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The Winter of our Discontent - John Steinbeck
Toccata: A musical composition intended to display the skill and technique of the performer.
If ever a novel could be sub-titled Toccata it would be John Steinbeck's 'The Winter of Our Discontent'. It is a piece of writing so skilful and so masterful that you are left in awe of the writer's ability to use the written word. This isn't the greatest story ever told, it isn't even the author's best novel despite winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961. It is, however, the best written novel I've ever read. It is a painful paradox that here am I, with my sixth form grasp of English, trying to convey exactly why I think this is the best and I know I am destined to fail.
John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California and spent much of his life in Monterey County also in California. An infrequent scholar he intermittently attended Stanford University for more than half a decade without graduating. He undertook manual labour to support his fledgling writing career and it was during this time that he encountered many of the characters that would later populate his works. The immigrant paisano's of 'Tortilla Flat', the migrant Oakies of 'The Grapes of Wrath' and the itinerant farm hands of 'Of Mice and Men' were all part of the life-education of the young Steinbeck and it was through their experiences that he was able to tell his, and their, stories.
Steinbeck's first three novels were not well received critically or commercially but with his fourth, 'Tortilla Flat', he came to public attention. With the short story 'Of Mice and Men' he announced himself as a writer of rare talent and four years later he cemented his reputation as one on America's greatest writers with his crowning achievement 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Other great works were produced in the following decades including 'Cannery Row' based on times spent with marine biologist Ed Ricketts in Monterrey and 'East of Eden' a sweeping story of a family in Salinas that is not a million miles from being the story of the Steinbeck family. In 1961 he published 'The Winter of our Discontent', the last work published in his lifetime and the one to win the Nobel Prize. He died in 1968, the year of my birth incidentally so maybe his spirit lives on in me. Or maybe not.
There is an oft quoted maxim in writing which goes: 'Write what you know.' Steinbeck certainly followed this and all his work is underpinned by personal experience and observation. The main body of his work is set in Northern California where he was born and raised and is populated by the characters he had encountered before and during the great depression. New England is a long way from California but it is where he lived for the last decades of his life and he must have seen another side of America in his time there that inspired him to write this polemic against the growing consumerism and failing morals that he saw as undermining a country of which he was fiercely proud.
'The Winter of our Discontent' is the story of Ethan Allen Hawley, a resident of the pleasantly prosperous New England town of New Baytown. The Hawley's are a well established family in the area and through the generations amassed a great wealth from shipping. Initially they were privateers (officially sanctioned pirates) during the war of independence and in later years they ran whaling fleets. Following the collapse of the whale oil trade and some disastrous investments by Ethan's father and himself the family's wealth has all but disappeared. Ethan now works as a grocery clerk in a store once owned by the family and all he has left is the Hawley family house and a respected name.
Ethan shares the substantial family home with a wife and two teenage children. Ostensibly they are a happy, supportive family but as they enter the 1960's the rest of the family become more aware of their financial short comings. While other families are acquiring cars and televisions the Hawley's are not and while dissatisfaction is never openly expressed his wife's gentle promptings alert Ethan to the fact that being a good person from a good family is not enough in the modern world. Throughout the first half of the book Ethan is a man happy with his world, he has his demons such as judgemental ancestors and a WWII service experience that clouds a lot of his thinking, but largely he is happy with his family and his undemanding job. He is, though, a man afraid. It does rankle that he has to work for others and that he is looked down upon and even pitied by the other townsfolk but he is afraid to take chances. When the family inherits a modest sum of money he refuses to invest it or use it in any way to start a business, afraid that his previous failures will undermine any chance he might have of success.
Slowly, however, a change comes over Ethan. Prompted by the gentle nudging of various characters around him; from Mr Baker, an old family friend and prominent businessman; from Margie Young-Hunt, a part-time fortune teller and the self described 'town's playmate' and from Mr Marullo, the owner of the store who tries to awaken Ethan to the real nature of business, he grows aware of the potential within himself to become more than he has let himself be.
Via a series of unlikely events Ethan finds himself on an inexorable path to wealth and power. On this path he finds that he has the ability to achieve his goals while appearing to others to be the same inoffensive person he was before. So good is he at this deception that he manages to even deceive himself and actually enhance his reputation as an honest citizen, even to those he is now betraying. The plans that he hatches are despicable in the extreme and include armed robbery, betraying his illegal immigrant boss and giving his self-harming childhood friend the means to kill himself in order to gain a legal advantage. We are distanced from these events because the book is written in the first person and we see them only through the thoughts of Ethan who spends a lot of time denying their existence and equally absolving himself of responsibility: 'A crime is something someone else commits' he tells himself at one point and then later asks: 'If no one is caught, how can a crime have been committed?'
The reader is asked to make several leaps of faith with this story, and some of the events stretch credibility. Ethan's transformation from the easy going family man with high moral standards into a ruthless businessman willing to sacrifice even his oldest friend over the course of a scant few months is somewhat unrealistic, but this is Steinbeck and with Steinbeck the story is often secondary to the message. What Steinbeck has written is a stark indictment of the moral decline of America in the face of growing materialism. To convey this he assigns specific roles to various characters. Ethan's son, Allen, is the voice of modern America; morally ambivalent he see's the goal as the only issue, the process of getting there is not important and if it involves cheating, lying or dishonesty then so what? 'Everybody does it. It's the way the cooky crumbles' he reasons when caught in a lie. Ethan's wife, Mary, is the voice of the modern consumer - at least modern in terms of the 1950's. She aspires to the TV's, cars and other domestic trappings of her neighbours and is frustrated by Ethan's inability and unwillingness to take the steps necessary to provide them. When Ethan turns down a bribe from a wholesaler because he can't conceive double-crossing his employer she chastises him, saying that she would gladly trade '...a habit of conduct and attitude for comfort and dignity...'. Ethan's grandfather is the voice of a traditional America, an America that Steinbeck was proud of. He lives on in Ethan's memory and his words provide the moral guidance and strength that Ethan craves. Through him you can hear the voice of the author, providing the only cure he can see for the growing malaise, that only by individual action can the decline be reversed: 'Only in a single man alone--only in one man alone. There's the only power--one man alone.'
Ethan himself is the voice of Steinbeck's America, or at least his rose-tinted ideal of an America. Built on the highest standards of morality and self-sacrifice he is subsumed by greed and the ease with which he turns to corruption and betrayal is indicative of the author's view of America's moral decline.
But there is a flaw in Steinbeck's judgment; he places his moral strength in the Ethan of the early chapters and in turn draws Ethan's sense of morality on the memories of his forefathers and the lessons they taught him as a child, but those same forefathers were pirates, rich whaling captains and powerful businessmen and it is unlikely that they achieved such heights by being nice to people. Perhaps Steinbeck acknowledges this and he expresses this through Mr Marullo. When he is trying to teach Ethan that you can't be both nice and successful, Ethan is dismayed. Thinking of his grandfather and others in the town he maintains that he knows lots of nice businessmen but Marullo counters: 'You think they're nice but you don't do business with them. When you do business, they ain't so nice'.
'The Winter of our Discontent' is a book that can be enjoyed on many levels. Superficially it is a low beat thriller for a casual reader. At a deeper level there is much here for the academic: for the literary student there is a wealth of imagery and themes to be discussed and dissected and for the sociologist the stirring social commentary. Somewhere in between this book will appeal to the aesthete and that is where I find my enjoyment. As I said at the outset this is possibly the best written book I have come across. The book is very internal in that, especially in the early chapters, we spend our time almost entirely within Ethan's thoughts and moods. Steinbeck's ability to relate these thoughts to the reader so clearly and yet so beautifully is stunning and as I expected I am unable to adequately convey this, but take the time to read this book and you will understand.
Steinbeck's last great novel focuses on the theme of success and what motivates men towards it. Reflecting back on his New England family's past fortune, and his father's loss of the family wealth, the hero, Ethan Allen Hawley, characterises success in every era and in all its forms as robbery, murder, even a kind of combat, operating under 'the laws of controlled savagery.'