Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2020

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962

First edition, Viking Press, 1961 (Wikipedia)

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to share these old reviews from my reading journals… like last week’s one for Steppenwolf, this one is a disappointment to me.  It tells me hardly anything about the book, and I can’t redress that with a citation from 1001 Books To Read Before You Die because although Steinbeck is listed, they recommend just three of his novels to read: Cannery Row; The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men.  The best I can do is refer you to the article at Wikipedia, though you should avoid the plot summary if you haven’t already read the book.

28th November, 1999

I’m sure I’ve read this before; bits of the plot seemed familiar, but it didn’t seem like an old friend revisited.  I could never really get fond of the central character, Ethan Hawley, and the dialogue reads too much like a film script.

Steinbeck, of course, is a great writer, and one of my favourites.  But I’m not intimidated by greatness, and I think this book is an example of a great theme (moral corruption easing in, in little ways) presented less well than it might be, by a writer meeting a deadline, paying a big bill, or simply getting old.  It reads as if Steinbeck conceived the film before he made it into the book because what’s missing is his best strength, the power to describe the everyday in lasting images.  It’s corrupted here by dialogue, with Hawley talking to his groceries as if they were people.  Funny on film, less effective on the page.


Here’s the scene where Ethan (Donald Sutherland) ticks off the Boston baked beans, it starts at 1:56:

I finished reading the book and journalled it on the 28th of November, 1999.


Reading the Wikipedia article now, and the Literary Significance and Criticism section in particular, I see that my reaction is was not entirely naïve.  In 1983 a critic called Carol Ann Kasparek…

…condemned the character of Ethan for his implausibility, and still called Steinbeck’s treatment of American moral decay superficial, although she went on to approve the story’s mythic elements.

But Edward Weeks of the Atlantic Monthly has a very different view of the dialogue to mine, writing that…

“His dialogue is full of life, the entrapment of Ethan is ingenious, and the morality in this novel marks Mr. Steinbeck’s return to the mood and the concern with which he wrote The Grapes of Wrath“.

And *ouch* it was this particular book that was cited at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1962.  Secretary Anders Österling remarked specifically on five books from 1935 to 1939 and then addressed the issue of Steinbeck’s later work:

In this brief presentation it is not possible to dwell at any length on individual works which Steinbeck later produced. If at times the critics have seemed to note certain signs of flagging powers, of repetitions that might point to a decrease in vitality, Steinbeck belied their fears most emphatically with The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), a novel published last year. Here he attained the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. Again he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.

Saul Bellow also admired the book, saying:

“John Steinbeck returns to the high standards of The Grapes of Wrath and to the social themes that made his early work so impressive, and so powerful.”

OTOH, like me, there were apparently many reviewers in America who were disappointed.

A few years later Peter Lisca called Winter “undeniable evidence of the aesthetic and philosophical failure of the [Steinbeck’s] later fiction”.

Apropos a comment made by Becky Lindros from Becky’s books on last week’s Review from the Archive, about how the reading of books can change over time, Wikipedia notes changing reactions to The Winter of Our Discontent after Watergate:

In letters to friends before and after its publication, Steinbeck stated that he wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s. American criticism of his moralism started to change during the 1970s after the Watergate scandal; here is how Reloy Garcia describes his reassessment of the work when asked to update his original Study Guide to Winter: “The book I then so impetuously criticized as somewhat thin, now strikes me as a deeply penetrating study of the American condition. I did not realize, at the time, that we had a condition,” and he attributes this change of heart to “our own enriched experience”.

I’ll leave the last word to Professor of literature and Steinbeck scholar Stephen K. George:

“With these authors [ Saul BellowBrent Weeks, and Ruth Stiles Gannett ] I would contend that, given its multi-layered complexity, intriguing artistry, and clear moral purpose, The Winter of Our Discontent ranks in the upper echelon of Steinbeck’s fiction, alongside Of Mice and MenCannery RowEast of Eden, and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath“.


Image credit: cover image: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1445021


Responses

  1. I’ve read the three famous ones, Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row, and I am tempted to read East of Eden. Somehow I have avoided The Winter of our Discontent and will continue to avoid it.

    Like

    • It’s an interesting one, I am tempted to re-read it to see what I think of it now… but… so many books to read!

      Like

  2. I too read those famous three but failed to finish East of Eden. Cannot remember why as it was many moons ago. Grapes of Wrath was a paradigm shift in my reading journey. The ending can still bring tears to my eyes. Doubt I will return to John Steinback. Books are important at different times in life and his work most certainly affected me in opening up to another view of U.S.A.

    Like

    • Yes, I think that’s true. My childhood view of the US was that everybody lived in luxury and comfort, like they did in Bewitched and The Beverly Hillbillies…

      Like

  3. I don’t know that I’ve even heard of this Steinbeck but I’m intrigued even if it disappointed you. And yes – we do response differently to books are different times of our lives!

    Like

    • LOL I like to think that putting these rudimentary reviews out there shows people that we can all grow and mature as readers!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. i’ve read a number of his book’s over years he is a writer i love have most of his books on my shelves often mean to blog a few more

    Like

    • I’d love to read your thoughts on this one:)

      Like

  5. I really want to read more Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men a few years ago and found it very good.

    Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: