Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Moral Journey

The Winter of Our DiscontentThe Winter of Our Discontent 
by John Steinbeck

"I had made my moves that could not be recalled.  Time and incidents had played along, had seemed to collaborate with me.  I did not ever draw virtue down to hide what I was doing from myself.  No one made me take the course I had chosen." (p 201) 

What is a talisman? A traditional understanding of the word, derived from the Greek via the Arabic tilasm, refers to a religious rite, its completion, and the symbol such as an amulet of that rite. The power in a talisman is implicit in its association with religion and this seems to be the sense in which it is used in The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck's last completed novel published in 1961.  

Perhaps I should have chosen as an epigraph the lines from Shakespeare's play, Richard III, "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious by this Sun of  York.", but Steinbeck's novel, while including these lines in both parts one and two, is much more complex than suggested by this allusion with many layers of meaning, allusions, and references both literary and religious. With a contemporary setting it is nonetheless steeped in the tradition of family and country. The protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, traces his own family tradition in America almost two centuries although the wealth of the Hawley's and their concomitant social standing has deteriorated over the years so much that, when the story opens, Ethan is a clerk in a small town grocery store. The store is owned by an Italian-American, Mr. Marullo, who was born in Italy. "It's the first time in history a Hawley was ever a clerk in a guinea grocery."(p 14)

Ethan's personal ethics lead him into a conflict with Marullo early in the story that generates an interchange that underlines the difference in their perspectives on family tradition:  Ethan says, "Hawley's have been living here since the middle seveteen hundreds. You're a foreigner. You wouldn't know about that. We've been getting along with our neighbors and being decent all that time. If you think you can barge in from Sicily and change that. you're wrong." Marullo responds, putting Ethan in his place with these words, "You think Marullo is a guinea name, wop name, dago name. My genitori, my name, is maybe two, three thousand years old. Marullus is from Rome, Valerius Maximus tells about it. What's two hundred years?"(p 21)
For Ethan, upon reflection, this perspective "was the shocking perspective that makes a man wonder: If I've missed this, what else have I failed to see?"(p 22) That is the question, for Ethan is a man who fails to see a lot of things in this story of several months, momentous in some ways, in his life. 

Ominously the story begins on Good Friday with all the symbolism entailed in the ceremony of Easter weekend. This begins a moral journey for Ethan, complete with literary allusions both to Dante's hell and to Morte d'Arthur. He faces dilemmas on the business front from suppliers and from his own belief that he must restore the social standing of the Hawley name. But on an even deeper, more personal note he faces another biblical question: Am I my brother's keeper? For his closest friend from and early age, Danny Taylor, needs his help even though Ethan "knows" that his help is unlikely to make any real difference in the direction of Danny's life. Danny's dilemma is presented with a slight allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Imp of the Perverse". The issue is raised by Poe and alluded to with the phrase, "you've raised my imp."(p 119) 
Simply put: Why does a man who knows what is the right thing to do go ahead and do the wrong thing? Philosophers since Socrates have pondered this dilemma and while our increased understanding of our unconscious desires and the importance of the will may suggest some answers this is still a difficult issue; one that would bedevil Danny Taylor and perhaps Ethan as well.

These dilemmas blended with the vicissitudes of family life with his wife Mary and two children yield a richly woven and deeply thoughtful novel. It is one that raises questions, presents challenges and provides a believable story that enjoins the reader to question his own beliefs.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I have not read this one. Something that I really like about Steinbeck in general is the way that he harks back to both Classic and ancient texts and ideas. It sounds also this is also true of this book.

Great point about how our current understanding of the human mind barely clears the fog on some of these issues.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. Steinbeck's last novel, while shorter than his most famous works, is filled with his classic themes.