The Winter of Our Discontent is a brutally pessimistic commentary on the American Dream and the lengths to which one must go to attain success.
Ethan Hawley, a small-town grocery store clerk, is known for being a decent man of virtue. Under pressure from his family and those around him to gain wealth and status, he convinces himself to take a brief hiatus from his morals. As he rationalizes:
“In business and in politics a man must maul his way through men to get to be King of the Mountain. Once there he can be great and kind—but he must get there first.”
Through Ethan, Steinbeck makes a deeply cynical case for moral consequentialism, suggesting that man must inevitably “tromp on each other” to get ahead and that ultimately it’s worthwhile since western society values strength and success over virtue and decency.
Of course, the catch is that departing from one’s morals is rarely a temporary break. Once one gives in to corruption, it’s hard to go back—and there are always unintended consequences beyond one’s control.
And as if this isn’t pessimistic enough, there’s also Steinbeck’s dismal take on virtue itself:
“Suppose my humble and interminable clerkship was not for you at all but a moral laziness? For any success, boldness is required. Perhaps I was simply timid, fearful of consequences—in a word, lazy.”
Much of the dialogue in this book is tiresome and borderline obnoxious, but the ethical analysis that Ethan takes himself through to justify his actions is brilliant and, frankly, pretty damning of American ideals. I recommend this for anyone who likes to see philosophical concepts integrated in fiction.