‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ centers on Ethan Hawley, a grocery clerk who has fallen on hard times and now works in the store he once owned. He is slated for his lack of ambition, but battles to maintain his integrity against the corrupting influence of small town American life. But the dam cannot hold. Ethan reports his Italian boss to the Immigration Service, getting him deported in the process, and is sucked into the same mire as those around him.
It’s a return to fall-of-man motif explored in ‘East of Eden’, but ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ is far more a comment on the degradation of contemporary society that Steinbeck had witnessed during the previous decades. Indeed, the novel is set in Long Island, where the novelist lived for a number of years. It’s one of his least harrowing, but most accessible books, and the last one he ever completed. The social commentary is there for all to see, but it reads more like a novel than the documentary feel of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ or ‘In Dubious Battle’. And as with all his greatest novels, there’s the trademark ending. John Steinbeck knew better than most how to end a novel.
The surrealist painter Magritte said he always gave his paintings abstract titles in order to lend an extra layer of mystery to the composition. With Steinbeck too, his titles add dimension and were almost always chosen from the classics. By choosing the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Steinbeck could have been using the phrase in same inaccurate way that it is used in politics (the winter of discontent is the end of discontent, the death of discontent, not the depths of it). However, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. With those words is begun a play about unravelling morality, political conspiracy and spiralling violence. ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ is hardly ‘The Godfather’, but it does remind us that whether it be shopping your boss to Immigration or shopping your brother to the king, it only takes one petty act to begin the downward spiral. It is a novel that in recent years has become relevant all over again.