Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Steinbeck's prophetic novel

The passage of decades has turned John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, a contemporary novel about modern trends when it was published in 1961, into a historical novel, a look back at how American life used to be. Yet I am also struck, reading it now all these years later, at what a prophetic novel it was. Steinbeck had his hand on the pulse of the nation. He seemed to know that the discontent he describes in his characters will sweep the country in the 1960s. He wants to blame President Eisenhower for this, but that seems simplistic. More likely it was caused by the period of peace and prosperity, following years of Depression and war, and the hard moral choices required by these sudden good times.

The novel tells of one man's moral choices. Ethan Allen Hawley works as a grocery store clerk, a situation brought about because his father lost the Hawley family fortune. Every day he hears comments about his family's prosperous past and complaints from his wife and children about their relative poverty. It is 1960, and they still do not own a television.

Hawley recalls that as a loyal soldier during the war he had killed enemy soldiers, but he has not killed anyone since then. Killing other men then did not make him an evil man now. Similarly, he reasons, if he can make a small fortune by illegal or immoral means, he can still be a good citizen later when he builds on that fortune and reclaims his place in society. He seriously contemplates robbing the bank next to his store, then finds a way to wealth that will be safer and yet, if anything, more unethical.

Steinbeck structures his plot so that many related elements all happen at once -- an alcoholic friend happens to own the only land in the area suitable for an airport, the owner of the grocery may have entered the United States illegally some 40 years before, town officials are indicted for corruption, Hawley's son enters a national citizenship essay contest and, among other developments, the local banker, whose family may have been responsible for the Hawley family's bankruptcy, is wheeling and dealing to try to build an even larger fortune. That so much happens, even on the same holiday weekend, seems a bit of a stretch, giving The Winter of Our Discontent the feel not so much of a modern novel as of a fable, like so many of Steinbeck's other notable works.

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