Jim Leckband's Reviews > The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
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's review
Nov 12, 2011

really liked it
Read from November 12 to 16, 2011

The title of the book comes from the opening of The Tragedy of King Richard III and discontent is explicitly referenced many times in this disquieting novel. However, the end of that opening speech lies some clues to the unreliable narrator's frame of mind:
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.
On the surface Ethan is a happy-go-lucky grocery clerk who never steals even a piece of chewing gum from his boss or steals even a kiss from his wife's best friend who is on the make. However, he even tells them when confronted with his honesty, that maybe he is in on the long game.

Steinbeck's characters illustrate the notion that behind every fortune is a crime - and that is the weakness of the book for me, it is too over-determined in that direction. Another weakness is the stolid pace of the novel - there is a reason for it, the stolidity reflects the pace of the long game that Ethan is running and all the necessary parts need to be put in place.

The strengths of the book outweigh these weaknesses though. The characters are wonderfully drawn. The net of moral complexities that arose when immoral intentions interwove with the known weaknesses of minor characters was the high point (or low point to look at it in another way). The allusions to literature were explicit - King Richard III of course, but I found hints of The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane in there.

But the allusion I found that Steinbeck was most interested in was to Kubla Khan by Coleridge. The decisive plot point in the novel references Coleridge's interrupted opium sleep dream where he dreamt of Xanadu. The interruption was caused by a "Man from Porlock" - one of the few named streets in the novel is called "Porlock Street"! In the novel, one of the men from Porlock is a govt. agent.

Why the Xanadu allusion was so important may be due to the fact that it references Citizen Kane and Kubla Khan, men who built pleasure domes on the foundation of questionable actions. The Porlockian aspect also alludes to another novel of Steinbeck's. No matter how much we plan or devise we are always subject to the knocking of the man from Porlock - as in Burns' quote "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley"

In fact, this poem that the above quote appears in is "To a Mouse". The narrator of "To a Mouse" could not better fit Ethan Allen Hawley. Ethan talks to animals (mostly to a stray cat) and to the contents of his empty grocery store. The narrator in "To a Mouse" - apologizes for small crimes that are "needed" to be done, bemoans poverty and lastly mourns that unlike the mouse, he lives not just in the day, but is burdened with his past and his future. And that is how the novel ends - Ethan had thought his crimes would just be a moment in a day and like a mouse he would go on as he was before. But Ethan is a man and he realizes that he has to come to terms with both his past and his future.
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

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