Places: The Winter of Our Discontent

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1960

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedNew Baytown

New Winter of Our Discontent, TheBaytown. Harbor town on Long Island, New York, in which the novel is primarily set. New Baytown has deep connections to an old seafaring and whaling industry that had made the former fortune of the Hawley family, to which the protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, belongs. A Harvard graduate, Hawley works as a clerk at Marullo’s Fruit and Fancy Groceries, a store his family once owned–one of the old-fashioned, neighborhood stores, where he waits on people individually, makes sandwiches for a bank teller across the street, and extends credit on occasion.

Hawley lives in his family’s ancestral home, from which he walks two blocks every weekday down Elm Street that angles into High Street where he works. Nearby, the old Bay Hotel is being leveled, to be replaced by a Woolworth store, the old giving way to the new. New Baytown is a charming town with tree-lined sidewalks where Mr. Baker, the banker, walks daily from his home on Maple Street to the First National Bank, with unequal steps observing the old childhood superstition that stepping on the cracks will break his mother’s back.

Baker’s father and Ethan’s grandfather, Captain Hawley, had jointly owned the Belle-Adair, an exceptionally fine whaling ship that mysteriously burned–a fire Ethan suspects Baker’s father of instigating for the insurance money.

*Harvard University

*Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts, university from which Ethan graduated. Although Ethan complains that his education is worthless in his present job, his use of language, literary quotations and allusions, and obvious love of the humanities, and the sophistication he gained at Harvard provide a contrast to the provinciality of New Baytown.

Old Harbor

Old Harbor. Abandoned harbor near New Baytown that reflects the past that infuses the novel. Once protected by Whitsun Reef, the harbor now is filled with silt and sand and no longer fit for ships like those that once frequented it. While going to Old Harbor, Ethan reflects on the nautical lore that his grandfather taught him.

Located just off the edge of the harbor is Ethan’s private and secret “Place,” a tiny enclosure with a seaward view near the remnants of the Hawley dock. Within this womblike space Ethan escapes his mundane world, descending into a self-absorbed solipsism–a passive experience that he likens to a sheet being hung on the line to dry. While musing on what happens to him when he goes to his place, he rationalizes that it does not matter whether what happens there is good or bad as long as it is right for him–thus reflecting what John Steinbeck at the time saw as America’s extreme emphasis on individualism.

At the end of the novel when Ethan goes to his private place to commit suicide after his son has been caught plagiarizing in a national essay-writing contest, he is spared by an epiphany. As he reaches into his pocket for razor blades, he finds instead a family talisman that his daughter placed there. Thanks to this discovery, a sense of familial responsibility and love returns to him, and he struggles against the rising tide, to leave his place to return home and return the talisman to his daughter.

Porlock Street

Porlock Street. New Baytown neighborhood in which the most luxurious homes are located–houses with widow’s walks on their roofs and exotic furniture and artifacts, many from China. By contrast, the Hawley and Baker houses on Elm Street are Early American, with peaked roofs and board siding, shaded by huge elms planted when the houses were built.

BibliographyFontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1963. A very readable study that discusses Steinbeck’s use of myths and legendary material as structural elements in his plots. An influential work.French, Warren. John Steinbeck. Boston: Twayne, 1961. Probably the best general treatment of Steinbeck’s work, and an example of the approach called New Criticism, which was prevalent in the 1960’s. Each major work is closely analyzed, with discussions centered around the meaning of the text.Hughes, R. S. Beyond “The Red Pony”: A Reader’s Companion to Steinbeck’s Complete Short Stories. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987. The first study dealing exclusively with the more than fifty works of Steinbeck’s short fiction. Particularly interesting discussions of Steinbeck’s uncollected works, stories he published in magazines during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Discusses the source of The Winter of Our Discontent.Levant, Howard, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974. A constructionist approach, this study discusses the structural patterns of the novels. Suggests that Steinbeck’s intentions, his “blueprints,” were often at odds with the finished products and that his works reveal his inability effectively to fuse material with structure and theme with pattern. Interesting discussion of similarities between Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold (1929) with his last, The Winter of Our Discontent.Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958. First comprehensive study of Steinbeck; emphasizes his versatility.
Categories: Places