The Winter of Our Discontent - Lunchtime Lit with Mel

Updated on August 13, 2016
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Mel Carriere graciously thanks you for your stamp money, which he uses to finance his lunchtime reading habit and resulting book reviews.

Mel Reviews Winter of Our Discontent for Lunchtime Lit
Mel Reviews Winter of Our Discontent for Lunchtime Lit | Source

Folklore in Fiction

A Hub Pages friend of mine told me recently that I manage to turn these Lunchtime Lit reviews into wonderful pieces of folklore. I quickly retired to the shower to wash away the messy residue left behind by my expanded ego leaking out through my ears, and as I stood there with streams of water tickling my neurons, I pondered the mystery of just what folklore is, and what it means.

Sometimes these shower sessions contain Eureka moments for the reviewer, but those bursts of inspiration often wash down the drain with the soap and the remnants of an excessive ego that has put back in check by contemplation of one's insignificance in the grand scheme of the cosmos. You have to grab those inspirational shower gems quickly, because they are as fast as flies and buzz out the window before you can stuff them in a jar.

Because my shower epiphany about folklore fizzled out after I dried off, I investigated the topic to see if I could recapture some of this enlightenment. I looked up the meaning of folklore, which is "the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth." I kind of knew that already, but thanks anyway, Oxford English Dictionary. A second definition is that folklore is "a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people."

So I suppose what my friend was saying, in essence, is that my reviews tap the accepted group mythos of the people that read them. If this is true, it is only because the reviewed books delve into these notions.

It then occurred to me that my latest Lunchtime Lit subject, John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, dives into the tender topic of American folklore with the keen scrutiny of a native son's perspective. It is my opinion that Steinbeck, in all of his works of fiction, has analyzed American mythology better than anybody else, laying bare the ugly, grim realities behind the shining facade. This great author is legendary for dismissing alleged American virtues as the mythical fabrications they too often are, mere folklore designed to keep the tribal plebians in check while the gluttonous Chiefs grow fat and rich by contradicting their own folklore through rapacious activity.

In Winter, Steinbeck also describes how easily, and how eagerly the once honest Indians at the bottom of the tribal ladder will throw their neighbors under a stampeding buffalo herd to join those crooks at the top.

John Steinbeck traveled in this camper across the US in 1960 with his poodle Charley, gathering folklore.
John Steinbeck traveled in this camper across the US in 1960 with his poodle Charley, gathering folklore. | Source

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Even though it is an accepted part of Lunchtime Lit folklore to contemplate a book's concepts while bathing, the reviewed books can only be read on my thirty minute postal lunch break. At any rate, a waterproof copy of Winter of Our Discontent was not immediately available. Here is a recap:

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
223,000 (est.)
487,700 (est.)
425,000 (est.)
On The Beach
97,000 (est.)
The Last Temptation of Christ
171,000 (est.)
Killing Patton
106,000 (est.)
7/11/2016 (Slurpee Day)
The Winter of Our Discontent
95,800 (est.)

* One other title, with a word count of 387,700, and 46 lunchtimes consumed, has been reviewed under the official guidelines of this series.

** Word counts are estimated by hand counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book

John Steinbeck as a Vietnam War correspondent, aboard a US Army Iroquois helicopter.  My folklore is better than your folklore.
John Steinbeck as a Vietnam War correspondent, aboard a US Army Iroquois helicopter. My folklore is better than your folklore. | Source

Why I Love Steinbeck

I picked up Winter of Our Discontent for Lunchtime Lit because I am a huge fan of Steinbeck, and I want to read everything he has written. First and foremost, I love John Steinbeck because he is a Californian. I am only a transplanted Californian, but almost every Californian is transplanted . California is a lot like Frankenstein's Monster, a gruesome, glued together beast created by pilfered parts from other places.

The second reason I love John Steinbeck is because I can absolutely relate to him. Whereas other notable American Nobel Prize winners like Hemingway disguise snooty superficiality behind a smooth veneer of polished, flighty prose, and William Faulkner transmits dull southern misery in barely readable run-on sentences, Steinbeck is real, he is approachable, and he is talking to me. It is like he has been sneaking into my head, taking notes, then writing down his observations in his novels. I know this is impossible, the great writer passed when I was four years old, but the sensation of Steinbeck making voyeuristic incursions into my skull is uncanny.

The main character of Winter of Our Discontent, one Ethan Allen Hawley, nicknamed "Eth," was not appreciated by critics at the time the book was published. On the other hand, this Lunchtime Lit reviewer greatly appreciates Eth, because Eth is me, and I am Eth. To explain, I have created a nifty graphic representation that compares and contrasts Mel and Eth, Eth and Mel, side by side.

Eth vs. Mel Compare and Contrast

Marital Fidelity
Bad Family Attitude toward his poverty
Discontent with perceived station in life
Curious nature
Makes up cute pet names for wife
Talks to animals and/or inantimate objects
Contemplating a life of crime
Not Yet
Has John Steinbeck been sneaking into my head and taking notes about the local folklore?
Has John Steinbeck been sneaking into my head and taking notes about the local folklore? | Source

Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York

— William Shakespeare - Richard III

Setting and Substance

As you can see, Mel and Eth are exactly alike, except that Eth eventually gives up honesty for a much more lucrative life of crime and immoral activity. While Mel sometimes contemplates such an existence, he has yet to take any meaningful steps toward it.

The story of Winter of Our Discontent, therefore, can be summed up as a good man's descent into corruption and wickedness. The message of the novel flatly contradicts the accepted American folklore that honesty is the best policy, cheaters never prosper, and hard work is the path to success. Ethan Allen Hawley's honesty is unimpeachable, but his integrity alone cannot carry him above the level of grocery store clerk. To reverse the economic fortunes of his household and rescue the image of his besmirched family name, immersed in its own semi-mystical body of folklore, Eth has to learn to swim with the sharks. The protagonist soon discovers that he is the most skillful predator on the reef, and the only thing that has been holding him back from fortune and renown is that damnable honesty of his.

I'll leave the particulars of the plot to you, and move on on to a discussion of the setting. Unlike most of his previous work, Winter of Our Discontent does not take place in Steinbeck's native California. In this novel, Steinbeck has betrayed the Golden State for the Empire State, moving to a fictional former whaling town called New Baytown that is practically a carbon copy of Sag Harbor, New York, Steinbeck's summer home from 1955 onward. Although the setting has changed from the agricultural valleys and rocky coasts hugging the Pacific to the oaken forests and painted steeples along the Atlantic, human nature has not changed. New York Americans are essentially the same as California Americans. People are as nasty to each other in the East as they were in the West, and the contradiction between folklore and fact as readily apparent.

I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

— John Steinbeck - Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech 1962

Nobel Prize Controversy

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in what was considered an off year. According to the Nobel board, "There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation." Steinbeck's most memorable work had been published decades before. His legendary greats Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Tortilla Flat were fading glories. Nonetheless, since Steinbeck had been nominated 8 times with no victories, the 1962 Prize committee decided to throw him a bone with The Winter of Our Discontent.

His popular earlier work was stained by sympathy for the working class, and these left-leaning views influenced the conservative Nobel Committee's choices. Association with unsavory bedfellows kept him off the podium for decades, the influence and the power of his work begged recognition, but was allegedly tainted by revolutionary rhetoric. The Grapes of Wrath, considered too critical of capitalism, was was burned en massse on two occasions in Salinas, California, Steinbeck's hometown. The American Library Association listed Steinbeck as one of the top ten banned authors from 1990 to 2004, Of Mice and Men ranking sixth out of 100 banned books in the United States. His fiction rocked the status-quo sensibilities of the large landowners and bankers of the agricultural regions depicted in his stories, so diligent efforts were made to suppress him. In most cases, such attempts at censorship work to the economic advantage of the censored, and so it was that book burnings and bannings only increased Steinbeck's fame.

The controversy surrounding the author temporarily kept him off the Stockholm podium, but his irrepressible power as a storyteller had to be recognized, sooner or later. Perhaps the Winter of Our Discontent was not his most important work, but the winter of 1962 was still a happy one for John Steinbeck, as he traveled home from Sweden with the minted face of Alfred Nobel on a medal and a pocket full of Kronor to drop into his bank account.

This sweet moment of overdue recognition quickly turned sour, as critics who failed to see the powerful message behind Winter's simple prose decried the Nobel Committee's choice. The New York Times complained about the award being given to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing." Even Steinbeck was not exactly pleased with the selection. When asked if he deserved the prestigious award he replied "Frankly, no."

Steinbeck was deeply disappointed by the critical reception of Winter, and by the less than enthusiastic response for his Nobel Prize selection. It was the last work of fiction he would write, and he passed away shortly thereafter, in 1968.

Steinbeck and oceanographer friend Ed Ricketts fishing for folklore on the Sea of Cortez
Steinbeck and oceanographer friend Ed Ricketts fishing for folklore on the Sea of Cortez | Source

Did John Steinbeck deserve the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature?

See results

A Steinbeck Bad Hair Day Beats Your Best 'Do

Maybe it is true, as some critics opine, that Winter of Our Discontent was not Steinbeck's crowning glory, the culmination of a string of noteworthy novels dating back 30 years. Even if we accept this, Steinbeck on a bad day is more meaningful and readable than most third rate literary hacks at the height of their power. If The Winter of Our Discontent was a sputtering engine for this giant of American letters, I shudder before the force he unleashes on all cylinders.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Steinbeck insisted that a writer must "passionately believe in the perfectibility of man." Is this perfectibility achievable, or is it mere folklore passed along by the tribe to keep the natives from slaughtering one another? Are we godlike, angelic beings or angry, feces-throwing monkeys? In Winter of Our Discontent it seems that Steinbeck is suggesting the latter, but he is also saying that in order to polish the gold of that Nobel Medal to gleaming brilliance we have to identify its imperfections first. Folklore, coffee-stained and wrinkled as it seems, is this ultimate road map to perfection.

Steinbeck with Charley at Sag Harbor, discussing canine folklore.
Steinbeck with Charley at Sag Harbor, discussing canine folklore. | Source


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    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      Jennifer, interestingly enough, while shoveling dirt in my back yard today it occurred to me that Ethan killed his best friend by giving him money to drink himself to death. I guess Ethan could justify his action by saying he would do it anyway, but isn't the road to hell paved with such moral compromises?

      At any rate, I still can't help but like Ethan. I can identify with him completely. But I still haven't resorted to a life of crime...yet.

      I am flattered by your return visit. Thanks a lot.

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 17 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      OK, I'm back, this time having read the book within in the last month. And I take back what I said ... Ethan does PLENTY OF THINGS wrong. We still like him, though.

      I must say, the book reads much easier at 40 than it did when I was in my 20's. At 40, I'm mostly impressed with Ethan's good spirits, humor, and wit when in the midst of a midlife financial/existential crisis. We should all take note.

      Hope you have not turned to a life of crime since I last visited this post, Mel. Stay strong!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 18 months ago from San Diego California

      Isn't that how this writing game works, Lawrence? You write what you think is a work of art and people stay away from it in droves. Then you slap together some mediocre pile of words and it gets thousands of views. Or in Steinbeck's view, you win the Nobel Prize with Winter of Our Discontent after what you think is your masterpiece, "East of Eden," doesn't get you close. It is unpredictably frustrating, whether you write half baked blogs like me or great literature like Steinbeck. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 18 months ago

      I find it interesting that Steinbeck himself wasn't really happy with the work, it goes to show the 'perfectability of man' in that Steinbeck recognized he wasn't there yet, but kept going.

      Great hub and a great intro to the work of the man.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Your folklore comment launched this ship, Deb. Steinbeck is the soul of American folklore, but often the dark side. Thanks for dropping in!

    • profile image

      Deb Hirt 19 months ago

      This was an apt choice to review regarding the folklore. So glad that you chose this!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Sorry for the late response, Larry. I was out of town for a couple of days.

      This is a great little book. Full of humor and insight into the dark side of human nature. I think you would like it.

      Thanks for dropping in!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 19 months ago from Oklahoma

      Great hub!

      I love Steinbeck. I've read most of his large works, but I don't think I've ever read this one.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      I am very glad you stopped by too, Devika. Steinbeck is a man of all lands, whose stories appeal across the spectrum of humanity. Thanks for reading!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 19 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      You enlightened me and I am glad to have stopped by.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      No problem, Jennifer. He gave his drunken friend money, if you will recall, knowing he would drink himself into oblivion. Thanks again.

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 19 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      I actually did read all of Winter, not just the blurb on the back. I mentioned the blurb just to show that the blurb set me up to expect ... shocking moral depravity, I guess, rather than an ordinary human being's struggles.

      However, it was many years ago that I read it, like I said, so I may have forgotten about the best friend and boss parts. Will have to read it again. Along with the ones you recommended. Thanks.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      What the book summary does not say, Jennifer, is that he does betray his best friend and his boss, but I'll leave it at that. He starts off with integrity, but the pressure of peers and family cause him to do things less than laudable, and to plan things even further off the straight and narrow. I think what Steinbeck is saying is that even likeable people like Eth, because he is extremely likeable, can go down dark roads in times of desperation.

      The Pearl was not my favorite either. Found it rather ho-hum, and very different from his usual voice. If you are using that as a gauge for the rest of his work, don't. I suggest you try East of Eden if you want a thought-provoking epic, or Cannery Row if you just want to smile for a while.

      With Winter, you have to get past the blurb and dig in. I think you will find it enjoyable, readable, and because it is short not a great investment in time. Thanks for reading!

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 19 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Hey Mel, thanks for this review.

      One - I am blown away by YOUR integrity in hand-counting the number of words in 23 pages of each book! If I had to estimate a word count, I would probably just count one full page ... or Google the word count of the book.

      Two - Thanks for the history lesson. I had no idea.

      Three - I hated The Pearl. Not a good book to read at age 12. My dad summarized the plot of Of Mice & Men to me when I was a kid, and it was so sad I've been unable to bring myself to read the book since.

      But, I really liked Winter. The blurb on the back said the same thing you said about moral corruption, and implied that Ethan commits adultery. So I was expecting a sort of dark expose, a la The Great Gatsby. To my surprise, Ethan does NOTHING WRONG. He stays faithful to his wife. He chickens out about doing you-know-what. And the other you-know-what. Granted, being chicken might not be the best reason for refraining from doing something wrong, but it does show that our conscience and our common sense are alive and well, and it can save us from some serious trouble. I agree with your chart (which seems to be contradicted by your book summary) when it says that Ethan has a ton of integrity.

      But, it was many years ago when I read the book, so maybe I should look at it again and see if it has deepened for me. Unlike every other Steinbeck book I've ever heard of, the idea of reading it again actually appeals to me.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      My favorite is East of Eden, Linda, but I also enjoy his books set in Monterey, Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, for their humor. I hope you get a chance to read a few, I don't think you will be disappointed. Thanks for dropping in.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I always appreciate your literary reviews, Mel. Even though he's so well known, I haven't read any of John Steinbeck's books. I think I'd better make up for lost time.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Jaye, there are still a long list of Steinbeck books I have yet to read but that's okay, I have something to look forward to. East of Eden was my favorite. Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat are pure delight.

      When I was young I could engage in those marathon reading sessions you describe, but any more 30 minutes is about my limit, no matter how good the book is. After that I'm nodding in my chair.

      I really appreciate your great comment. Thanks for dropping in.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 19 months ago from Deep South, USA

      Great review, Mel! I remember reading the book in the early sixties, and I literally could not put it down until I read the final page. Your ability to stop reading in 30 minutes and wait for successive days to finish the book shows impressive determination and strength of character.

      I agree also with your assessment of Steinbeck--both his humanity and his writing. "East of Eden," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Cannery Row," and "Of Mice and Men" are classics for a reason. "Travels with Charley" is pure joy.


    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Bill, Steinbeck took the pulse of the country because he was part of it. He wasn't sitting in "lost generation" isolation on some foreign shore like Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzergerald. He was traveling around the country in a rickety camper that some homeless people would be ashamed to call home. Thanks for reading, my friend.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Jodah, John Steinbeck wasn't the kind of guy to sit around in snooty Parisian cafes, reveling in his greatness. He was out there among the people as a war correspondent or on a working boat in the Gulf of California. I understand he was handy with his hands and would jump in to fix a leaky toilet if called for. I think he was more in touch with humanity than others among our so-called greats. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Mills, I have about 20 years inflicting my views upon my children, which is pure joy, but only about three on the Internet, so I'm still a reviewing rookie, relatively speaking. Thanks again.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 19 months ago from Olympia, WA

      No other American writer captured this country in words the way Steinbeck did. He was pure genius!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 19 months ago from Queensland Australia

      A wonderful review and look into the life and mind of a literary great, John Steinbeck. Entertaining and interesting. Well done, Mel.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 19 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I don't think I would have stuck with reviewing online for 16 years if I didn't find some reward to inflicting my views on a few people.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Mills. This reviewing game can be kind of fun, can't it? I appreciate you dropping in.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 19 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      If nothing else, you can be assured that when you write about books, you do entertain and draw people to your reviews. Thanks for more reviews that last more than a lunchtime.