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4.1 out of 5 stars36
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 27 October 2002
This is a frightening book, with more real horror than ten of the standard fare. By detailing one man's sliding morals, it holds up a mirror to everyone, as we all have faced similar decisions between doing what is right and doing what is convenient. And facing ourselves can be truly horrifying -- especially when the collective result of everyone's decisions is clearly evident in the ethical morass of today's world, from a President trying to re-formulate the English language to the Enron financial fiasco to wide-spread cheating on exams at military academies that pride themselves on the honor system.
For this novel Steinbeck decided to remove himself from his normal California setting in favor of the East Coast. By doing so he availed himself of a milieu where tradition and 'old money' set the standards for acceptance into 'society'. Ethan Hawley is a man whose family used to be part of that 'society', but due to bad financial decisions he now finds himself clerking for an immigrant who owns the grocery store he himself used to own. With a wife quietly but constantly chiding him about her desires for a better life, to be able to hold her head up in society, and two kids constantly clamoring for more things, Ethan finds himself at a crossroads between a rigid moral code instilled in him by his aunt and grandfather, and providing a better life for those he loves.
Told partially in first person in spare but very effective prose, the road that Ethan spirals down is brilliantly portrayed, from his 'sermons' to the groceries, to his internal 'conversations' with his grandfather, to the seemingly chance happenings and conversations in his little town that spawns an idea and method for robbing the local bank, to his 'dropping a dime' on his immigrant boss, to his betrayal of his alcoholic friend Danny. Each action and decision proceeds logically from the previous one, each one more step down a path with no end, a path which Ethan continues to tell himself that he can abandon with no lingering aftereffects at any time. Each point is meticulously plotted, with all the proper items set in place before the action, and the choice of time, setting, and materials is rich in irony, a sure mark of an author fully in control of his subject.
The ending is deliberately ambiguous. By the time I reached that point I had been so drawn into Ethan's character I found that his final decision was tremendously important to me. Each reader ultimately must draw his own conclusion about what Ethan will do, but regardless of what answer the reader reaches, no reader can remain unaffected by this book, and will find his life richer for having read it.
Steinbeck was one of the great American writers. His Nobel prize was richly deserved, and this book, while not as well known as his Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, is certainly one of the reasons why, rivaling his other works in power and insightful looks at American society, just as valid today as when it was written, and peopled by a very living set of characters.
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on 22 June 2005
I liked this Steinbeck offering. I liked the fact that it's about small town morality, and ultimately society's morals too. The narrative raises questions about our attitudes towards the mundane and the everyday humdrum things like friendship, honesty, ambition, deception, fidelity, sex, family, avarice, petty corruption and to those of us who fall between the cracks.
Okay, so that may sound very traditional and staid, perhaps it isn't sexy enough, but that's exactly why I admire Steinbeck's work. He writes about the real and our day-to-day lives and in this novel he highlights questions of morality through the story of failed businessman Ethan Hawley and New Baytown in late '50s early '60s America.
I found it a compelling read, it wasn't an obvious story to tell and so I never really knew where the story was going to turn. It grabbed me with some clever structure and brilliant characterisation. I was particularly struck by the finely observed relationship between that of the protagonist and of his wife Mary, "My Mary".
Steinbeck's power for social realism shone out, describing the life of New Baytown and its occupants in minute detail and through it showing the quiet nobility of ordinary working people. It reminded me strongly of similar evocations in his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
This is a quirky and deceptively well-written book, with snappy dialogue, memorable characters and an intellectual seriousness lying behind the seemingly innocuous events. Recommended.
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on 14 August 2001
The Winter of Discontent is a wonderful novel which works on lots of levels. It centres on Ethan Hawley, who works in a grocery store which his family used to own. Seemingly happy at being poor, Ethan tries to instill old-fashioned virtues into his family. He also knows that he should try to regain his families name in the community and that he should strive to be something more than a shop assistant. Steinbeck cleverly intermingles all of the characters into Hawley's ingenious plot to become rich and satisfy his childrens' lust for material wealth. Greed of course plays a big part in this novel makes this novel from the 1960s topical today. This is one of Steinbeck's last novels and the first one of his I have ever read. I heartily recommend it.
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on 9 March 2007
This well told story is a testament to the fact that none of society's ongoing cravings for materialistic fulfillment are anything new. The scrambling to achieve a better social standing and to keep up with the Jones's would seem to have been a concern to most of suburbia for quite some time. This is part of the subject of this poignant story. The lead character is Ethan and initially seems to be a contented, intelligent, well liked man, and could be happy with his position in life, even though that position is quite low down the ladder. However, those around him, family and friends, seem to be reticent, at least to some degree, to accept Ethan's place in the world. His children are disgruntled with their lack of family wealth and Ethan worry's about his wife's social standing. They have no car and they have no TV. These things and others are what seem to count to those around Ethan. Ethan's honest character and mind are eventually worked upon until he succumbs to crossing the line that he has previously drawn between himself and the unacceptable. The story is that of a good man, and his inner battle to maintain or to regain his dignity.

As well as the main story of one mans descent under the weight of expectation there are also touches of sex, race, crime and corruption as well as a window into 1960's American suburbia and the attitudes thereof.

There is a message in the story that I found strangely reassuring. The modern phenomenon of wanting something, or everything, for nothing, is not new. Our sad obsession with celebrity is not a modern intellectual rot. Youth has not taken a terrible slide into indolence. All these undesirable quality's are present in this story and gradually wear Ethan down into submission. The process is intelligently written and construed and makes for a good story.

The story raises questions about happiness and contentment, and just what we need and don't need to obtain it, and how far a man is prepared to go to achieve what others expect of him.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 24 August 2014
Ethan Hawley is a man teetering on several brinks. Of an old and distinguished Long Island family, he is a grocery clerk with a needy family, perkily lovely wife Mary, a teenage son and daughter, an old friend Danny who happens to be the town drunk, a bank manager who deplores Ethan`s complacent attitude to his financial affairs, a vampish though mostly likeable female acquaintance who rejoices in the name of Margie Young-Hunt (yes, I know) and a Sicilian boss who plays his own pivotal part in the rise - and possible fall - of Ethan`s fortunes.
More of the plot of this fairly freewheeling, though otherwise tightly structured novel I must and will not divulge.
There are times when I was strongly reminded of the great novelist-storytellers of mid-to-late-twentieth century urban American literature such as Updike, Bellow, Roth or Richard Yates, or even the James Baldwin of Another Country. Steinbeck`s contribution to the genre is a work of such stature.
Ethan narrates most, but not all, of the novel - and that decision alone marks this out as unusual in the author`s work. He begins it in the third person, and by chapter three we are in Ethan`s only slightly less reliable hands (for he is essentially an honest, if deluded, man).
He has a vast and amusingly inventive repertoire of pet names for his bright, devoted wife, and there is a moment in one chapter where she says "Why do you call me silly names? You hardly ever use my name" - which is, in its offhand way, a clever and devastating comment on an outwardly loving but inwardly a potentially less than healthy marriage.
I have come to revere Steinbeck, and it was a revelation to read this last novel,
published in 1961, based in 'New Baytown' - standing in for Sag Harbour, where the author spent the last years of his life - and telling an increasingly desperate tale of a postwar marriage and a man`s struggle to be true to himself yet aspire to what others around him, as well as he himself, would have him be.
There are passages near the opening of the second half of the book which get a little bogged down, but all in all this is a near-masterpiece from one of the greatest American writers of the last century, a man who, with each book I read, grows even higher in my estimation and admiration.
What makes this stand out for me more than anything is the sheer integrity of the writer`s storytelling, and the endless inventiveness of his prose, especially in his psychological penetration, and the wonderfully credible scenes of dialogue between the characters. Characters? These are real people...
The other thing to stress about this author is that he is very funny. He was funny in Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, and - in a different, bleaker way - he`s funny here too. Steinbeck was, in the broadest sense of the word, a comic novelist, like Fielding or Dickens (or Roth or Bellow for that matter).

A novel that enriched my life.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 January 2016
The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row struck me as so brilliant that I was keen to read more. This one, however, was such a disappointment, I could not even finish it. That is despite a theme which I found interesting (and was actually one of the reasons I chose the book).

The problem for me was in the writing style, which is surprising considering what a good writer he is. But the characters here did not seem at all real. The dialogue felt artificial and supercilious and often dragged on for a page without adding anything to the story, the characters or the overall portrait of the situation. Sorry, I really can't recommend this one.
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on 23 November 2005
I liked this Steinbeck offering. I liked the fact that it's about small town morality, and ultimately society's morals too. The narrative raises questions about our attitudes towards the mundane and the everyday humdrum things like friendship, honesty, ambition, deception, fidelity, sex, family, avarice, petty corruption and to those of us who fall between the cracks.
Okay, so that may sound very traditional and staid, perhaps it isn't sexy enough, but that's exactly why I admire Steinbeck's work. He writes about the real and our day-to-day lives and in this novel he highlights questions of morality through the story of failed businessman Ethan Hawley and New Baytown in late '50s early '60s America.
I found it a compelling read, it wasn't an obvious story to tell and so I never really knew where the story was going to turn. It grabbed me with some clever structure and brilliant characterisation. I was particularly struck by the finely observed relationship between that of the protagonist and of his wife Mary, "My Mary".
Steinbeck's power for social realism shone out, describing the life of New Baytown and its occupants in minute detail and through it showing the quiet nobility of ordinary working people. It reminded me strongly of similar evocations in his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
This is a quirky and deceptively well-written book, with snappy dialogue, memorable characters and an intellectual seriousness lying behind the seemingly innocuous events. Recommended.
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`The Winter of Our Discontent' is a slight departure for Steinbeck in that this isn't set in the Salinas valley or California. It has a different feel to his past novels with the themes of human greed and also with a slightly different style to the prose and yet it still has the splendour and amazing technique that Steinbeck is famous for, and which I've grown to love. You still get his lush descriptions, and turns of phrase that encapsulate a feeling or scene in a few perfectly chosen words. The story itself is completely absorbing and as with all of his novels, once you start reading it is very hard to put this down. Written towards the end of his career and when he was living in New York with his last wife you can see the influences of this change come out in his writing, but this in no way detracts from the overall feel, if anything it adds to it. If you've enjoyed any of his past novels then this one will not disappoint and if you're new to Steinbeck I wouldn't recommend this as your first try (maybe Grapes Of Wrath or Cannery Row) but you should definitely come back to it at some point soon. Well worth a read.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 September 2014
I found this a complete change from Steinbeck's California books. Ethan Allan Hawley works in a grocery store and has two smart kids; his wife works outside the house to bring in more income. Hawley would like to do better for the family, but even the fact of his being a Freemason doesn't open any doors.

An old friend of Hawley's is quietly drinking himself to death in his secluded house, with no family left. Hawley sees an opportunity to develop the land around that house into an airstrip. Who would this benefit, and could he see a way to make it benefit his family... even if it meant ignoring his own scruples and old friendship?

Gently paced, with a sub-plot involving the two kids and their rivalry, the tale grows in the telling. We can see in microcosm the development of America and enrichment of some to the detriment of others. I enjoyed this more than any other of Steinbeck's fiction so if you have not got on with his other novels give this one a try.

Aside from the title's Shakespeare quote, the book includes the phrase 'appetite for destruction' which was used by heavy metal band Guns 'N Roses to title their album.
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on 31 October 2012
John Steinbeck knew how to tell a story. Moreover, he knew how to blend the mythical and the moral into those stories. His books are a searing commentary on American life in the first half of the twentieth century and on the human condition as a whole. 'Of Mice and Men', 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'East of Eden' are rightly regarded as classics. Dig deeper into his lesser known novels and you'll find plenty of other gems. 'The Winter of Our Discontent' is one of the best.

'The Winter of Our Discontent' centers on Ethan Hawley, a grocery clerk who has fallen on hard times and now works in the store he once owned. He is slated for his lack of ambition, but battles to maintain his integrity against the corrupting influence of small town American life. But the dam cannot hold. Ethan reports his Italian boss to the Immigration Service, getting him deported in the process, and is sucked into the same mire as those around him.

It's a return to fall-of-man motif explored in 'East of Eden', but 'The Winter of Our Discontent' is far more a comment on the degradation of contemporary society that Steinbeck had witnessed during the previous decades. Indeed, the novel is set in Long Island, where the novelist lived for a number of years. It's one of his least harrowing, but most accessible books, and the last one he ever completed. The social commentary is there for all to see, but it reads more like a novel than the documentary feel of 'The Grapes of Wrath' or 'In Dubious Battle'. And as with all his greatest novels, there's the trademark ending. John Steinbeck knew better than most how to end a novel.

The surrealist painter Magritte said he always gave his paintings abstract titles in order to lend an extra layer of mystery to the composition. With Steinbeck too, his titles add dimension and were almost always chosen from the classics. By choosing the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III, Steinbeck could have been using the phrase in same inaccurate way that it is used in politics (the winter of discontent is the end of discontent, the death of discontent, not the depths of it). However, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. With those words is begun a play about unravelling morality, political conspiracy and spiralling violence. 'The Winter of Our Discontent' is hardly 'The Godfather', but it does remind us that whether it be shopping your boss to Immigration or shopping your brother to the king, it only takes one petty act to begin the downward spiral. It is a novel that in recent years has become relevant all over again.
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