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Essay: Marxist Theory & John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent: Will It Stand the Test?

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In this part, I combine two areas of interest including theory and narrative. I thereby investigate aspects of Marxist theory in relation to John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. My hypothesis is to examine Steinbeck’s work through the lens of Marxist theory in an attempt to answer the following questions. Will the Winter of Our Discontent stand the test? Will we find it to be Marxistically sensitive? Are there any traces of Marxist philosophy in the writer himself?

To begin with, I suggest that the text at hand is par excellence a review of power structures and political nepotism. Notably, this depiction brings forth a system of ruling, delineating a corrupt political class that pays insufficient attention to matters of the masses. Much of Steinbeck’s life is somehow telling of the Marxist angle of thought in the writer’s narratives. Regardless of the repetitive attempts to classify Steinbeck as a Marxist, Steinbeck’s career as a novelist is not a perfect linear development, but there is a clear alteration taking place. Steinbeck spent a few years early in his career working as a journalist for the San Francisco News. While carrying out research for his articles, he witnessed the horrifying effect of the Great Depression on people. This experience had an insightful effect on Steinbeck and it grounded a shift in him and the way he regarded and approached novel writing. Biographers and historians concur that three sets of experiences and circumstances formed Steinbeck's vision of the United States:  his childhood in Salinas, where he observed his parents' efforts to climb its social ladder; his ten-year marriage to the radical activist Carol Henning; and his earliest journalistic experience.  Each period drew Steinbeck toward a slightly different political orientation.

Steinbeck's grandparents were severely religious (one pair had been missionaries in Palestine).  They passed their beliefs to Steinbeck's parents, who sincerely believed in the virtues of hard work and self-discipline, and feared temptations of the flesh. Mrs. Steinbeck was civic-minded before the days of female suffrage. Her behavior strikingly fits stereotypes of early twentieth-century progressives. She participated in innumerable community organizations and projects including campaigns to beautify the streets and to build up a municipal opera company. She believed it was the government's job to nurture civilization and to despise savage and egocentric behavior.

Steinbeck might have remained an apolitical offspring of small-town bourgeois parents if not for his wife, Carol Henning, who hailed from the San Francisco Bay region and who sympathized with myriad left-wing movements and causes, including feminism, trade unionism, and socialism.  Steinbeck was not politically involved in his teenage and early adult years. He apparently found local politics uninteresting–perhaps even dangerous and distasteful. In his later years, he would portray the Salinas government ranks as a home for scoundrels: "There were whispers of murders, covered up and only hinted at, and of raids on the county funds. When the old court house burned down it was hinted that the records would have been dangerous to certain officeholders."  While gathering information for his news stories, he saw firsthand the difficulty of finding even short-term jobs. Recalling the workers' defining traits, he noted in a later autobiographical essay; “I liked these people. They had qualities of humor and courage and inventiveness and energy that appealed to me. With all the odds against them, their goodness and strength survived.  Steinbeck sincerely believed that the social order was about to change, and he lay blame for the unrest at the feet of California's peculiar system of production that, in his opinion, depended on the ruthless exploitation of the have-nots: “I don't know whether you know what a bomb California is right now or not…. There are riots in Salinas and killings in the streets of that dear little town where I was born. I shouldn't wonder if the thing had begun. Doesn’t mean any general revolt but an active beginning aimed toward it, the smouldering.”  

Having gone through some aspects of the political education of Steinbeck, I hereby stress on the core of Marxist teachings and how such a theory contributes to creating an emerging perspective with regards to literary criticism. This part presents an effort to explore potential areas of parallel between Marxist theory and Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Marxism, paradoxical in the sense that it seems like such an obvious, fundamental, and translucent concept that scarcely requires any elaborate definition, proves to be incredibly difficult to really nail down.

Marxist literary theory is derived from the works of the German economist Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his fundamental ideas that the material conditions of life determine ideology, and not vise versa, which had been the traditional political philosophy. Marx criticized the injustice inherent in the European capitalist system of economics operating in the 19th century. He believed that capitalism allowed the ‘bourgeoisie’ to benefit at the expense of the workers. His book The Communist Manifesto analyzes the capitalist form of wealth production and its consequences for culture. In his materialistic stance, Marx argues that the ‘base’ of society is the economic system, while other aspects of society, such as politics, ideology, culture, religion, etc. constitute a ‘superstructure’ which is dependent on the base.

According to Marx, however, this connection is not static, but a ‘dialectic’ one. The meaning and consequences of that statement are that a change in the economic conditions can lead to political and social changes. In his era, capitalism and mass production had been made possible by the division of labor, and Marx meant that this division of labor led to the development of a class society, where the socio-economic living conditions revealed vast differences between classes. The needs of the two separate classes, the ‘Bourgoisie,” a small elite class which holds the means of production, and the ‘Proletariat,’ the large working class were in conflict. In America, for example, the capitalists exploited the working class; determined their salaries and working conditions, and other elements of their lives.  From this base, arises the superstructure; a multitude of social and legal institutions, political and education systems, religious beliefs, values, and a body of art and literature that one social class used to keep members of the working class in check. Marx thus argues that this dialectical materialism will lead to a development in ideology and to a new historical stage through class struggle and eventually a proletarian revolution.

Furthermore, Marx considered literature, like all culture, as a reflection of society and political and socio-economic conditions. The study of culture thus gives information about society as a whole, and in literature both style and content are interesting aspects to analyze.  Literature should, according to the Hungarian Marxist theorist Georg Lukacs, contribute to public enlightenment. Moreover, Lukacs argues that realism is the only narrative style that is able to mirror the totality of a social order and the historical environment, and that such literature contributes to developing a new proletarian consciousness.  Opposed to naturalism, critical realism shows itself from the standpoint of a participant instead of only narrating events from the standpoint of an observer.  In my opinion, this essay shows the Marxist aspects, in terms of content as well as in style, and the author’s attempts to enlighten the readers about the reality of the working class during a specific period in time. Consequently, Steinbeck’s writing would qualify as ‘true literature’ according to Lukacs’ Marxist literary critique.

By now, I have come to trace the rationale behind the Marxist philosophy in the view of its founding fathers; thus, I have underlined the parallelism between such A theory and narrative. In accordance with what has been previously discussed the following scrutiny targets the prevailing power structure in the novel and how Steinbeck presents the idea of power politics to his readership.

The effect of Marxist readings upon Steinbeck’s writings is, therefore, undeniable, as it will be demonstrated later in the literary analysis part. Marxist ideas fundamentally changed the way society was perceived and governed. It criticized the claim that those in power are in power because they are smarter and stronger and deserve it, or because they are of European descent. A Marxist critic may begin an analysis by showing how an author’s text reflects his or her ideology through an examination of the fictional world’s characters, settings, society, or any other aspect of the text. The critic may then launch an investigation into the author’s social class, its effects upon the author’s society, examining the history and the culture of the times as reflected in the text, and investigate how the author either correctly or incorrectly pictures this historical period.

Among the most frequent agreements pertinent to the political framework of The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck dramatizes the political agenda of the ruling noble class. The impression a reader might get is that the game of rule resides in the hands of those in power and that politics is a matter of personal interest as well as long-term rule. A similar thread in the development of political structure and power treatment in the novel is the idea of corruption. Steinbeck addresses this point of nepotism in a variety of ways throughout his story. He criticizes the way in which politicians abuse and take advantage of the lower classes. Quite obviously, Steinbeck seems to have introduced to his readers that major political groups are part of this power abuse. Steinbeck further supports the claim that they use various techniques to manipulate others’ thoughts; with these considerations, it is reasonable for these politicians and capitalists to maintain a political status. The manipulative abilities they have give them the advantage of controlling political decisions.

One more connection to the political structure in The Winter of Our Discontent lies in the bribes and scandals that were going on in New Baytown which were announced on the radio. Ethan begins to feel that he is also to be held guilty for these crimes. He says, “I was thinking maybe it is – everybody’s crime” (212). Ethan briefly slips back into a moralistic code in which people are accountable for their actions. As Warren French states, “ The trouble lies not with one generation or another, but in the dark mysteries of the human heart” (73) . Therefore, each man shares the crimes of his neighbors because the human heart is flawed in all men. As Steinbeck states, “Man is our greatest hazard and our only hope” (3). Therefore, each individual must take it upon himself to better the world. In the same direction a reader may learn that politics in The Winter of Our Discontent never ceases to be not only a public affair but rather a matter of personal greed. It is about profit as a rule governing one’s personal behavior and not principle. Seen in this light, it makes sense to think of The Winter of Our Discontent in the context of a political expedition undertaken by a group of greedy people with ultimate rule being the purpose of its contending political groups. This process correspondingly makes killing, brutal fights and conspiratorial relations explicitly justifiable.

A closer focus on the political dimension indicates that the subjugation of some groups is emphasized telescopically through various pervasive ways carried out by the different political forces in the story. To make the point clear, Steinbeck suggests that such an indigenous category is utterly worthless. The Hawley family as a whole is, therefore, forced to become more class-conscious. The point is easy to follow, and allows the reader to see the creation of a supposed communist as something far less threatening than the indoctrination that takes place in the fields of The Winter of Our Discontent. As for dealing with the lowest members of society, Steinbeck did a fine job of ensuring that the reader understands the place of the worker. Such passages also serve to universalize the story for the reader; by being placed in historical context, the Hawleys become part of our own story, and these chapters combined with the amalgamation of forms certainly suggest that Steinbeck was attempting to force the reader into participating in his narrative.

A similar thread in the development of political structure and power treatment in the novel is the idea of corruption. Steinbeck addresses this point of nepotism in a variety of ways throughout his story. He criticizes the way in which politicians have abused and taken advantage of their lower community. Quite obviously, he seems to have introduced a conspiracy to the readers. Major political groups are part of this power abuse.  In a sense, this political maneuvering comes at the heart of Steinbeck’s allusion to concepts of conspiracy and power orchestration in The Winter of Our Discontent. We are prone to notice shadow government which controls the country’s politics in an invisible manner. A possible impression Steinbeck’s seminal narrative might be communicating is the political betrayal and the relationship amongst the political system on The Winter of Our Discontent as well as control over lower classes. Indeed, a brief observation to the journey of the Ethan throughout the novel tells an experience of oppression, degradation and exploitation by hegemonic groups.

It is of no exaggeration to say that the notion of a fair and equal society had been seriously undermined, which was one of the most serious threats that come from the transformation of the American society. To justify the inequalities in American society those in power presuppose that success comes for those who worked hard for it. Social hierarchy therefore, is regarded as a must. This has emphasizes the socioeconomic disparity between classes and this leads to the movement of families up and down the economic ladder. Such deterministic thinking is also amply demonstrated in The Winter of Our Discontent, mainly through the actions of the Hawley family. Not surprisingly, not all of them manage to survive in this social struggle. The family’s weakest members, be it physically or mentally, die (Danny) or desert (Marullo). The remaining characters, however, plod on awkwardly, in accordance with this merciless rule of society. For Ethan, in order to survive, however, he has to destroy two lives with him. Death and betrayal, therefore, are often the necessary ingredients of survival. In effect, the framework Steinbeck sets is likely to resemble a Machiavellian plot in the way that all parts are involved in an unscrupulous power struggle with the intention to rule over.

As early as 1933, Steinbeck confided to close friends that he wanted his fiction to express a new, ambitious understanding of America–a theoretical outlook that at times he called "group-man theory" and at other times the "phalanx theory." He thought that his vision synthesized his contemporaries’ best insights into the nature of human beings and society and also offered an alternative to most Americans' cheery optimism, which he personally disliked.  Cook Hadella regards Steinbeck’s works as realism, as she points out that Steinbeck’s novels include: “realistic details gleaned from the writer’s experiences as an agricultural laborer and from his journalistic investigations of farm labor conditions.”   

Hadella continues to argue that despite Steinbeck’s use of religious symbolism, and despite the fact that he did not consider himself a realist, his works are realistic in origin.  Durst Johnson agrees with Hadella that The Winter of Our Discontent, with its documentary interchapters, provides the reader with factual background, and she compares the style with other novels of social protest.  Furthermore, she argues that the aim of The Winter of Our Discontent is to “enlighten the reader… to change the way people regard that situation, and to inspire them to corrective action”

When he started to use his writings as a tool for social protest, Steinbeck was met with scrutiny, as his ideas were considered as manifestations of Communism. Steinbeck not only intended for his works to attack corrupt political figures but he also intended for them to serve as an incentive for people to wake up and be aware of what was going on in their community. Thus, it is difficult to separate Steinbeck's political activism and desire to help the disposessed and the persecuted from his storytelling ability. In the case of The Winter of Our Discontent, some have made the interpretation that Steinbeck is anti-capitalist and anti-industrialization because of his desire to document the living conditions of the migrant workers, but in reality, Steinbeck's novel documents his own ambivalent beliefs and attitudes regarding the increasing technology driving 1930s economics. The migrant workers needed help, and he documented that very thoroughly, but he was hesitant to assign responsibility for their plight to any one individual or group.

Human nature is inevitably parceled into the conflicting duality of force and justice. For instance, we, as human beings, are caught, in a pathetic dilemma: we cannot seem to do without force, and in this respect every society runs the risk of being oppressive; but we cannot do without justice, and in this respect force becomes not an end but a means, an instrument in the service of right. But the use of violent means always tends to corrupt the user and may well distort, and render unattainable, the desired end. Suppression even in the service of right is still suppression, and that, if not wrong, is but painfully right. A further speculation shows that the matter cannot rest here. Every society does indeed, in some measure at least, rest on power. Americans may claim that their nation is a nation under God. They may invoke the sanction of justice, even claim that they provide liberty and justice for all. They may rely on consent, as they regularly do, that their governors are chosen by the freely recorded and continuing consent of the people, through elections, and that they are just powers from the consent of the governed. But they, along with every other so-called civilized nation, nonetheless maintain an army and police force. Without them, or so it is believed, the state cannot survive, or do the job it purports to do. Without them, or so it is believed, they cannot resist the will of greater powers or impress their will on those with lesser force.

Beyond his respect for the right of each individual to reject society to achieve freedom and comfort, Steinbeck came to have a special reverence for one who is in some sense isolated from the masses for the purpose of making a creative or humanistic contribution to society. In The Winter of Our Discontent the author makes his first forthright statement of his belief in the value of the free mind of man. This novel praises men who reject society and merge successfully with their habitat, forming their own code to regulate customs and morals. Indicating broader social concern in The Winter of Our Discontent, the author sympathizes with a large mass of downtrodden society. While depicting man's loneliness and longing for land, the story criticizes man-made laws, while pleading for brotherly love. People with money are ridiculed, while the lower classes are admired for their unselfishness, adaptability, and natural behavior. The unity of the family group is important, but the unity of mankind becomes even more important. The women who are worthy are the strength of their families; they do not act illicitly.

This novel is not simply about Alfio Marullo as a migrant worker, but about the treatment of one group of humans by another. Steinbeck knew that he was going to anger both those that oppose the communist movement and those that support it. Viewpoints that suggest The Winter of Our Discontent succeeds because it avoids propaganda are not paying enough attention to the fact that just because Steinbeck was not supporting the propaganda of the Party does not mean that he was not making a very pointed argument of his own. The Winter of Our Discontent is a condemnation of the techniques he believed to be employed by the labor organizers, and their corruption of group-man as a whole. Yet, Steinbeck does not merely critique the situation between laborers and employers, but between laborers and labor leaders as well.

Ethan learns the first rule of Joey Morphy’s Guide to Business Prosperity, “money gets money.” After receiving Joey Morphy’s advice, Ethan begins to understand the moral blindness necessary for success in America. The Mickey Mouse mask represents a false identity for Ethan; the mouse mask embodies the commodity, the consumer need for it and, if he follows the Morph’s advice, Ethan must first acquire money in order to make more, likely through dishonest means. In the final scene, Steinbeck proposes, “there comes a time for decent, honorable retirement, not dramatic, not punishment of self or family—just good-by, a warm bath and an opened vein, a warm sea and a razor blade” (276). This dark moment implies the simplicity of suicide for Ethan. For a brief moment, Ethan seeks the comfort of death to absolve himself of his sins; this scene provides a hopeful scenario and expresses Ethan’s deliberate choice to fight against discontent and right the wrongs committed throughout the text. The descent of Ethan’s character signifies the regrettable direction of American culture, yet as Ethan hurries out of the Place, Steinbeck insinuates Ethan’s flee is as a glimmer of hope and a sense of possibility for future generations.

Taking into consideration what has been previously alluded to, it has been noted that the narrative of The Winter of Our Discontent methodically presents a coherent explanation for its political concerns. Steinbeck explores the political scene in The Winter of Our Discontent as he brings into question the political structure and the struggle over power attainability; this is a struggle which brings about the rhetoric of political intrigue.  Along a similar line, I have described the system of rule and the dominant powers in The Winter of Our Discontent. I have also portrayed the disunity of the various political constituents and the tension arising from each part’s liability to possess full control of power; I have argued that it is an affair of individual profit designed to demonstrate everyone’s eagerness to remain authoritatively in power. Steinbeck’s novel The Winter of Our Discontent, with its ironic title and fictive content is a vehicle deliberately revealing the eccentricities of the greedy class who build their own success through contributing to the failure of another class. The Winter of Our Discontent is a text that should be seen as an emblem for political relations and a text with noteworthy political references.

Steinbeck celebrates the fragmentary nature of his society, he believes that these differences have fused together to build the main strengths of his nation, thus, we need to preserve people’s right to be different. We should pause for a while to consider that any totalitarian system spreads sameness everywhere to make the mission of controlling them easier. Anything that distinguishes itself is unacceptable and should be eliminated. Steinbeck works on reversing the attack and subverting this logic, he leads a movement of decentralization; it’s a movement that aims at shaking the certainties as it gives back the value to the marginalized categories of the American society. This reforming movement invokes a continuous war between the authoritarian systems and the peripheral enemies of them. Steinbeck wants to distort the binary opposition of good and bad, blurring these lines that separate people will shorten distance and guarantee an efficient communication among individuals. political

This research study investigates the means by which the mainstream culture imposed its norms, beliefs, and assumptions on the wide majority of the American society. By so doing, Steinbeck intends to reread and decode these means. Power uses the concept of common interest as an excuse to legitimize its corruption. What Steinbeck has focused upon is the way authorities use the power of language in identifying concepts for people, for instance it defines for them what is happiness and what is comfortable life. Falsifying truths and trying to subordinate people’s minds and control their choices through media. Steinbeck is writing a text that answers totalitarianism back and calls for cultural resistance. Being part of the community, any kind of change or intellectual revolution demands from all of us a kind of involvement. Together we can change laws and rules overnight, we can reconstruct our reality, and we simply need to dislodge the myth that power is undefeatable.  political

The discourse of Steinbeck is counter hegemonic; he serves as a watchdog against any threat menacing his society. Steinbeck doesn’t want his people to be hypnotized by the discourse of those in power. Spreading consciousness amongst common people is really important. Democracy is built upon awareness and not upon educated elite leading a blind mob. The role of every writer is therefore, to elevate the level of thinking of his people; he should not allow power to use hegemonic speech to control people. Thus, the role of an intellect is to speak truth to power. This novel asserts the prophetic function of the writer as a truth revealer and as a catalyst who causes agitation, and who brings things together to create new visions and motivates the social change. A novelist is the memory of its nation; his novels should insight people to act, its importance lies mainly in the unsaid, thus, readers have to be able to decode it. POWER DISCOURSE LANGUAGE AS A TOOL OF RESISTENCE BY SUBVERTING POWER DISCOURSES FROM WITHIN. poli

Any dictator system sheds light on trivial matters in order to deflect attention away from core problems and mainly from criticizing its regime. Food prices, safety matters, terrorism concerns, celebrities news, and media outlets, are all made by authorities to disguise people’s attention from real problems. poli

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