It's been a long time since I've read anything by John Steinbeck, and I think he's great. So I got The Winter of Our Discontent as an audio book and listened to it during my commute. The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare's Richard III, and in that play we see what one man is willing to do to achieve his ends.
I'm really glad I listened to this book. Although, I've spent several days recovering from it. Steinbeck is an amazing writer. His descriptions alone are worth reading. That being said, Steinbeck is tough, and this novel is slow moving. Like many of his books, this one drags the reader through the mud before finally giving a little spark of hope at the end. The happy theme of this is corruption and dishonesty taking over America as seen in the life of one man and his family.
It's written in the first person (except for some random chapters in the middle that are inexplicably and jarringly written in the third person) from the perspective of Ethan Allen Hawley. Hawley considers himself an honest man, and he is. He comes from an old family, who used to have money, but now Ethan works as a grocery clerk in a store he used to own. What starts as a game on Good Friday leads to Ethan's complete moral destruction by the Fourth of July.
A fortune teller, some passing conversations with a bank teller, and Ethan's own dissatisfaction with being a grocery clerk, leads him slowly down a pathway of decisions that destroy the man he used to be. And it happened so easily and organically, that Ethan seems to wonder how it all got that far. He convinces himself that integrity is something that he can put on and take off like a shirt and go about his life as if nothing has changed. Just as killing people in the war didn't make him a killer, taking advantage of someone else, or robbing a bank to get ahead won't make him a thief forever.
But in the end, he figures out that he was wrong. He sees his own moral failings in his dishonest and cheating son. Ethan suddenly can't live with himself.
The female characters are interesting in this novel. Hawley's wife is kind of a thin character; there's not much to her. Her friend Marjorie is described by Ethan as a predator, and she is. She wants to lead him down the morally corrupt path and snare him at the end. It's Ethan's daughter Ellen that ends up being a surprising and interesting character. He mistakes her for just another shallow, selfish, teenage girl. In the end it's her perceptiveness that saves Ethan and gives the reader hope for the Hawleys and for the country.