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The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

By Kriegerfrau | Books | February 4, 2010 |

By Kriegerfrau | Books | February 4, 2010 |

This was Steinbeck’s last complete novel, published in 1961. I had never heard of it before I discovered it when rifling through the bargain bins at Half Price Books. I had to look at his picture in the back to make sure it was the John Steinbeck. (I also discovered his younger son — the only surviving one — is a published writer. Did anyone know that?)

A quick rundown: Ethan Hawley is a Long Islander who comes from a long line of once great men, whalers and men of commerce and banking and business. He once owned the grocery store and many other things, but hard financial times means he is now the clerk at the store, and an Italian man owns it. His wife, though a very pleasant, devoted woman, is disappointed in this turn of events, and his children seethe and resent their lower place on the social ladder. They are outwardly kind and loving to Ethan, but he knows they are unhappy and they know he knows. Opportunities come along for Ethan to correct this, all of them asking him to compromise his morals in order to regain his lost position in the world.

I don’t regret reading it, but I’m not terribly glad about it, either. There’s something missing here. Steinbeck is off his game, that much is clear. I could never figure out why parts of the book are told from the third person point of view and parts are in first person. That would be an intriguing stylistic choice if there seemed to be some motivation, some larger meaning driving it, but I could find none. Perhaps it was too far beyond my understanding, who knows? It felt random, almost unintentional and sloppy. I’ve loved Steinbeck so much, I almost feel ashamed using such descriptors, but there it is.

(As I was reading this, I would sometimes remind myself that the same person wrote East of Eden. I almost couldn’t believe it.)

Instead of allowing the characters’ words and actions to tell the story as he did so well in his earlier works, Steinbeck engages in long soliloquies (appropriate given the title?) that I found myself rushing through. This was the first time I ever felt impatient with Steinbeck.

So stylistically, we have those two problems—the first fairly minor and the second severe enough to interfere with the enjoyment of the story.

But there’s also the tone: high-handed, moralistic and cynical. Now Steinbeck can definitely deliver a swift moral blow; just read The Grapes of Wrath. But in his prime, he did it through the characters and without the long sermons. He did it with a light enough touch that, even when dealing with very serious issues, the reader got it without being bludgeoned by it.

As much as I hate to say it, Steinbeck seems to have gotten that old man disease of thinking the world has rotted and gone to hell all around him and no one is good anymore and no one ever will be again—the time of good men and good women and honesty and etiquette and moral strength has passed and will never again reappear. It happens to the best of us. (I’m looking at you, Ray Bradbury.) You feel it on every page of this novel and it’s my theory that this is what tripped him up, this is what threw off his writing game in the end—the preoccupation with delivering a withering sermon in his final novel.

Still, I suppose it’s good to find out that the writer I thought just couldn’t mess up finally did. When I look at his larger body of work, it’s clear that The Winter of Our Discontent does not take anything from the beauty and power of his earlier works.

And that is what I will hold onto.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Kriegerfrau’s reviews, check out her blog.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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