical problems set before him. His transformation is told against a backdrop of Christian religious holidays, with Ethan’s development following the death and resurrection of Christ. Hawley’s name signifies the historical Ethan Allen, an American political hero of questionable integrity. Steinbeck calls all of American history into question when he links Ethan’s ancestral roots to both Puritans and whaling tycoons. The novel’s title is taken from the line in Shakespeare’s Richard III, a play about another corrupt historical figure. Finally, the novel’s conclusion makes a clear nod to Arthur when Ethan finds the family talisman in his pocket.

Though bleak, The Winter of Our Discontent leaves the reader with a symbol of hope. The American moral terrain is not quite a wasteland, but Steinbeck wants to warn his readers that a superficial life, one which placed a higher value on material success than personal integrity, would surely lead to a degenerate culture. In prosperous 1960, it must have been difficult to comprehend the kind of world Steinbeck imagined when he wrote the book, but by the time of the Watergate scandal, Americans were all too familiar with a country led by dishonest politicians, a country in which the courageous were assassinated for standing firmly behind their principles. The Hawley family could be any middle class American family in 1960, but perhaps The Winter of Our Discontent is best read as a fable or cautionary tale, with its characters and events symbolic of the timeless problems of temptation, greed, and the desire for personal advancement.