The Philosophy of Our Discontent

Image of title page from The Winter of Our DiscontentNovels by Steinbeck communicate differently to different eras, and The Winter of Our Discontent is no exception. Among all the books by Steinbeck that I have read, it is arguably the most philosophical and the least appreciated. Many critics wrote it off as the weakest of all the mature novels by Steinbeck when it was published, yet Steinbeck quotes Shakespeare in the book’s title—a sign of his seriousness and a key to his meaning—and the novel sold well despite doubtful reviews. Later readers have faulted the lack of social relevance on the scale of The Grapes of Wrath and other serious books by Steinbeck—from In Dubious Battle (where Steinbeck quotes Milton) through Sea of Cortez, the most obviously  philosophical of all the books by Steinbeck that survived his habit of aborting projects he felt were becoming shaky, stale, or redundant. Among my favorite books by Steinbeck written after East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent most rewards rereading as a philosophical text for our times—a monument of modern existentialism as impressive today as when it was written.

Shakespeare and Steinbeck on the Human Condition

As numerous books by Steinbeck explain, man’s moral problems never really change. Like other novels by Steinbeck—especially East of EdenThe Winter of Our Discontent is most meaningful when read as a contemporary restatement of this well-worn theme. Steinbeck’s story of greed, delusion, and dishonesty in Eisenhower’s America presents issues that precisely parallel current conditions: The payouts and game-show scandals of the 1950s and 60s are today’s privacy invasion and reality television. The hatred of foreigners by American nativists then is our fear of terrorists and illegal immigrants now. The easy resort to plagiarism depicted in The Winter of Our Discontent continues among students today, facilitated by Google and Facebook. Steinbeck quotes Shakespeare in his title for a reason. Ethan Hawley is Hamlet (yes, wrong play), his dilatory self-doubt deepened by the corruption, darkness, and betrayal growing like a Danish cancer.

The easy resort to plagiarism depicted in ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ continues among students today, facilitated by Google and Facebook.

Three features of The Winter of Our Discontent—after East of Eden, the most autobiographical of all the surviving novels by Steinbeck—advance the book’s philosophy of existential discontent. These include (1) the externalization of the primary character’s internal process, (2) the prevalence of symbolic contrasts and dualities in other characters, and (3) the necessity of self-understanding and personal sacrifice to end cycles of social failure like that experienced by Ethan Hawley before the novel begins. Through skillful use of these materials Steinbeck captures the universal human condition in an unmistakably contemporary setting, communicating his personal anxieties about himself and the culture of his time and creating a screen upon which each of us can project our own feelings of personal failure, ambivalence, and remorse.

Three features of ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’—after ‘East of Eden,’ the most autobiographical of all the surviving novels by Steinbeck—advance the book’s philosophy of existential discontent.

As he recounts his daily thoughts and experiences in real time, Ethan interprets himself and the people around him, both living and dead. His memories of Aunt Deborah and Captain Hawley in particular serve as vehicles for his developing self-critique and his ongoing argument with contemporary culture.  Remember, Steinbeck quotes Shakespeare in the title for a reason. In doubt, dilation, and despair, Ethan is is more Hamlet than Richard. Although neither of Ethan’s dead ancestors is a Polonius, the imagined voices of his grandfather and aunt help Ethan understand both himself and his world as modes of being neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong—a post-Polonius principle of existential ethics. Unlike Hamlet, Ethan listens, understands, and appears to think his way out of his crisis before it’s too late.

Externalizing the Inner Drama in Ethan Hawley’s Daily Life

Steinbeck externalizes Ethan’s internal drama through soliloquy, dialog, and place symbols for Ethan’s internal spaces. Ethan’s hiding place under the pier, for example, represents the secrecy of his mind, the mulling-place for his anxieties, and a means of escape from the moral pressure he experiences in his closest relationships. The grocery store where he works provides an interior stage peopled by imaginary players before he opens the door for daily business and buyers reality intrude. Of all the books by Steinbeck in which humor serves irony, The Winter of Our Discontent achieves this difficult effect the most subtly in minor scenes where Ethan is in fact but doesn’t act as if alone.  Using liturgical language, Ethan exercises imagined power over the commercial products lined up like acolytes on his shelves in a self-revealing rite of compensation for his family’s lost ownership of the store where he now clerks.

Of all the books by Steinbeck in which humor serves irony, ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ achieves this difficult effect the most subtly in minor scenes where Ethan is in fact but doesn’t act as if alone.

Ethan’s friend Danny has his own hiding place—the old cellar where he recalls his happy childhood with Ethan before falling from grace as the town drunk. Margie Young-Hunt, too, has her symbol of escape from the boredom of daily life in Baytown, Long Island. The mirror she uses to apply her morning makeup provides time and means for self-reflection on her meaningless life and the men in it, including Ethan,  her best friend husband. Significantly, only Mary Hawley needs no hiding place. Other-directed and uncomplicated, she is a domestic type not found (by me, anyway) in the other novels by Steinbeck I’ve read.

Interpreting Dualities and Sacrifice in Novels by Steinbeck

The contrasts and dualities in novels by Steinbeck are often quite obvious. Here, too, The Winter of Discontent is no exception. Ethan’s attributes as a semi-responsible family man and quasi-productive citizen contrast with Danny’s habitual vagrancy and alcoholism. Mary’s loyalty and innocence are juxtaposed with Marjorie’s sexuality and deceit. Ethan and Mary’s children, Allen and Ellen, are polar opposites. Even Red the dog and the cat living behind the store enact a polarity of type and temperament.

But the most significant duality is represented by Captain Hawley and Aunt Deborah in relation to Ethan’s unfolding process of self-awareness. The ghost of the Captain is a pragmatic mentor figure who comes to Ethan’s aid with practical advice. Aunt Deborah is emotional, almost mystical, and encourages Ethan to seek his own answers inwardly by recalling moments of lost joy from the past. In philosophical terms, Ethan’s antithetical ancestors represent materialism and idealism, praxis and pathos, action and feeling, in forms not found in other books by Steinbeck with characters who are dead, or like the story’s dog and cat, animals.

Ethan’s antithetical ancestors represent materialism and idealism, praxis and pathos, action and feeling, in forms not found in other books by Steinbeck with characters who are dead, or like the story’s dog and cat, animals.

As with Shakespeare, Steinbeck quotes the Bible for a reason and usually a symbol. In the context of its numerous biblical references, The Winter of Our Discontent can be read as a symbolic story about man’s fall from innocence in which the warring halves of Ethan’s psyche are projected as both Adam and Eve. Are their sins visited on the Hawley children, as in the biblical account? In my reading of other novels in which Steinbeck quotes Genesis, the answer is usually yes.

When Ethan determines to accomplish his goal of reversing the decline in the Hawley family’s fortunef through will and effort—the method advised and exemplified by Captain Hawley—he avoids the irreversible corruption of spirit represented by betrayal, robbery, and suicide. But while passing Ethan by, the killing spirit touches his son Allen, a child of his decade who cheats on his essay without feeling remorse. Like other autobiographical novels by Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent may also reflect the struggles of Steinbeck’s immediate family across the eternal father-son divide.

Like other autobiographical novels by Steinbeck, ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ may also reflect the struggles of Steinbeck’s immediate family across the eternal father-son divide.

This moral chain reaction can only be broken by an act of sacrifice, another motif found in books by Steinbeck in which Steinbeck quotes the Bible to suit his purpose. Ethan’s decline began before the novel with his father’s reckless spending and his own bad investments. Caught in a crisis by bad luck and bad behavior, he struggles from the first page with growing economic insecurity—a cycle that can’t be broken until Danny becomes the living sacrifice, leaving his land to Ethan  in an act of self-expiation and self-sacrifice (Danny characters occur in earlier novels by Steinbeck, but never as an existentially convincing as in The Winter of Our Discontent.)

Why Steinbeck Quotes Shakespeare in His Titles

When Steinbeck quotes Shakespeare’s Richard III in the novel’s title, what does he want us to consider as we read? Ethan’s bad behavior, obviously—although as suggested, Ethan more resembles Hamlet than Shakespeare’s malevolent monarch. But Steinbeck’s title for The Winter of Our Discontent reminds us of the separate dilemmas faced by Danny and Mary and Margie (note the biblical names) as well as by Ethan in his Hamlet-like anguish. The evil usurper who reveals his inner thoughts in Richard III opens uses our to denote his status as king. Steinbeck’s characters are contemporary Americans, and their thoughts—like ours—are much more about me than we.

The evil usurper who reveals his inner thoughts in ‘Richard III’  uses ‘our’ to denote his status as king. Steinbeck’s characters are contemporary Americans, and their thoughts—like ours—are much more about ‘me’ than ‘we.’

The our of Richard’s discontent in the play Steinbeck quotes is isolated, the political and psychological paranoia of a one-man murder ring. In The Winter of Our Discontent, the attitude of discontent is philosophical—an existential anxiety embodied in the protagonist, his spouse, his best friend, his would-be mistress, and in the personal life of the author as well. Discontent in the play Steinbeck quotes for a reason is individual. In The Winter of Our Discontent it is dramatized as  a condition of existence for everyone involved—including us.

 

James Ci About James Ci

James Ci is a visual artist living in North Carolina. He received his BFA degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Comments

  1. Cal McGinnis says:

    Ethan is an ass. He betrays his wife and his friend. Moral decay is what this novel represents. Steinbeck was brilliant but he had a twisted mind … Tortilla Flats, East Of Eden, Winter … all very weird.

    • His brilliance, to a large degree, comes from his cynicism. You may see something different after an additional read through or two. I think it’s safe to say that while moral decay, and moral relativism are clearly themes explored in the book; it would be an oversimplification to limit the scope of the book to just those themes. Or to say Steinbeck has a twisted mind and he book was weird.
      Would you say Dickens and Hugo are also twisted? They too deal with themes of moral decay and moral relativism. They spoke the language of their time and place as Steinbeck has done with Winter of Our Discontent. It’s his subtle cynicism, ironic use of comedy, and ability to speak to a common experience that has endeared him to readers and critics from every generation since he published his first work.

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