John Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent

There is something exceptionally real about Ethan Allen Hawley – real to the point of frightening.

Hawley, the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s novel The Winter of Our Discontent, finds that honesty isn’t paying the bills or giving his wife and children a few extra luxuries.  Coming from a once-prominent family in a small New England town, Hawley sets in motion a plan to regain some of his family’s wealth and prominence at the cost of his principles and integrity.  I think what made Hawley so real was Steinbeck’s ability to provide him with an innocent sense of humor in the face of his not-so-innocent moral choices.

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Hawley family goes back several centuries making American History an important part of the novel.  Steinbeck brilliantly compares and contrasts the dreams and realities of America two hundred years ago with the dreams and realities today (the novel is set in 1960).  A beautiful passage occurs when Hawley is going through the attic of his family’s house to find information for his son’s essay on why he loves America:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain.  The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing.  We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is.  So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

I found fascinating that Steinbeck uses Easter Sunday and the Fourth of July as backdrops for the action in the novel.

Some of the themes and concepts Steinbeck brings out are similar to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby (“the old sport”) made choices in achieving his version of the American Dream just like Hawley.  Gatsby and his world seemed larger than life, though.

There is something exceptionally real about Ethan Allen Hawley – real to the point of heart-breaking.

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