The Winter of Our Discontent - Setting
Place - New Baytown
The story is set in a small town on the East Coast modeled after Sag Harbor, New York, where Steinbeck lived while writing the book. New Baytown (like Sag Harbor) was once a whaling port. The town has “fine inland waters” and “native timber” of oak (161). The oak trees of the town used to furnish the town with the timber necessary to build commercial ships. Ethan reflects, “Other towns not too far away grew and prospered on other products and energies, but New Baytown, whose whole living force had been in square-rigged ships and whales, sank into torpor” (161). As coal oil replaced whale oil as the fuel source for the country, the town’s economy failed to adapt. Other cities in the area adapted by catering to the tourists that would flock to the area to escape the large cities of the east coast but New Baytown did not follow suit.
Place - The Tide Pool
Another central location in the story is the tide pool that Ethan visits during times of change and turmoil in his life. Steinbeck makes references to tide pools throughout his work (See Philbrick). The tide pool is an ecological setting that is teaming with life. In Steinbeck’s novels the tide pools symbolize a microcosm of society. Steinbeck is examining the “‘paradox’ of the human species, in which man’s need for success, which in the Darwinian world of the tide pool is equated with a ‘strong survival quotient,’ inevitably overrides the ‘week survival quotient’ of his need to do good” (Philbrick 237). In essence, Ethan’s secret place is a place were animals fight to survive through Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, and it is here that Ethan realizes that to survive himself he must change and adapt to the ruthless, heartless society around him.
Time - Holy Week and Independence Day
The entire story is set between two major holidays, Easter and the Fourth of July. These holidays are significant in that Ethan makes his unholy transformation during Holy Week and realizes that he is trapped in his new life on Independence Day.