The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck, 1996 ed.

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck, 1996 ed.

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The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck, 1996 ed.

Within each action, man places his own self-interest. The morals of this are continuously questioned, and throughout The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck explores both the traditional, Christian view and the natural view of the world and its corruption. He shows how Ethan Allen's life was that of a Christian, when he followed his morals, was very passive and generous, and even suffered and was a victim of betrayal. However, Steinbeck also shows that nature can take hold of a man, when Ethan's animalistic instincts and moral conflicts arise. With these, I feel Steinbeck is saying that although Christianity is the traditional way of moral thought, the natural processes come first in allowing Ethan and every human to make the proper decisions necessary for survival. Both views, the moral and amoral ways of thought, work inside of each person to control their actions and behaviors.
To understand the views Steinbeck explores, we must first understand morality. Morals are beliefs that a person or a society has on the difference between right and wrong. Sometimes, the morals of an individual and the society they live in will clash, and so begins a struggle to survive with an internal conflict. With this in mind, it could be said that morals are simply a belief in an opinion, which leads to a battle of the weak versus the strong. Those with stronger moral judgments or even that of a larger population will most likely win against the beliefs of a smaller group or individual. In cases like these, some people will change their morals to fit those of the majority, or the society. Ethan questions this, and the motives behind each acceptance of a wrongful action. He found that "to most of the world success is never bad…Strength and success – they are above morality, above criticism" (187). If this is the case, then morals could change based upon the need to be a part of the winning side. The question then arises, whether morality is truly a battle of beliefs, such as with Christianity, or just of weak versus strong, winner versus loser, with an animalistic approach.

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The traditional view of morality comes from Christianity. It focuses on a person's ideals, the idea of a selfless sacrifice, and community. There is a will for people to acknowledge their connection with those that surround them, and realize that by helping their community, the person will in turn be able to help themselves. Doing so would not cause a person to be considered selfish; rather, it would be considered an act of self-interest, which is important for a person to have in order to survive. Having self-interest, even in an act of generosity, allows the person to decide what is right or wrong based upon how it could help them prosper.
Generosity almost always has a bit of self-interest in it, because helping the community one lives in survive means that each person has a better chance of survival within it. In such a way, community plays a large part in the Christian view. Many would believe that doing things according to and in favor of the community rather than the self would limit free will, but in reality it simply changes how the free will is to be seen. Each individual is free to break away from the role he must play, but then he must suffer the repercussions of his actions. The entire community around him would fall apart, and his own survival could be threatened. When Ethan began to allow the corruption of the town to enter into his own actions, he started to realize the danger he was in of having his son follow in his deceptive footsteps. In this way, many choose to stay in the community out of self-interest. Whether the morality seen in the community conflicts with or compliments the morals of the individual, an acceptance of the new morals is necessary for everyone to succeed and survive.
You also see throughout the novel how Steinbeck portrays betrayal. Just as Christ was betrayed by Judas, as well as Peter later on, you see similar betrayals in Ethan's life. His father had been betrayed by his friend, Mr. Baker's father, with an incident in the whaling business that caused Ethan's family to lose their status. This betrayal of a friend was repeated in Ethan's life, when he gave Danny money to get him institutionalized for his own self-interest in the land that he had owned. However, in Ethan's case, he continuously tried to justify his actions of giving Danny the money. He felt that Danny wanted to die, and rather than having him be a drunkard for years to come, Ethan wanted to help his brother out. Ethan was able to rationalize his action of betrayal of a brother by fitting it to his morals, and in the end gained a large reward for such a generous act.
In Christian views, moral acts of kindness are rewarded. Through Karma, one can acknowledge that there is an order to the world, but it leaves it up to each person whether to exploit it or accept it as the order of life; it can be seen as a natural order, or it could also be seen as a spiritual order. Christ's sacrifice cannot relate to reality, and can solely be explained in a spiritual fashion, and because of this many people try to dismiss it. The reason behind this is that what cannot be understood stands as a threat to overcoming one's power. In Ethan's case, the morals taught by Christianity in his youth stand in his way of regaining his social status, and so he tries to change them to his needs. What he doesn't realize, however, is that both a natural view and a Christian view of morals work together to create the perception and recognition of right and wrong.
Although Steinbeck shows that he acknowledges the traditional Christian view of morality and corruption, the first scene in which Christianity is introduced portrays it in a negative light. It introduces an alternative side of Christianity, which mirrors the duality of mankind. Just as man has both an outward self, the part that he shows the world, and an inner self, a part that he keeps bottled inside, Christianity can be seen as following a moral savior, yet it can also be seen as following an amoral disturbance. Although there is no right way to look at the situation, it is clear that Steinbeck acknowledges that what is seen as a good action can be seen from a viewpoint which makes it amoral. Suicide and sacrifice is another major difference in the Christian and Roman views. Christians believe that suicide is simply the weakened, defeated way out. It occurs when one loses faith, or refuses to bear life and its hardships. To the Romans, however, suicide is seen more of a ritual and a sacrifice for the greater good of man. It follows the idea of a natural order, and a more logical view of the act than the spiritual view Christianity has. In this sense, the Romans bring about an alternative to the traditional view, which can be seen as a natural view.
The natural view accepts life as a series of events that, just as the seasons and light and darkness, continuously enter and reenter a person's behaviors and beliefs. We stick to our morals, but there are pressures and outside influences that continuously enter into our subconscious, and so we are fueled into actions that become warped from the original intentions. Although we believe that man has a free will, and can make choices, these influences show us that we truly don't have the freedoms we believe to hold ourselves. Ethan admits that although he would normally be good-tempered and never go against his morals, his experiences "nudged and jostled [him] in a direction contrary to [his] normal one or the one [he] had come to think was normal" (87). We cannot escape these outside forces, nor change the experiences, and so they become a part of an organic process. Even Ethan admits that although he believed he could control and stop his new, amoral acts, "such a process may become a thing in itself…having its own ends and means and quite independent of its owner" (186). Ethan was considered a wimp by many people, simply because he would not give in to the pressures of his wife and family, and tried to stay true to his morals. He had been "caged by habits and attitudes" (87) he believed to be moral and virtuous, but once he was able to gain a little slack and run free from that cage, his instincts to survive took over and turned him wild. In this sense, Steinbeck is showing that morality can trap a man, and prevent him from living by his instincts as nature had intended.
Just as Christianity portrays betrayal as something that has happened morally or amorally, the natural view portrays it as a necessity to kill off the weakened brother in order to survive. Ethan kills off Danny, so that he could benefit from Danny's death; he would regain a lot of status in the town, and move one step closer to Baker. According to Ethan and Steinbeck, a "real basic weakness might be some form of kindness" (56). By showing others passivity, one is likely to be taken advantage of. In that same situation, the one that shows aggression and takes action will come out the victor, and will strive and survive on their power. Although it may go against a person's morals, and they have a great distaste for it, they still try to take advantage of another's weakness. This aspect of human nature shows that in order to survive in society, one must not simply live by their morals, but by their animalistic, natural instincts as well if they want to survive.
In Ethan's case, he lies to himself in order to fit his natural survival instincts to the morals that Christianity had given him. When he turns in Marullo and gives Danny a lot of money, he does it for his own selfish reason: to gain back his status in town. To justify his actions, he thinks of the positive aspects of what he had done. When he turns in Marullo, he feels that if there is nothing wrong, then there isn't a problem, and if so then Marullo will just be sent home to see his family again. Although he knows that Danny will use his money to buy alcohol, he insists that he is giving it to him to help him get back on the path of the gentleman he used to be. Steinbeck is showing that humans have a tendency to make ourselves feel that we are right and moral in everything that we do, no matter how animalistic or amoral our actions are.
Although the view of Christianity may not be the ultimate morality that one should turn to, Steinbeck acknowledges that it is still important. Both Christianity and nature are intertwined in the process of survival, providing moral reactions to the natural instincts and behaviors one might have. One cannot help the community without self-interest to motivate them, yet an amoral act of betrayal or deceit might be all that is needed to become a powerful figure within the community. As Ethan stated about his ancestors, when they merged both the moral and natural behaviors, they became a "hard-bitten, surviving bunch of monkeys" (37).
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