The Winter of Our Discontent is the grand finale of John Steinbeck’s fictitious creation. Deriving the title from William Shakespeare’s Richard III opening lines “Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York”, the story is somewhat a psychological analysis into a man’s moral dilemma of doing what is right and doing whatever it takes him to become successful.
As Gloucester in Richard III, Ethan Allen Hawley in Steinbeck’s novel hopes for better times, as he has reached the height of his discontent. Coming from once a wealthy and influential family, the reduced circumstances to which he has fallen, plodding through his life as a mere grocery clerk is quite displeasing to him. The Hawleys once carried their head high, and now, though he is still respected for his ancestry and lineage, he doesn’t know how long the water will hold. He is sure it won’t pass to the next generation, unless he, Ethan Hawley, does something about it. He no longer can avoid the growing restlessness in his family, living in reduced conditions. But what can he possibly do? If he treads on a high moral path, nothing. But avenues may open to him if he wouldn’t mind deviating lawfully from such high grounds. What ground should he tread on? Success or righteous? Here is then the dilemma for Ethan. And Steinbeck takes us through his quandary with his powerful prose.
This final novel by Steinbeck is quite different from his early works, both in style and theme. The Steinbeck who wrote this wasn’t the same Steinbeck who was influenced by his native Salinas Valley. Here he has moved from his comfort zone and adjusted himself to a geographical and cultural change. He had also to adjust to the changing times, the need to address the prevailing issues in American society. There is a mature growth in his writing here. It is rich, deep and, demanding. Steinbeck plays well with his pen. He paints a vivid picture of his story which strongly connects the readers to the characters and settings. His deep but subtle penetration into the mind of the protagonist shows the inner struggle of a man who chooses success above morality. I’ve never felt Steinbeck to be a demanding writer. But he has presented the story in such a subtle manner that you need the focus of all your faculties to fully appreciate it.
I read that the reception of this novel was mixed and that there were some severe criticisms made against it which silenced Steinbeck’s creative fiction. But from the perspective of a devoted fan, this is one of Steinbeck’s best.