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J U L Y   1 9 6 1

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck

A review by Edward Weeks

In The Winter of Our Discontent (Viking, $4.50) John Steinbeck turns for the first time in his versatile career to the East Coast for his setting and character. Bay Hampton, where on Good Friday morning his new story begins, could be any small seaport on Long Island or on the coast between New York and Boston. It is a village once famous for its Yankee skippers and sea-plucked fortunes, now being run by the new blood from Ireland and Italy. Ethan Allen Hawley, whose name echoes the past, is a gay, unaggressive spirit working as a clerk for Alfio Marullo; like his father before him, Eth has lost the acquisitiveness of his forebears, and with it what remained of family fortune. At the age of thirty-six all he has left is the old Hawley place, a couple of frankly envious children, and the nest egg of $6500 which his patient, pretty Irish wife, Mary, inherited from her brother.

The meaning of Good Friday was burned into Ethan as a boy, and it is ironic that on this day a series of small provocations -- a bribe offered and rejected, a fortuneteller at her cards, a remark of Mary's that prodded under the skin -- should startle him from his rut and even launch him on a new career. Eth lends himself to the conspiracy of events in such a human, doubting-Thomas way that before he knows it he is in up to his knees. He has two charming accomplices in Margie and Mary, the one tempting, the other pushing, and the gradual debasement of his honesty is absorbing and rather shocking to watch. It all happens to so effortlessly.

That his years at Harvard and his prowess in World War II should have left Ethan so feckless and so incompetent must be taken on faith; these phases of his career are touched so lightly as to be superficial, but what is genuine, familiar, and identifiable is the way Americans beat the game: the land-taking before the airport is built, the quick bucks, the plagiarism, the abuse of trust, the near theft, which, if it succeeds, can be glossed over -- these are the guilts with which Ethan will have to live in his coming prosperity, and one wonders how happily. John Steinbeck was born to write of the sea coast, and he does so with savor and love. His dialogue is full of life, the entrapment of Ethan is ingenious, and the morality in this novel marks Mr. Steinbeck's return to the mood and the concern with which he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

Copyright © 1961 by Edward Weeks. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July, 1961; Yankee Luck; Volume 208, No. 1; page 122.

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