Author: John Steinbeck
First published: 1961
Locale: New Baytown, Long Island
Plot: Social realism
Ethan Allen Hawley, a storekeeper, the protagonist. As his name suggests, he is descended from a line of early pioneering Americans, but he has descended, too, into lower-class circumstances. The family fortune has been lost, and although he is a Harvard graduate and a veteran of World War II, he has been consigned to a clerkship in a grocery store. Like his ancestors, Ethan is an independent spirit, discontented with his lot but trying to keep a philosophical spirit about it. He resorts to delivering apostrophes—some learned, some ridiculous—to the shelves of canned goods, and he celebrates his love for his wife, Mary, by making funny faces at her or answering her in puns or circumlocutions. These verbal exercises are a way for Ethan to come to terms with his low fortunes and serve as a contradictory impulse to his real, half-buried ambition to succeed. At first, this desire takes the form of his instructing his son on the old-fashioned virtues of honesty and independence; he even turns down a bribe by a salesman. Ethan's discontent and the pressures exerted by a materialistic society eventually lead him to corruption.
Joe Morphy, a bank clerk and friend of Ethan. A goodnatured but mediocre man, Joe suffers from a form of discontent with his job and his social life. Unmarried and with little chance of advancement, Joe has made the most of his situation. He is friendly, knows everyone in town, and is a kind of factotum, a source of information and advice on life and love. He is a catalyst in human affairs, influencing the formation of schemes but taking no real part in them. He innocently gives Ethan information on how to rob a bank and provides the impetus for Ethan's plan.
Alfio Marullo, Ethan's employer. Like Ethan, Marullo is defined by contradictions. Hardworking and cautious with money, Marullo is proud of his success and in consequence constantly supplies Ethan with heavy doses of advice on how to achieve it. For all of his criticism of Ethan as being too “soft,” too concerned with making friends rather than money, Marullo is not the ogre that years of work and arthritis seem to have made him. He has taken a liking to Ethan and admires his honesty and his ways as a family man. By the end of the novel, he turns over the store to Ethan.
Mr. Baker, the town banker. Shrewd and opportunistic, Baker represents those materialistic values Ethan wants to repudiate. Superficially gracious, Baker talks mostly about money, investments, and schemes for making more of both. He may have been responsible for the ruin of Ethan's father. Baker's advice to Ethan about investing Mary's money seems an attempt to advance his own interests more than Ethan's. His scheme to swindle land from Danny Taylor by getting him drunk makes him all the more odious to Ethan, who declares that he “hates” Baker.
Margie Young-Hunt, a divorcée attracted to Ethan. A card reader and self-proclaimed witch, Margie is part fraud and part confidant. As her name suggests, she is a huntress of men, though not so young any longer. She survives on alimony checks and has been casually intimate with a number of men, including Joe Morphy. She is not particularly malicious, but her will to survive keeps her on the edge of opportunity. She predicts that Ethan will come into money and tries to seduce him near the end of the novel.
Danny Taylor, the town drunk, a boyhood friend of Ethan. He wills Ethan his land in exchange for Ethan giving him a thousand dollars.
Mary Hawley, Ethan's wife, a trusting, loving, rather superficial figure who shines only in Ethan's light. She trusts him implicitly.