Cold War American Capitalism Reflected in The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck and On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck and On the Road by Jack Kerouac are set in the middle of the last century. Both novels describe the ways people react on the changes in the social and economical structure of the country, but Steinbeck and Kerouac approach this problem from different sides.
The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck makes a portrayal of one separate family on the background of the epoch. It tells a story of Ethan Hawley, a descendant of once wealthy family, which become bankrupt when oil production replaces whaling. Ethan has to work as a clerk in the store, which used to be the property of his family.
He is preoccupied with the idea to win back the fortune of his family. This finally changes an honest and kind guy to a cruel person preoccupied with money concerns. He buys back a shop by reporting to the policy about the illegal status of his owner. He than uses his friend Danny in order to resell his land, which finally makes Ethan rich.
Through the novel we can see how Ethan’s character transforms. With the growth of his material possessions, his moral and ethical norms decline and he becomes obsessed with money. Very soon it becomes evident that new fortune does not make him happy and satisfied. Grief and discontent make him to seek for new ways to become richer. In addition thoughts about the indecent ways, which he used in order to gain his fortune, do not leave him.
Steinbeck very vividly depicts the morals of capitalist society of the 1960s, when people, obsessed with the desire to become rich by any means spent their lives in vain attempts to gain fortune.
The author does not put all the burden of responsibility on Ethan. Steinbeck illustrates how social norms and regulations influence the morals of people. Transition to capitalism does not go smooth and many people become preoccupied with money, making it a center of their existence. Ethan reflects a spirit of the epoch and his personal degradation perfectly illustrates the degradation of the entire society. Steinbeck shows how capitalism influences moral and ethical norms of each separate individual, who, finally compose social norms and regulations. Shift to the materialistic fulfillment became the main distinctive feature of the epoch described. Craving for a higher social position and money changes Ethan’s personality completely. In the beginning of the story he is depicted as kind, honest and well liked man, who could be happy living the life he has. Unfortunately people around him try to impose their ideas on him and finally they succeed. Friends, family and people around are concerned with Ethan’s low social position and try to make him happier by giving advices how to change this position. Ethan’s family does not possess material objects, such as TV or car, which would ensure their high social status. Finally Ethan crosses the border and breaks his moral norms in order to get a higher social status. Such a choice illustrates the change in mentality of all people, when social position and quantity of money count more than inner qualities and moral values. Ethan descends under the burden of expectations, put on him by other people. The feeling of dignity, which makes the cores of happy human existence, is now achieved not through inner state, but through materialistic possessions.
People do not form values system any more; they try to adapt to the power of money, which reflects new spirit of capitalist epoch. Transformation of Ethan’s morality reflects the transformation of the morality of the entire epoch.
As the author describes a year when the novel is set it is “a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger. The whole world stirred with restlessness and uneasiness as discontent moved to anger and anger tried to find outlet in action, any action so long as it is violent.”ť In the new world money becomes the pass, which lets people enter the higher society. Profit and wealth become new objects of worship and even honest and descent people can not contradict the entire social system. Old-fashioned virtues, presented by the protagonist in the very beginning of the novel are destroyed by the new capitalistic values, conditioned by the changes in the society.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is another sketch of the same epoch, but taken from the different perspective. Written by probably the most famous writer of the Beat generation, this novel is an autobiographical work. It is written in a stream of consciousness form. The novel describes the travels of group of friends through the country and their attempts to perceive the reality around them. Sal Paradise, who is the narrator of the story, meets Dean Moriarty and this makes the beginning of their journey. Accompanied by the group of friends they start endless travels around the country. Sal, who represents the author’s figure, does not want to take the burden of social responsibility and his friends are much the same. As he himself states:
the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are
mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of
everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or
say a common place thing, but burn burn burn, like
fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders
across the stars.
The narrator never tells about the destination of his long travels.Â He and his friends try to challenge social norms and regulations by making senseless actions, which most probably will provoke a negative reaction of the society. In San Francisco Sal takes a job as a night watchman. He soon starts arguing with his boss and makes anything possible to challenge a stable social order. Very soon he leaves his job and goes on with his traveling around the country.
Sal admires Dean’s longing for freedom and disrespect to any social norms and regulations. He believes that Dean’s outlook and lifestyle reflect his inner freedom and absence of any limitations inside of his mind. In the second part of the novel Sal gets disappointed in his travels in general and in Dean in particular. He does not see any sense in his travels and they loose romantic charm, which surrounded them in the beginning. Dean also ceases to be the incarnation of freedom and seems to be irresponsible and vain. Finally Sal gets another insight into Dean’s personality, when Dean leaves him alone in Mexico City. As Sal states “when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.”ť  Disappointment becomes a distinctive feature of the second part of the novel. Sal is disappointed in the goal of his travels. He is also disappointed in life around him. He fails to find the sense of life in obeying social norms and regulations, but he also fails to find this sense outside these norms and regulations.
Neither strict social order nor complete neglecting of social norms and regulations gave him so much desired inner freedom and sense of life. The last lines of the novel, “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old,”ť and ends with “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty”ťÂ reflect his bad disappointment.
Kerouac does a perfect job representing the world of the people, who made the Beat generation. They are not able to perceive reality the way it is. At the same time they can not change anything but they look for the way to escape.
Wandering around the country, taking drugs and socializing with people with same ideology, they try to come in terms with the new reality they have to face. Kerouac not only showed the ways to escape the reality, used by the representatives of the Beat generation. He also managed to describe the fallacy of this way. By the end of the novel the main character feels empty and devastated. He does not come in terms with his internal world. He does not approach the perception of the external world around him either.
Both novels illustrate the changes in the mentality of people, which occur during the 50s of the last century.
Steinbeck and Kerouac describe different types of transformation, which occurred to the minds of people.
Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent illustrates conformism and attempts of the people to meet the requirements of the new epoch. Adopting to the capitalism ideology becomes hard for the protagonist of the novel, but he does his best in order to fit the new model, created by the society. Kerouac describes another type of reaction, when people turn to protest against existing social order. The main character of Kerouac’s On the Road does not want to perceive a materialistic model of wellbeing, applied during the new epoch. He tries to make a living by his own and stay away from the society. Very soon he realizes absurdity of this idea and then disappointment comes. Sal turns to what Wini Breines called “signs of cultural discontent and resistance”ť, but it does not bring him peace and happiness. Sal and his friends try to neglect social norms and regulations and express their discontent with the contemporary moral norms but they can not form their own ones in order to replace ones which do not satisfy them.
“On the Road is a metaphor exposing the pointlessness of American enchantment with a kind of progress that involves constant, compulsive movement, occasionally spiced with wistful notions of relaxing and enjoying life.”ť
Kerouac’s characters rebel against all existing social norms and regulations but there is not constructive point in this rebel since they do not bring new ideas. At the same time they perfectly represent the spirit of disappointment, which marked the Beat generation.
Both Steinbeck and Kerouac illustrate the changes in the mentality of people, which occur during the 50s of the last century. The authors describe different types of transformation, which changed to the minds of people. Political and economic changes in the society had a great influence on the mentality of people. Cold War and development of capitalism resulted not only in major social, political and economic changes. They also have transformed people’s lifestyle and way of thinking. Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent illustrates conformism and attempts of the people to meet the requirements of the new epoch. Adapting to the capitalism ideology becomes hard for the protagonist of the novel, but he does his best in order to fit the new model, created by the society. Kerouac describes another type of reaction, when people turn to protest against existing social order. The main character of Kerouac’s On the Road does not want to perceive a materialistic model of wellbeing, applied during the new epoch. He turns to escapism, trying to find sense of life in neglecting social norms and enjoying the company of his friends. Despite two novels are very different, they have one thing in common. They both illustrate the way the becoming of capitalism influenced the lives of people in particular andÂ Â the entire generation in general. Neither Sal from Kerouac’s On the Road nor Steinbeck’s Ethan become happy in the new social model. Both authors illustrate the same thought ”“ the development of capitalism resulted in the decline of moral and social norms.
 Steinbeck, John. The Winter of Our Discontent, Penguin Classics, 1996, p. 104.
 Steinbeck, John. The Winter of Our Discontent, Penguin Classics, 1996, 54.
 Steinbeck, John. The Winter of Our Discontent, Penguin Classics, 1996, p. 315.
Â Â Breines, Wini. Young, White, and Miserable : Growing Up Female in the FiftiesÂ University Of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 215.