Steinbeckathon 2012: The Winter of Our Discontent
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"Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today." - John Steinbeck, Author's Foreward, The Winter of Our Discontent
"It is strange how a man believes he can think better in a special place. I have such a place, have always had it, but I know it isn't thinking I do there, but feeling and experiencing and remembering. It's a safety place—everyone must have one, although I never heard a man tell of it." - John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
This is the discussion thread for John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent
Lynda / Carmenere will be hosting this thread.
Spoilers are welcome, but please indicate them in your message out of
respect for those who are reading at a different pace. Enjoy!
Steinbeckathon main thread: http://www.librarything.com/topic/130105
eta: I tried making the covers larger this time, but if the image area is too wide for your screen or browser, please let me know. /This message will self-destruct in the next 24 hours.
If you enjoy TIOLI challenges many readers are using this book for March TIOLI Challenge #6: Read a book with a title word that is a heterograph/homonym (same pronunciation, different spelling, different meaning) Our/hour.
I borrowed this book last month from my library with the house on the cover. I couldn't renew it so ended up with the second cover. It's a hardcover ancient looking thing. The novel was written the year I was born so people might say the same for me.
Anyway, hope you all enjoy this month's choice and are looking forward to where Steinbeck takes you next.
Please feel free to let us know your joining in and comment at will, but be spoiler watchful.
It's been many a year since I last saw "Richard III", but I do love those lines:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
This month I plan to read the selected novel early in the month. I'll probably start it as soon as I complete my current read.
Can't wait to get to it!
I read some background info on wiki instead (where I could scroll over the plot part) and found it interesting that the book received so much praise from the Nobel Prize committee while the US critics and the public reacted negatively.
One thing I am interested to know: the Italian boss is called a 'terrone' in my translation, this is a quite deprecative expression for South Italians. What expression did Steinbeck use in the original?
Some critics thought this novel an immediate classic, others a disappointment. One critic, "Peter Lisca called Winter "undeniable evidence of the aesthetic and philosophical failure of the writer’s later fiction"(wikipedia)
It will be interesting to see how our thoughts compare.
Since March is a tortuously long month, there's no need to hurry so begin at your leisure and enjoy!
From my review (no spoilers): To me Steinbeck is a great author and he writes fantastic prose, but this one was just too muddled for me to fully appreciate. I've read that it polarizes readers, you either love it or you hate it, and although I wouldn't say I hated it, I also wouldn't say I could easily summarize it or go into detail about its virtues.
I'll be curious to hear what everyone else thinks (hopefully others' responses will be more positive!) but unfortunately this one didn't really work for me.
I am also struck by Ethan's passionate (and yet tempered) adoration of his wife. I have gone back and forth on whether I "believe" it. At this point in the novel, it does seem genuine.
I am in chapter 5 and so far it just feels 'different', but all the Steinbecks I've read felt 'different'. It's not like with other authors where you'll feel immediately at home or 'if you know one novel you know them all'. It always takes me a couple of chapters to familiarize myself with the new characters and the situations he's throwing them into.
I guess the main motives in this novel might be (don't know, haven't read any plot spoilers yet) heritage, honor, the idea of Easter (being reborn cleaned of all sins), but it might also develop into a different direction. With its concentration on the protagonist and the other characters (so far) being only the influences (temptations?) from the outside this really is different from CR and WB with their bunch of equally important characters and background stories. The heritage thing imo also shows in the likeness of the names (Ethan Allen, Allen, Mary Ellen), the religious motive in Mary/ Mary Ellen, but maybe I am over-interpreting here.
I can also see how this could have been a failure with the critics and the public - Steinbeck is attacking some values which surely have been almost 'holy' at the time when the book was published. And some questions Ethan is asking himself - or discussing with the goods in his store - are extremely actual right now with the financial crisis.
Spoiler question: Something I didn't fully understand (too many Italian words I didn't know and no dictionary at hand when I read it): What happened in the night between Good Friday and Saturday that made Ethan act so differently on Saturday? He was out, he was thinking in his special 'thinking place' - but where did the 'enlightenment' come from?
By now the story has me hooked, and I hope I'll have enough reading time to finish it this week.
What annoys me - but Steinbeck was just a careful observer and I see it as open criticism from his side - is the way women and men agree on "women aren't interested in business talk and prefer discussing wallpaper".
#17 Glad to have been of some assistance, Nathalie!
#18 Yeah, it sort of surprises me, Ursula, the dicatomy
that is Ethan. In one breath he recites verses from the bible regarding the events of Good Friday and then he slams his employer with all these slurs.
#19 Interesting take on TWoOD, LibraryLover. What do you mean by muddled? Is it the characters, the storyline or something else? I'm only on Chapter Five so I don't have a lot of insight into the story yet but I already sense a lack of poetic lines or phrases.
#20 Ellen, I think we're of the same mind, I have yet to see the kind of descriptive and poetic writing that took me to Cannery Row.
You make a good observation regarding the story being in first person. Obviously, we're only getting the story from Ethan's POV and since he seems rather naive and held down by the things which he had lost it may be rather skewed.
#21 Great comments, Nathalie! I too wondered what transpired in the cave that immediately changed Ethan's outlook on life. But as I typed this, I recalled that Jesus was buried in a cave for 3 days and returned in glory. Perhaps this is of some significance? I'm only half way through chapter 5 so I should get to chapter 7 tomorrow.
Continue your great comments, ideas and observations Steinbeckathoners!
I also feel like I want to go find and read a quick reminder-synopsis of Richard III. Given the title, I'm sure there are allusions that I'm missing in that regard.
In the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, part of which I read, Ethan's unpredictable voice was noted. That writer felt sure this was intentional on Steinbeck's part but didn't say what purpose it serves in the unfolding of the narrative and/or the development of Ethan's character. I don't even know how to speculate.
One thing I did notice was that though the tone and writing are different from other works of his, there is still a very definite sense of place in this novel. I'm originally from the Northeast and the descriptions of the town and area are very well done.
I can relate to the 'muddled' now from post #19. Although the novel is written in first person we don't see Ethan's true intentions. In chapter 5 I thought he'd had some kind of epiphany and was chosing the honest way. Now I am not so sure. It's like he has a couple of options and is preparing for all of them, just in case, also for the very bad ones (robbing the bank??! seriously??).
At some point I thought he's on the verge of losing his mind. At the same time I am getting an idea that maybe everyone else is playing with him. In CR and WB the characters and their intentions were well explained before any real action took place, here I am looking at a big blank after 200 pages.
I guess this book will stay with me even longer than WB and it could also be a book I'd like to buy to have it in my library.
I wish I had a copy of Troubles and a place to fit it into my March reading. The GR seems to be all the rage and I'm reading lots of praise of the novel. I hate being left out, you know. ;-)
What compromises are we willing to make? Where should one look for one's identity? What, in the end, is too much to sacrifice? And what ultimately matters most?
Still haven't done a review or anything, as these questions are still rattling around in my head!
I felt very tempted to take a break as well after part 1. I don't like it if books are divided into 'parts' - there are books I have on hold forever (although I really liked them), just because I wanted to take a short break when a part was finished. So I read on last night and
small spoiler for part 2, chapters 1-2:
after being annoyed about the whole 'and then it was 3 months later' I was glad we finally got a closer look at Margie and her possible motives. And I feel for her. Ageing alone is not very nice nowadays, but at least women can go to work until they reach retirement and don't have to rely on some ex-husband's pay-check.
And it feels like finally the plot thickens!
Is Ethan losing his mind? I'm not yet sure but I cringe everytime he refers to his wife with one of his endearing terms. It just doesn't sound sincere.
Or do you think he may be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome?
I can certainly understand where some of you would want to put this book down for awhile. I find that where TWB moved along as it progressed down the road TWoOD moves along for awhile then jolts to a stop, moves along, stops. It's frustrating but it's basically the only book I'm reading now just so I can be done with it.
I don't htink Ethan is losing his mind. I think he is finally seeing things clearly and what he sees rocks the foundation of his identity and how he sees himself.
I found his relationship with his wife to be very interesting, and I think his love for her is sincere. He just can't express it.
The critics and the readers in the 1960s didn't like it? What a surprise...
I guess that "Winter" is quite a personal book and that Steinbeck put many of hs own doubts about the morals of the 1950s/60s US into the character of Ethan. He himself must have been bitter and disillusioned when he wrote it. If wikipedia is right, he didn't publish anything else in his lifetime ( 2 incomplete works were published posthumously) because he was so disappointed by the reactions of the American critics and readers. He had put his finger into a wound that no-one wanted to see. I can imagine that it was seen as a betrayal of the American values. He was resented even more when the NB committee of all his books gave this one a special mention. (was Sweden seen as communist friendly in the 50s/60s?)
I'm finding the whole social situation stultifying as well: the women stay home and choose wallpaper and discuss Easter hats, while the men go out and do Business. Not to mention the way Marullo is treated. (FYI, in Australia, the word "wog" is used instead of "wop". It's not a word I'd use, but Australians-of-Mediterranean-descent have reclaimed it and are using it with pride, which I like. I still don't feel comfortable using it, as I'm not of Mediterranean descent.)
Going slow, I'm afraid.
But I've skimmed the above comments (avoiding spoilers as much as possible) and I shall stick with it.
I did have some pluses, but I can't quite remember them now. It's certainly well written, but it doesn't have the gloriousness of the earlier works we've read. While I don't buy his teasing talk to Mary all the time, I do like that he loves her. And I like the depiction of Ethan as a returned soldier, there was something I read on the bus this morning about the sonic boom of the nearby jets reminding him of German artillery. And I am curious where he's going...
Oh, what happened in 1812? (My Penguin edition has no notes! I had to Google Ozma this morning, not having read past the first Wizard of Oz book.) Was that the Spanish American war? I know a smidge about the privateers during the War of Independence (a teeny tiny smidge, we don't cover American history in Australian schools!). There's some mention about Ethan's (whaling/privateering) ancestors and it sounded like America was back at war then, but the only war I knew about would be Napoleon and that's very, very far away. (And America was never at war with France, were they?)
Help! I need an American history overview! (Usually Penguin do excellent notes. I'm a little disappointed that I've got nothing in this edition.)
Is this just a fluke, or was Steinbeck a bit Spring-obsessed? :)
"The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions due to Britain's ongoing war with France, the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion, outrage over insults to national honour after humiliations on the high seas and possible American desire to annex Canada."
I don't know all that much about it, as it's not covered much in American schools beyond the basics (at least it wasn't when I was in school!).
I'm a fair whack into Part 2 now, and it's definitely gotten more interesting. I think the first half just had too much set up: Ethan's cute names for Mary; Ethan's family's past glories; Ethan's work at the grocery; and it was all a bit much especially since I did not like Ethan!
Now I'm very curious as to what Ethan is going to do... (Still don't like him much.)
ETA: But he has become fascinating in his potential evil.
Like many others, I dislike the "cute" names for Mary, but I do give him credit for little repetition. He's getting desperate, however, with "duck blossom" and "creamy fowl"! I'm tempted to stay up late tonight to finish the book. There are too many hints regarding the powerful ending for me to be patient. I'm also curious to see how Ellen plays out at the end of the story. That mystical sleepwalking scene has to mean something!
Glad I read this one overall, thanks to all the Steinbeckathonmeisters!
I agree with Nathalie. Morals seem to play a big part in this novel. I think it's the "Well, everybody else is doing it" mentality that makes wrongs right.
"How Ellen plays out" is an interesting angle, Donna. I haven't given her much thought but the sleep walking bit was a bit surreal.
Yeah, Tania, Ethan is a complex character. I think he lives too much in the past and rests is laurels, so to speak, on the achievements of others as well as their failures.
Here are some interesting facts about Steinbeck from Google:
Fun Facts About John Steinbeck
By: Jennifer Maughan
Facts about John Steinbeck's life tend to surprise those who are interested in learning more about the award-winning author. While John Steinbeck is known as a great American novelists, the man who penned The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row was hardly the fame-seeking, forthcoming type.
Steinbeck claims Irish and German ancestry.
Steinbeck's mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, passed her love of the arts to her son.
He had three sisters-two older and one younger.
As a child, Steinbeck's favorite book was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.
As a teenager, Steinbeck worked on local ranges as a hired hand.
He graduated from Salinas High School in 1919.
The famous writer never graduated from college.
In 1925, Steinbeck left California for New York to pursue a writing career, but returned home unsuccessful.
Steinbeck's 1935 novel, Tortilla Flats, won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal award for best novel.
During the World War II, Steinbeck worked as a war correspondent for a New York newspaper.
Most of Steinbeck's novels center around Depression-era characters struggling for survival, respect and dignity.
Many of Steinbeck's novels feature themes of social protest, such as In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Moon Is Down (1942).
Seventeen of Stenbeck's works were turned into Hollywood films, often multiple times.
Steinbeck received an Academy Award nomination in 1944 for Lifeboat, an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
During his life, Steinbeck received some of the world's most prestigious awards: the Pulitzer Prize (Grapes of Wrath, 1940), the Nobel Prize for Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).
Steinbeck hated being famous and stayed out of the public eye as much as he could.
He married three times and had two children, both sons.
His best friend was marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, and they wrote a non-fiction book called The Sea of Cortez after a 6-week expedition to Mexico to study marine life.
John Steinbeck was actually John Ernst Steinbeck III; his son was also named John Ernst Steinbeck to carry on the family tradition.
I'll be back later with more of my thoughts.
Lynda- You have done a great job leading this G.R.! You are a natural. And thanks for the Steinbeck bio info.
Ethan is no better or worse than most of us by ***SPOILER*** giving into temptation. I do like, however, that unlike his son, he shows remorse for his actions. Steinbeck goes deeply into the inner workings of what makes us moral or immoral creatures. There is so much to think about in this relatively short book. My kind of book!
ETA: Spoiler alert, although I think we could see this coming!
I completed the novel this morning and after begrudgingly slushing through 178 pages Steinbeck serves up Part Two and, as some of you have mentioned, a great conclusion. In a few short paragraphs I not only took a likeing to Ethan but also developed a love for the book.
I thought it very appropriate that he once endeared Ellen with the tag, "dung-flower"
I thought how true it is that the apples do not fall far from the trees, one like Mary, the other like Ethan.
I'll get a review together soon, just so much to consider.
Now, I'm ready for The Moon is Down Never read it and don't know what to expect but I wouldn't be surprised if it concerns another human overcoming the odds.
I decided I want this book on my shelf and soon (read a library copy for the GR). There's so much to find and it is imo so timeless, so actual. It could theoretically be a great book for high school classes, if well presented, because it has the kids characters and the moral questions could lead to some great discussions. If it is not read in schools it is either still unrecognized or maybe it too clearly shows the superficiality of our morals.
I am now convinced that the extreme worshipping of Mary (which we all hated) was a deliberate exaggeration. Ethan's affection might be genuine, but he over-estimates his own role when it comes to keeping her in good humour.
Something I thought about today:
If Ethan is in some way the old America and Ellen and Allen (those names again!) are an allegory for the future, then Mary in all her purity is the picture America presents to the outside world. And in the end Ethan understands that this clean, glorious picture is not going to change, even when the morals inside are waning. It can well keep on shining without him.
Okay, now we had three great books in three months. I fear it can't get any better. Or can it?
I found a video recording of his Nobel Prize speech here:
I also wondered about Ethan's names for his wife.
Near the end of the book, Ethan tells Margie he thinks Mary is "tender and sweet and kind of helpless." I wonder if this may be why he does it, because he wants to somehow keep her in his mind as someone who needs protecting from the real world. Yet at the same time he seems to idolize her. Can't express it well, but there it is.
I am now convinced that the extreme worshipping of Mary (which we all hated) was a deliberate exaggeration. Ethan's affection might be genuine, but he over-estimates his own role when it comes to keeping her in good humour
As Mary mentioned again and again, Ethan is a silly man but more than that I think he was happy and content being a store clerk. It was only those around him that were not satisfied with his life. I think he did indeed love Mary and wanted her to be happy and part of the upper class.
#60 "the human heart in conflict is the only thing worth writing about."
Boy, avidmom, that quote does put Steinbeck's style into perspective.
Thanks for the video link. It's pretty cool to see the man we've come to know over the past three months.
#62 You've expressed yourself quite well, marell. I think Ethan is very much a man of his time, believing that women were the weaker sex and despite all those nauseating pet names he does love her very much.
Thank you all for your wonderful comments. All of you have made this selection so much more enriching with your insights and perceptions. Keep 'em coming folks!
Except he knows that when he can't see Aunt Deborah or his grandfather clearly he's lost himself.
I'm going to reread this thread, now that I'm a little farther along. I'm hoping to finish Part 2 in a day or two.
ETA: Ethan seems to be at a crossroads (at least at the end of Part 1). It almost feels of epic scale to me.
I love the depth and breadth of language here--the reader has to pay attention, and there is no skimming allowed! I may be alone in my feeling, but I like Ethan's names for his wife, and his "silly" speeches, and his love for language. I found myself chuckling often, even though I'm worried about what will happen next.
I'm going to have to think this one through for a while before I write any comments but it was definitely worth reading.
Thanks to Lynda for all the info on Steinbeck and hosting this group read.
#65 You're more than welcome, Mary. I'm looking forward to the next book also.
#66 Except he knows that when he can't see Aunt Deborah or his grandfather clearly he's lost himself. This is a very interest comment laura. I hadn't even considered that angle. I just didn't understand where Steinbeck was going with that idea.
I may be alone in my feeling, but I like Ethan's names for his wife LOL, there's no maybe about it, Karen. I think you are all alone. As for me, I didn't care for the names until Ethan called his daughter, dung-flower. So appropriate at this moment in the novel. Makes me wonder what I might have missed with the other names.
#68 Great review, Ilana! I too was thrown by the distinctive difference of Part I and Part II. Perhaps Part I is mainly used to introduce the characters, their standing in society and their flaws or attributes (Mary's). It also clearly discribed the setting of New Baytown, of which I was very fond.
#70 Ethan didn't annoy me (like he seems to have done for others) LOL, looks like Karen's not alone afterall, calm.
I'm glad you found it worth reading.
And it's been my pleasure to host the thread! You all made it sooooooo easy for me!!!
Anyone still reading out there?
(Oh my gosh, a wild turkey is walking through my front yard! Hope it (female?) stays off the main road--it is dangerous out there. I bet the cats in the front window are going crazy!)
Anyway...Steinbeck is now one of my favorite authors. I am so glad that the Steinbeckathon came along, because I probably wouldn't have read this, and then where would I be?!
I read The Wayward Bus and The Winter of Our Discontent in a compendium from The Library of America called Travels with Charley and Later Novels 1947-1962. I think I need to get my own copy (I read a library copy). I haven't read Burning Bright, Sweet Thursday, or Travels with Charley in Search of America which are also in the book, and I think I'll NEED to.
There was a nice Notes section in the back which I didn't discover until shortly before finishing (I usually search out that stuff when I first start reading). The notes clarified some historical items.
Do the rest of you have opinions about whether or not to research a book like this before you read, or to go ahead and read on your own? I think this thread helped me get started, and I really like participating in group reads.
Thanks for all of your help and chat!
p.s. I already have my Steinbeck for next month! Let's go!
Although I don't mind some general scene setting. For me, Steinbeck is writing about a time and a place I know very little (aka "nothing") about, so I've been Googling around as I read to fill in the blanks. Usually Penguin editions have great notes, but I've been disappointed with them so far in these Steinbeck reads. Only one has had notes (TWB) and it was full of lots of information about stuff I already knew, and nothing about stuff I didn't know. Maybe they're written for an American market??
Tania, I found the notes in TWB helpful, but in TWoOD, they weren't even numbered in my Penguin edition, which was really frustrating. I don't know if the notes were written specifically for the American market, but I assume if you have an American edition then that would probably be the case.
#73 Karen, I do not like to research a book before I read it. I much rather enjoy reading the introductions after I've finished and think "Oh, I never thought of that" than read the book looking for things they intro may have suggested. It takes the fun out of it. (Does your wild turkey come around frequently?) We get the lost one now and then.
#74 What I'm addicted of doing, wookie, is google the locations the story takes us. Cannery Row, Rebel Corners area and now the Eastern seaboard just to get a taste of the area.
#75 I agree, Ilana. No intro's for me! Perhaps they should be called outtroductions! ;}
Well this has been great folks. I'm moving on to The Moon is Down and will probably begin it tonight. Have a good weekend fellow Steinbeckathoners!
Finished reading: 31 March 2012
The winter of our discontent is the novel which won John Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was also his last novel.
Many readers consider The winter of our discontent a flawed or weak novel, particularly part one, seems to contribute little to the story. It is the author's provenance to express clearly in words what is difficult for others to describe. An adage remembered by many authors is that showing is better than telling. So, within the space of just under 300 pages, The winter of our discontent is a short novel, John Steinbeck shows us how a man starts doubting himself.
What are morals? Are they simply words? (p.186) Ethan Allen Hawley asks himself. Aren't people thinking anymore? Thinking about their actions, their motives, and whether what they do is moral or immoral, honourable or dishonourable. Ethan concludes that it all depends on whether they succeed or not. What a man thinks does not show in his face, and as long as they succeed, they can get away with anything. To most of the world success is never bad. (...) Strength and success—they are above morality, above criticism.(p.187).
At the beginning of the book,the Hawley family is a happy family. Chapter One starts with one of the lightest, happiest dialogues in literature. Ethan is content with his station is life. But his family members are not. Harking to a more glorious past, when Ethan's ancestors were rich, they want to improve their situation, and have a share in the riches of the world. All around Ethan, people are busying themselves making money or fame, in ways which are morally objectionable to Ethan. But as he is constantly battered by others, suggesting how to do such things and get away with it, Ethan starts contemplating and making steps to get on in life. He considers taking kick-backs, he plans and prepares to rob a bank, he betrays his boss and gets entangled into a business deal, where obstruction rather than cooperation reaps him wealth.
However, Ethan's new lifestyle shows in cracks. He is not as happy as before, and the lightness which characterized part one is gone. Doubt first arises, when his boss, Marullo, whom he has betrayed, bequeaths the grocery store to Ethan, honouring his boundless honesty, a thing Ethan would no longer believe of himself, the irony being that this all comes following his betrayal. However, what brings it all home to Ethan is his son's plagiarism in a National Essay Competition. His son receives favourable mention, and is chosen to appear on television, which is eventually cancelled as it is discovered, belatedly, that the essay is largely plagiarized.
Published in 1961, The winter of our discontent describes a process that Steinbeck saw happening in American society; a transition from the ethos of hard-working and honest citizens in the 1940s-1950s, to the greed and money-driven erosion or morals of the 1960s and subsequent era. The fact that so many readers dislike or fail to understand this book, shows how far we have drifted.
Other books I have read by John Steinbeck:
The acts of King Arthur and his noble knights
The wayward bus
Indeed edwin! I think that is why Steinbeck has become such a classic. His writing is relative to the times we now live in. To this day we can learn from his prose and examine ourselves as if in a mirror.
#78 I failed to connect with not because of his moral dilemmas and the meandering path he chose but rather because I couldn't make him out as an individual
I think you hit the nail on the head, Ilana. I could not get a real picture of Ethan until half the book was completed and his actions were bizarre and confusing. But I still enjoyed the story. Now how does Steinbeck do that kind of magic?!
I'm glad you find my comment in #78 relevant, because I had a hard time expressing my impressions.
I don't know how Steinbeck worked his magic, but I'm glad he left such a great body of work behind for us to benefit from down the generations. As you say, he continues to be a relevant and an important voice to this day, probably because the themes he explored were to do with our basic human nature and as such are absolutely timeless. I also happen to think that most talented creative people work their magic on us, and good books definitely take us beyond the ordinary business of life, even when the subject matters are based on reality, if only because they make us look at things from a different perspective.