The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent (John Steinbeck 1961)

Psalm 49 speaks of the vanity and peril of material success. So does this mighty novel about a happy simple family of a general store clerk named Ethan.

Once his forbears were sea captains in the small New York sea-coast town. Whale oil wealth of another fabled age. After the Second World War Ethan’s father was advised to invest in some vehicles that failed in recession. Properties were lost. The store on the main street was turned over to Mr. Merullo recently arrived to this country from Italy.

Ethan went to work for him managing the store with practical efficiencies and a wonderful sense of humour and goodwill shared with loyal customers.

This saves the family home from encumbrances and the environment resembles many of the TV shows of the 60’s. (Almost too wholesome to accept.)

But there are dark undercurrents. No holidays with his wife. No special treats for any of the family members. A sense of losing vital connection with the boy and girl. Neighbours who sigh and gossip about what Ethan has lost and his apparent acquiescence to it all. Where is his spine? The banker says as much literally and wants Ethan to invest the small amount of savings held by wife Mary from her brother’s estate.

Ethan has friends. The police chief. The banker’s clerk. Chilhood pal Danny who went away to war and came back a drunk (still having title to one vital piece of property outside town). The seductress widow who has befriended his wife with double motives, and a thing for Tarot cards.

The story starts with Good Friday. The store is closed for solemnities and Ethan’s conversation reveals a suppressed appreciation for the Biblical strengths of his dear great Aunt Deborah. The Gospel of Matthew was his favourite.

The story ends shortly after July 4th weekend. The town council has been scandalized. Newspaper reports are sizzling about corruption. A pivotal election is forthcoming for the town and for the Nation. A “federal man” is in town asking about Mr. Merullo.

Quick money is possible. The banker is salivating. Ethan bites for the easy dollar and an end to the hurtful gossip. He feels a new aggressiveness coming on. He has never had any real haunting regrets until now. It involves Danny and others…

This story is a sleeper with powerful lessons. For a once idyllic family. And for a Nation launching into hasty and unearned wealth and notoriety. Psalm 49 indeed.

16 Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased;
17 For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him.
18 Though while he lived he blessed his soul: and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself.
19 He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light.
20 Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.

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