I've been ticking off Steinbeck novels since the 10th grade and somehow Winter of Our Discontent made its way into the house through either my mom or my mother-in-law. We're trading so many books around these days I lose track. It's only 270+ pages but I think I've been reading it all summer long, interrupted by more sensational and more exciting reads like Harry Potter, Thousand Splendid Suns, and whatever Patti leaves on my doorstep (keep 'em comin'!). Plus, I knew it would be sorta depressing so that didn't get me real revved up to read it. That being said, I finished it last night.
Ethan Allen Hawley is the descendant of a once prominent and wealthy New England whaling family. But through some mismanaged investing on the part of him and his father, he's left with only the family house and a job as a clerk in the grocery store he once owned. His wife is a bit restless for the life they once had, his teenage kids are discontent and well, teenager-y, and he knows everyone else but him is getting ahead. He wants his pride back; his wife wants new furniture. The question is will he sacrifice his morals for a chance at material comfort. The pace of the second part of the novel picks up a bit as events fall into and out of place.
Though the narration is a bit preachy and heavy-handed (as Steinbeck's last novel it was the least critically and popularly appreciated and you can sense his old-age attempt to knock some moral sense into the Swinging 60's culture), I appreciated the way he wove multiple instances of moral relativism and compromised scruples. Ethan references his time in war when he killed and sent men to be killed in battle, knowing he would not murder in his peacetime life. But has he sent men to their death in other ways, more underhandedly? He knows most of the town officials are corrupt, but are they hurting anyone? Without giving away too much, I thought the ending was more cowardly than the ending of the similar-themed and more subtle The Pearl. As one of my very astute students pointed out after reading that book, "Sad endings have more impact." This one fell short of true sadness. Just a bit depressing.