The Cunning in the Deep Bosom: A Review of The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, Probably His Greatest Novel

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John Steinbeck, Unknown photographer. Nobel Foundation. Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s follow the Richard III speech a bit farther.

“Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

All our woes and clouds are now buried deep in the ocean, sing tra la la, sing foolish songs or so it goes for Ethan Allen Hawley for whom life is decent if somewhat monetarily deficient. Ethan clerks in a grocery store and he seems to take life’s offerings, even when criticized mildly by his wife Mary, who generally weathers his failings with stoicism. Ethan issues toward her a thesaurus of endearing terms because he doesn’t want to be tiresome: Miss Mousie, sweetheart, darling, Columbine, bugflower. In return she calls him silly. Their two children, Allen and Ellen, would prefer the life of fulfilling consumerism and fame so they apply to contests. And so the story unfolds by way of interpersonal dialogues. As an example his daughter Ellen is mad at him and Ethan thinks, “Very well, my savage daughter. I shall revenge myself in the cruelest way you can imagine. I shall forget it.” It’s the normal course of events because for Ethan a man can get over about anything, to wit, he got over how easily he killed men during the war justifying his actions as the necessity of circumstance.

According to the introduction in my book, Steinbeck was continually experimenting. I’d guess with form and voice that comes together here in a his last novel. It works, or as Steinbeck states explicitly, “A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home it it. Only then can he accept wonders.” And this is the big picture description of the book’s function. We are lured into the family life, the thoughts of Ethan, the ongoing minor squabbles and discontentments, and before we know it, we are accepting wonders. It is superbly written.

But TWOOD wasn’t liked, or so says the introduction that speaks to the novel getting hammered by critics who probably preferred Steinbeck’s earlier works. It’s spankingly clear. Social social commentary and critique are easier meat for the narrow minded critic.

Interestingly, Saul Bellow blurbed on the back of the book jacket of the first edition some anti-critic praise, “John Steinbeck returns to the high standards of The Grapes of Wrath and to the social themes that made his early work so impressive, and so powerful. Critics who said of him that he had seen his best days had better tie on their napkins and prepare to eat crow.” A nice nod if not Bellow’s best.

It does make sense to me. Steinbeck in TWOOD provides an immersive crash course in free direct discourse, which Bellow held court with by way of the velvet touch, especially in More Die of Heartbreak. For this, TWOOD is right up there with Austen’s Emma, and Woolf’s Orlando, and The Ambassadors by James. Here’s an example of his technique that I found interesting:

“Item: By money, Mary meant new curtains and sure education for the kids and holding her head a little higher and, face it, being proud rather than a little ashamed of me. She has said it in anger and it was true.

“Item: Did I want money? Well, no. Something in me hated being a grocery clerk. In the army I made captain but I know what got me into O. T. C. It was family and connections. I wasn’t picked for my pretty eyes.”

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Photograph of the American writer John Steinbeck during his visit to Finland. October 13, 1963. Olavi Kaskisuo/Lehtikuva. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not long before we are tipped off to an undertow in the ocean of Ethan, “I love you,” I said. And I do. I really do. And I remember thinking what a hell of a man a man could become.”

In the first pages we are led to believe that Ethan is always looking for the coordinates to center his life and thoughts. He is complacent. “The misery stayed , not thought about but aching away, and sometimes I would have to ask myself, Why do I ache? Men can get used to anything, bit it takes time.” However, beware the cunning that lies deep in the winter bosom of the congenial.

Sumer is icumen in. Lhude sing cuccu.

We discover that Ethan is a subtle, plotting, scheming wannabe-bastard, the mystery of Ethan TWOOD is revealed, and as we learn, his wordy silliness and amicability is a front that covers his revenge against perceived injustices. He meticulously plans a bank robbery, and while that is foiled his machinations are rhizomatic. His planning sends up many shoots, each extremely well considered.

It’s clear from this last novel that Steinbeck is a very, very fine writer. Here’s an example from late in the book: “It was the throbbing time of dawn, and hot and humid, for the morning wind had not started to blow. The street was gray and silver and the sidewalk greasy with the deposit of humanity. The Foremaster coffee shop wasn’t open, but I didn’t want coffee anyway. I went through the alley and opened my back door — looked in the front and saw the leather hatbox behind the counter. I opened a coffee can, propped the back door open, and put the can at the entrance. The cat was in the alley all right, but he wouldn’t come to the milk until I went into the front of the store. From there I could see him, gray cat in gray alley, lapping the milk. When he raised his head he was mustached with milk. He sat down and wiped his mouth and licked his pads.”

Steinbeck is also at ease with humor, “Two women meet. One cries, “What have you done with your hair? It looks like a wig.” “It is a wig.” “Well, you’d never know it.” Or, “She lounged away, a baby-fatted volupt. Girls kill me. They turn out to be girls.” Is this Steinbeck’s snide and short review of Lolita?

Novels today would finish at the end of Steinbeck’s chapter 16. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. But no, the story for Steinbeck is not yet complete. The motivational hinge asks for further development. A half hidden theme is fully revealed that shows Ethan subscribes to the theory of life stated by Zizek, “Humanity is ok. But 99% of people are boring idiots.” Well then, if true why not attempt to take advantage? For regular folks it’s what I call the Ralph Kramden effect.

Publicity photo of Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners. December 17, 1965. CBS TV. Wikimedia Commons.

Ralph continually dreams up get rich quick plans, the undertone, why do supposedly smart people never get ahead. We think we can lump Ethan into the Kramden class, but now, his Zizekian mindset determines a different future. He’s conniving, he figures the angle, and he will monetize. His plan is considered down to the last detail, or more accurately down to the last dollar. “The process of getting it, designed as daydreams, stood up remarkably when inspected.” For those around him, it was too late once Ethan’s plan kicked in. He states, simply, “I knew from combat that casualties are the victims of a process, not of anger nor of hate or cruelty.” Or to rephrase in the words of Tolstoy, “Freedom is the content. Inevitability is the form.” So it’s without malice that Ethan legitimately takes advantage of the stupidity and lack of foresight of others, because the situation happens to be “… a world of crooks shaken by one gleaming shaft of honesty.” Ethan, like Richard III will stand the hazard of the die, but for Ethan and his meticulous planning, the roll will come up lucky.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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