If you are new to this blog, you will find that I post on a variation of materials. I take a picture of the book cover and mention the version of the book I am reading. There is very little analysis. If I’m reading for pleasure I transcribe what I call “the best bits”. These consist of words, phrases, sometimes full paragraphs or pages that I find wonderfully written and worthy of reading again. The “best bits” pieces are not for school study. I picture someone saying, “I’ve always heard about this book but never knew what it was about.” The best bits help you discover the tone and feel of the writing. The chapter summaries clue you in to the action and general topics. I always leave off summarizing the last chapter because I want you to go to the library and borrow the book! I want you to be inspired to collect a library of your own!
On the other hand, if I am reading for school as a student or a professor, my notes look much different. Study notes are for school essays, discussions, and tests. I note the most important elements of the text. You should still read the original writing, but study notes should help you study.
Every once in a while I post something original. I’m mostly a reader, but occasionally something unexpectedly pops out. I’ve been exploring critique lately. I’m a movie fanatic so a small handful of film critiques have been posted. I have raw notes and some ideas for the latest Chris Rock stand-up routine. After gathering the raw notes the thinking process becomes more dynamic. How do I take this material and gather it into chunks to discuss? Where do I focus? What do I leave out? I hope you enjoy the variety of offerings on this blog.
The Winter of Our Discontent
The Viking Press New York 1961 281 pages
This book was pure delight. It centers around the family, the domestic sphere, and a general store. It is a small town with few characters, but each is richly drawn. Every time the husband addresses his wife he uses a different pet name and the descriptions of his young adolescent children are hilarious. Our narrator and protagonist is Ethan who continually questions if he has come far enough in life. What bad luck that his once prominent family has fallen into ruin. Why do all the other men in town seem to be richer? What types of games do they play? How would he even know how to play? Is everyone a cheat or do some people remain poor but essentially good and mentally clean? Ethan ponders how far he would go to make that one big score and if he could live with himself afterward.
The chapters are mostly short with a great deal of dialogue. Steinbeck is a master of language sometimes making up a word or two that fit perfectly. He has a reading nook in the attic where one of the comfy chairs is “rump sprung”. How can you beat that? His descriptions of the weather and ocean, especially his chapter on Spring is delicious with plump details. Amazing. Upon finishing the last page I cried just a little because this beautiful thing was over.
Mary and Ethen Hawley have children and live in New Baytown. Ethan is a grocery clerk.
“A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many. It changes not only in growing light toward zenith and decline again, but in texture and mood, in tone and meaning, warped by a thousand factors of season, of heat or cold, of still or multi winds, torqued by odors, tastes, and the fabrics of ice or grass, of bud or leaf or black-drawn naked limbs. And as a day changes so do its subjects, bugs and birds, cats, dogs, butterflies and people” (10-11).
“‘Why?’ she asked.
“‘Cat’s why to make kittens’ britches.’”
“Golgotha–that is to say, a place of a skull–” (17).
A shifty salesman comes in to offer Ethan a secret money-making deal.
Mary has seen it in the cards that Ethan will become rich.
As an insomniac married to a person who not only sleeps all night but can take a nap anytime, anywhere, this next passage really seeps to my bones. I burst into happy tears after reading it again. Thank the universe for Steinbeck, man.
“My wife, Mary, goes to her sleep the way you would close the door of a closet. So many times I have watched her with envy. Her lovely body squirms a moment as though she fitted herself into a cocoon. She sighs once and at the end of it her eyes close and her lips, untroubled, fall into that wise and remote smile of the ancient Greek gods. She smiles all night in her sleep, her breath purrs in her throat, not a snore, a kitten’s purr. For a moment her temperature leaps up so that I can feel the glow of it beside me in the bed, then drops and she has gone away. I don’t know where. She says she does not dream. She must, of course. That simply means her dreams do not trouble her, or trouble her so much that she forgets them before awakening. She loves to sleep and sleep welcomes her. I wish it were so with me. I fight off sleep, at the same time craving it.
“I have thought the difference might be that my Mary knows she will live forever, that she will step from the living into another life as easily as she slips from sleep to wakefulness. She knows this with her whole body, so completely that she does not think of it any more than she thinks to breathe. Thus she has time to sleep, time to rest, time to cease to exist for a little.
“On the other hand, I know in my bones and my tissue that I will one day, soon or late, stop living and so I fight against sleep, and beseech it, even try to trick it into coming. My moment of sleep is a great wrench, an agony. I know this because I have awakened at this second still feeling the crushing blow. And once in sleep, I have a very busy time. My dreams are the problems of the day stepped up to absurdity, a little like men dancing, wearing the horns and masks of animals” (34-5).
Ethan has a special thinking spot. He went there last night. This chapter is beautiful.
Ethan is feeling good. It seems he is going to take the deal.
“I scrubbed Marullo and the whole day off my skin with a brush and I shaved in the tub without looking, feeling for the whiskers with my fingertips. Everyone would agree that’s pretty Roman and decadent.”
“Beauty is only skin deep, and also beauty must come from inside. It better be the second if I was to get anywhere. It isn’t that I have an ugly face. To me, it just isn’t interesing. I made a few expressions and gave it up. They weren’t noble or menacing or proud or funny. It was just the same damn face making faces” (67).
Margie comes to dinner and reads her tarot cars. Yesterday she said the cards showed a future fortune for Ethan. Tonight she was freaked out by the reading and left quickly afterward.
“The red dots were swimming on my eyes, and the street light threw the shadows of naked elm branches on the ceiling, where they made slow and stately cats’ cradles because the spring wind was blowing. The window was open halfway and the white curtains swelled and filled like sails on an anchored boat. Mary must have white curtains and often washed. They give her a sense of decency and security. She pretends a little anger when I tell her it’s her lace-curtain Irish soul” (88).
“Sometimes I wish I knew the nature of night thoughts. They’re close kin to dreams. Sometimes I can direct them, and other times they take their head and come rushing over me like strong, unmanaged horses” (89).
“Mr. Baker and his friends did not shoot my father, but they advised him and when his structure collapsed they inherited. And isn’t that a kind of murder? Have any of the great fortunes we admire been put together without ruthlessness? I can’t think of any.
“And if I should put the rules aside for a time, I knew I would wear scars but would they be worse than the scars of failure I was wearing? To be alive at all is to have scars.
“All this wondering was the weather vane on top of the building of unrest and of discontent. It could be done because it had been done. But if I opened up that door, could I ever get it closed again? I did not know” (92).
“‘You say such dreadful things, even to the children.’
“‘And they to me. Ellen, only last night, asked, ‘Daddy, when will we be rich?’ But I did not say to her what I know: We will be rich soon, and you who handle poverty badly will handle riches equally badly.’ And that is true. In poverty she is envious. In riches she may be a snob. Money does not change the sickness, on thy the symptoms’” (101).
Mr. Baker wants to use Mary’s inheritance for a business venture.
Ethan tells his alcoholic friend Danny that he’s going to pay for his treatment. Ethan also warns him not to sell his parcel of land to Mr. Baker (who has plans to turn it into an airfield). Ellen (Ethan’s daughter) sleepwalks.
“On Monday perfidious spring dodged back toward winter with cold rain and raw gusty wind that shredded the tender leaves of too trusting trees. The bold and concupiscent bull sparrows on the lawns, intent on lechery, got blown about like rags, off course and off target, and they chattered wrathfully against the inconstant weather” (129).
Steinbeck breaks the fourth wall for just a second in this chapter. According to the movie blog, StudioBinder, the “fourth wall is an imaginary wall that separates the story from the real world. This term comes from the theatre, where the three surrounding walls enclose the stage while an invisible “4th wall” is left out for the sake of the viewer. The 4th wall is the screen we’re watching. We treat this wall like a one-way mirror. The audience can see and comprehend the story, but the story cannot comprehend the existence of the audience.
If you break that wall, you break that accord. This is called “Breaking The 4th Wall.” It can also be described as the story becoming aware of itself.” On page 130 Steinbeck is having Mr. Baker say something then follows with, “He didn’t say it meanly the way it looks in print.” This is the only time he does this throughout the novel.
In this version there is a typographical error on page 147 where the word is spelled “mariana” instead of “marina.” This is fixed in the Penguin Classic version of 2008.
Than’s boss tells him to take the kickback; Ethan can use that money to become partner in the store. Ethan takes a thousand of Mary’s money and gives it to the town drunk for rehab. He immediately regrets it and knows Danny has left town.
“…as though my soul had an ulcer” (155).
“We can shoot rockets into space but we can’t cure anger or discontent” (157).
Danny leaves a note to Ethan saying he will repay the money.
“Spring is late and summer late at New Baytown, but when it comes it has a soft, wild, and special sound and smell and feeling. In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different. Then in the evening the bobwhites state their crisp names and after dark there is a wall of sound of whippoorwill. The oaks grow fat with leaf and fling their long-tasseled blossoms in the grass. Then dogs from various houses meet and go on picnics, wandering bemused and happy in the woods, and sometimes they do not come home for days” (160).
This chapter is one of the most beautiful descriptions of spring I have ever read.
Margie wants a piece of Ethan’s pie. Mr. Baker is desperately seeking Danny. Why does Mr. Baker keep receiving letters from Albany?
“I wonder about people who say they haven’t time to think. For myself, I can double think. I find that weighing vegetables, passing the time of day with customers, fighting or loving Mary, coping with the children–none of these prevents a second and continuing layer of thinking, wondering, conjecturing. Surely this must be true of everyone. Maybe not having time to think is not having the wish to think” (184).
“It seems, then, that it is not what you do, but how you do it and what you call it” (186).
“The white window curtains seemed to sigh in and out as though they breathed, because it’s a rare dawn that does not wave a small wind over the land” (189).
“…I stroked the lovely line from ear to shoulder with my second finger but gently enough not to startle and firmly enough not to tickle. She sighed as she always does, a deep, gathered breath and a low release of luxury. Some people resent awakening, but not Mary. She comes to a day with expectancy that it will be good. And, knowing this, I try to offer some small gift to justify her conviction” (191).
“‘Then take it. You sign a check.’
“‘Don’t you want to know how much?.’
“‘I guess so.’
“‘Dong you want to know what the investment is? The figures, the flotage, the graphs, the probable return, the fiscal dinkum, and all that?’
“‘I wouldn’t understand it.’
“‘Oh, yes, you would.’
“‘Well, I wouldn’t want to understand it.’
“‘No wonder they call you the Vixen of Wall Street. That ice-cold, diamond-sharp business mind–it’s frightening’” (193-4).
Ethan runs over some ideas for obtaining the store by Mr. Baker.
“Walking slowly, I found myself not saying but feeling good-by–not farewell. Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance. Good-by is short and final, a word with teeth sharp to bite through the string that ties past to the future” (202).
Plot point: Ethan hears this on the radio as he walks in. “‘We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin. Officials of New Baytown and Wessex County were this afternoon subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury to answer charges ranging from fixing traffic tickets to taking bribes and kickbacks on town and county contracts…” (211).
“For the most part people are not curious except about themselves” (213).
Today is planned for Ethan to rob the bank. Many city leaders are in trouble for illegal activity.
Marullo is finally picked up as an illegal immigrant. He wants to give Ethan the store. Because this man showed up with the paperwork, Ethan couldn’t go through with his bank robbery plans.
Morphy says he just KNEW the bank was going to be held up today. Ethan keeps his secret.
“I don’t know for sure how other people are inside–all different and all alike at the same time. I can only guess. But I do know how I will squirm and wriggle to avoid a hurtful truth and, when finally there is no choice, will put it off, hoping it will go away. Do other people say primly, ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow when I am rested,’ and then draw on a hoped-for future or an edited past like a child playing with violence against the inevitability of bedtime” (233)?
Ethan and Mary find a babysitter in order to go away for the weekend.
“She came back trembling like a star. ‘You’ll never guess. You couldn’t.’
“‘I can guess it’s good.’
“‘She said, ‘Have you heard the news? Have you heard the radio?’ I could tell by her voice it wasn’t bad news.’
“‘Could you tell it and then flash back to how she said it?’
“‘I can’t believe it.’
“‘Could you let me try to believe it’” (242)?
Not only has Ethan bought the store, his son earned an honorable mention in an essay contest and will be on tv.
Ethan makes the deal for the kickback just as he’d been advised. Mr. Baker says Ethan should run for city manager. Danny is found dead.
Now that Danny is dead his flat meadow is ripe for the taking to become an airstrip…but Ethan has the papers.
Ellen knew her brother had plagiarized his winning essay so she told on him. Ethan comes home to get a pack of razor blades and leaves again.
RAZOR BLADES! OMG! What is going to happen?!? You have to read the book to find out!!