I am not sure John Steinbeck would approve of my saying this but to me his books are comfort reads. Not because his books set out to fill me with a warm fuzzy feeling. And not because Steinbeck's protagonists are shining examples of successful individuals who are something to aspire to.
Steinbeck manages to tell stories of individuals who, even though they may be flawed, are trying to do right. Some succeed at it better than others - think of Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men or Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. All of them struggle against their peers and against the circumstances in which they find themselves and neither of them triumphs over the adversity they are faced with. And nevertheless, it gives me comfort to read about the tenaciousness and decency with which Steinbeck's protagonists pursue their quests.
The Winter of Our Discontent deals with the same struggle of an essentially decent and righteous Ethan Hawley against a number of his peers who seem to have gained advantages on him through corruption and deceit.
Day after day Ethan is confronted with the loss of his family's fortune and social status, and Ethan cannot help but believe that his descent into obscurity was brought about by his own refusal to participate in greed and ruthlessness until one day he tries to acknowledge to himself that:
"In business and in politics a man must carve and 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."
Without revealing too much of the ensuing story, Ethan's decision to join the rat race has an effect on him, his family and everyone around him and consequences which he could not have foreseen.
In contrast to other of Steinbeck's books, I was a little disappointed with the twist that follows Ethan's decision to claim his share of the wealth that has by-passed his family.
It was almost, like Karma stepped in where Ethan strayed from his path - and this somewhat took away from the story I expected because Ethan no longer seemed to be in charge of his own fate.
As The Winter of Our Discontent was Steinbeck's last novel, it made me think whether he had finally given up the idea of there being any spirit of humanity left in his protagonists and whether the intervention of fate was a sign of resignation in his original belief that people are essentially decent.