The Winter of Our Discontent shows us a gentler Steinbeck, different from the rough edged writer of The Grapes of Wrath.
This novel is set in New Baytown, a fictitious New England Town. Ethan Hawley is working as a grocery clerk in the grocery store he previously owned. The store now belongs to Marullo, an Italian immigrant. Ethan's family feels that he is too ethical for his own good. His wife doesn't like the fact that they are poor in a town where they were once respected, his son want's to take a short cut to go on television and get rich quick, his pre teen daughter is too secretive for his liking.
Ethan is honest, refuses to entertain a salesman who offers him a kickback. But gradually he starts questioning his ethical standards, and decides to walk away from the honesty that is his hallmark. He plans to get rich and raise the status of his family, by foregoing his morals. That forms the crux of the novel.
Ethan pushes the town drunk Danny Taylor to oblivion by giving him more money to get drunk. In return he gets the land that belongs to Danny Taylor and which everyone in the town is coveting for. The decline of Ethan Hawley's moral standards is the story, but I think Steinbeck meant this as a metaphor for the America emerging from the Second World War. He alludes to the works of Lincoln kept in the attic of Hawley family, Ethan's son plagiarizes his way to success in an essay competition titled "I Love America", and he deals with corruption in local administration.
Steinbeck captures a nation that is growing economically but bankrupt morally. Where this novel differs from other fall from grace novels is that the central character observes himself as a third party and slides down the slippery slope knowing fully well the consequences. But Steinbeck offers redemption in the form or Marullo, on being deported giving away the grocery store to Ethan Hawley. This happens just when Ethan is about to rob the bank. This makes Ethan rethink, and despise himself for having failed his ancestors.
Like other Steinbeck novels, even the minor characters are well written. His language is a pleasure to read. The moral questions he raises makes you stop and think.