John Steinbeck The Winter of Our Discontent

ISBN 13: 9780140072679

The Winter of Our Discontent

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9780140072679: The Winter of Our Discontent

FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. A New Englander learns the bitter lesson that it is not possible to be a little dishonest.

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About the Author:

John Steinbeck (1902-68) is remembered as one of the greatest and best-loved American writers of the twentieth century. During the 1930s, his works included The Red Pony, Pastures of Heaven, Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, and Of Mice and Men. The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, earned him a Pulitzer Prize. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page






























Explanatory Notes





JOHN STEINBECK (1902-68) was born in Salinas, California, in 1902 and grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without a degree. During the next five years, he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City and then as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. The powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon Is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945); The Wayward Bus (1947); The Pearl (1947); A Russian Journal (1948); another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950); and The Log from the “Sea of Cortez” (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath” (1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.


SUSAN SHILLINGLAW is a professor of English at San Jose State University and scholar-in-residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. She has published several articles on Steinbeck and coedited Steinbeck and the Environment, John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, and “America and Americans” and Selected Nonfiction. Her most recent book is A Journey into Steinbeck’s California. She is completing a biography of Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck.

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First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1961
Published in Penguin Books 1982
This edition with an introduction and notes by Susan Shillinglaw published 2008


1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2


Copyright © John Steinbeck, 1961

Copyright renewed Elaine Steinbeck, Thom Steinbeck, and John Steinbeck IV, 1989
Introduction and notes copyright © Susan Shillinglaw, 2008
All rights reserved


A serial version of this work appeared in McCall’s.


Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968.
The winter of our discontent / John Steinbeck; introduction and notes by Susan Shillinglaw.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics.)
Includes bibliographical references.

eISBN : 978-0-143-03948-8

1. Grocery trade—Employees—Fiction. 2. Conduct of life—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Shillinglaw,
Susan. II. Title.
PS3537.T3234W5 2008
813’.52—dc22 2008018574


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The Winter of Our Discontent is John Steinbeck’s last novel, the book that occasioned his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. On the eve of the ceremony, the New York Times published an editorial by Arthur Mizener questioning the wisdom of the Swedish Academy’s decision: “Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?” The article seared Steinbeck’s soul, no doubt, and placed once again before his American readers the enigma of his reputation. How to define this most American of writers, the engaged artist of 1930s California? And how to describe this last novel, certainly not a howl of social protest in the vein of his 1939 classic, The Grapes of Wrath, but neither the twilight reflections of an aging writer. For many readers The Winter of Our Discontent is a dark morality tale about the fall of a blue-blooded American hero, Ethan Allen Hawley, who succumbs to the temptations of wealth, power, and prestige. But this final novel defies categories. If it’s a parable of corruption and redemption, as Steinbeck suggests in his epigraph, it’s also a lesson in Darwinian survival. The novel insists on a symbolic and highly ironic framework—the first half takes place on Easter weekend in April 1960 and the second on the Fourth of July weekend that same year. Yet the book is also realistic, set in Steinbeck’s own Sag Harbor, New York—New Baytown in the novel—and influenced by the moral quagmires of contemporary America. And while the work tips its hat to Steinbeck’s love of the Arthurian saga, with Ethan a latter-day Lancelot, it’s also true that Ethan’s voice seems almost postmodern, speaking a language that is highly wrought, artificial, self-reflective. The Winterof Our Discontent is, seemingly, a patchwork of intentions, all meant to shake a reader’s complacency.

Since its publication in April 1961, this “curious” novel has baffled many readers. Carlos Baker’s review for the New York Times sounds a characteristic note of dissatisfaction:


This is a problem novel whose central problem is never fully solved, an internal conflict novel in which the central issue between nobility and expediency, while it is joined, is never satisfactorily resolved. For this reason, despite its obvious powers, The Winter of Our Discontent cannot rightly stand in the forefront of Steinbeck’s fiction.


Far from being the source of the novel’s creative failure, its irresolution and allusiveness are, in fact, central to its meaning. “If this is a time of confusion,” Steinbeck had written a few years earlier, “might it be best to set that down?” That was his challenge in The Winter of Our Discontent. Ambiguous threads and ethical knots are woven into each page of the narrative—and apparent in the first pages, starting with the perplexities of Ethan’s ancestral heritage, part pirate, part Puritan, and his own name, Ethan Allen, both a Revolutionary War patriot and a man charged with treason. After two chapters in each section of the novel’s two sections, point of view switches from third to first person.

Indeed, the text’s evasive strategies and perplexing characters suggest Steinbeck’s profound unease with Cold War America, where his real fear for his country centered not on Sputnik and Russian armament but on “a creeping, all-pervading, nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices, both corporate and governmental.” Steinbeck sent that observation to his close friend, politician Adlai Stevenson, in November 1959, and the letter was subsequently published in Newsday, sparking a national discussion: The question “Are We Morally Flabby?” was debated by four educators and writers in a February 1960 issue of the New Republic, and the next month Newsday published “Steinbeck Replies.” Steinbeck’s answer was a resounding yes, and more than anything else The Winter of Our Discontent explores the contours of that affirmative response. From 1960, when he composed this novel, to the end of his life eight years later, Steinbeck stood as America’s moral compass, pointing to Americans’ virtues and lapses in three unflinching books: The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels with Charley (1962), and America and Americans (1966).

The freedom to critique one’s country, he felt with increasing urgency, was the role of the artist in a free nation. Trips to the Soviet Union in 1937, 1947, and 1963 as well as charges made by Communist writers that he had moved politically to the right crystallized his independent stance—Steinbeck’s Cold War was a “Duel Without Pistols” (a 1952 article he wrote in Italy after being attacked in a Communist newspaper for not objecting to the “degeneracy and brutality of American soldiers” in Korea). While American citizens and artists could voice opinions freely, he wrote, Communist artists were constrained by orthodoxy. Speak as an American critic he would, to the end of his days. That defiant patriotism informs The Winter of Our Discontent. In effect, Ethan Allen Hawley, his central character, asserts his own freedom to speak out and, in the process, replaces a hollow self with a more authentic self, however morally imperiled. What makes it such a quirky and important book is that it suggests, through Ethan’s voice, the simmering discontent of its time, the cacophony and dislocation of Cold War America, overtly a superpower, internally super powerless.


“A novel may be said to be the man who writes it.”
( John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis and Chase Horton, April 1957)


With a particular man in mind, Thomas Malory, John Steinbeck wrote this in 1957, one year into his three-year investigation of this fifteenth-century author of Le Morte d’Arthur, his era, Arthur’s Camelot, and Middle English manuscripts. Such layered understanding was essential, he thought, before attempting his own translation of Malory’s Arthur into modern English. But the same sentence might be written about Steinbeck himself: The Winter of Our Discontent is the restless man who wrote it. A decade-long winter of discontent is, in several senses, his own. And the project he put aside in the fall of 1959, his modern translation of Malory, informs the background of his final novel.

Steinbeck’s discontent, however, was artistic and cultural, not personal. The year 1950 was a watershed; he moved permanently from California, his birthplace, to New York City in December 1949, and a year later he married his third wife, Elaine Scott. This marriage gave him far more stability than the first two—certainty of love shared with a self-confident woman. Once an assistant stage manager on Broadway (for Oklahoma! when it opened), Elaine stepped into her new marriage with style, energy, wit, and steady love. For their eighteen years of marriage, she kept much of the world at bay. Some qualities of Steinbeck’s happy marriage to Elaine make their way into The Winter of Our Discontent—certainly the solidity of the union (this is, in fact, the only Steinbeck book that opens with a bedroom scene). Ethan’s rather cloying nicknames for Mary are close to Steinbeck’s own for his beloved Elaine, who was “moglie” when they traveled and “Lily Maid” at home. Most important, the steady light that Mary casts for Ethan is Elaine’s for John: “No one in the world can rise to a party or a plateau of celebration like my Mary,” Ethan muses. “With Mary in the doorway of a party everyone feels more attractive and clever than he was, and so he actually becomes.” The marriage of Ethan and Mary is Steinbeck’s most fully drawn portrait of marriage and home life—at least in part an index of his own contentment.

With an equal sense of renewal, this displaced Californian embraced his and Elaine’s new home, New York City, and made it his own: “As far as homes go,” he wrote in a 1953 essay, “Autobiography: Making of a New Yorker,” “there is only a small California town and New York. . . . All of everything is concentrated here, population, theater, art, writing, publishing, importing, business, murder, mugging, luxury, poverty. It is all of everything. It goes all night. It is tireless and its air is charged with energy. I can work longer and harder without wearine...

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Steinbeck, John
Published by Penguin Books 1983-12-06 (1983)
ISBN 10: 0140072675 ISBN 13: 9780140072679
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