restricted access Myth as Talisman: Adaptive Teleology in The Winter of Our Discontent
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Myth as Talisman:
Adaptive Teleology in The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent engages a series of analogies and metaphors, principally the image of a talisman, to argue the need for myth in modern life, especially myth as art or as history. This theme had been present consistently throughout Steinbeck's work, most especially after his early association with the famed Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell, whom he met through their mutual friend, the marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts. Working on To a God Unknown in 1928, Steinbeck found a new resource for understanding myth when he met Campbell, a Columbia University graduate, who had just returned from Europe where he studied myth and attended lectures by eminent scholars, including Carl Jung. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell would define heroic attributes based on comparative mythology and on a merger of metaphysical and psychological theory. His fascination with myth's relevance to modern society and art mirrored Steinbeck's, and they exchanged information and insight while Steinbeck read to Campbell selections from his drafts of both To a God Unknown and The Pastures of Heaven (Parini 119). Specifically, Steinbeck examined the mythic elements of his own American culture, though, I would argue, he was more concerned about the abuse of myth than about its absence.

For Steinbeck this modern need for myth thus became not so much a search for a master narrative as for myth as an adaptive narrative. Because of Steinbeck's growing recognition of the relativism of his era and his country, the protagonist of The Winter of Our Discontent, Ethan Allen Hawley, representing his generation of Americans, begins to understand that it is not [End Page 13] so much a specific myth that serves the moral and ethical needs of individuals or nations, but rather the talismanic properties of myth itself. Ethan's discontent with himself, his family, and his country comes from his faith in the literalism of American mythology as taught to him through his father's "heritage lessons." A superficial over reliance on the literal interpretation of text leads Ethan to steer his son to these same sources when the boy decides to write an essay for the "I Love America" contest, directing him to his grandfather's books on Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain—all interpreters of American myth.

Ethan's son, then, becomes the fourth generation of his family to receive these "heritage lessons." His son's plagiarism of these sources for the "I Love America" contest and the sponsoring television network's desire to ignore this situation in order to avoid bad publicity distress Ethan. Yet what may distress him even more is the power of recycled patriotic rhetoric to persuade people and to mask dubious intentions. In the novel, Ethan's faith in the principles extolled in his heritage lessons has already been battered by quiz show scandals (the shows' producers provided pre-determined winners with answers to quiz questions), by the payola scandal (record executives paid disk jockeys to play their artists' songs on the radio), and by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Moreover, his town's business leaders are trying to coerce his alcoholic friend, Danny, into selling his last piece of property so that they can use insider information to profit from a proposed airport near town. In short, the mercenary attitude of the country during the flush post-war years has exposed the hollow rhetoric of his heritage, revealing it as mere words used by those with power for manipulation and subterfuge.

The irony of a teenage plagiarist's suggesting that Americans "elevate [themselves] to the dignity of pure and disinterested patriots" to save the "country from all impending dangers" (271) is particularly ominous given that the perceived impending danger for Ethan Allen Hawley is his family's economic decline in the face of his employer's economic success.

What may even frighten Ethan more, as one of the generation who had just lived through the Second World War, is the fascistic tone of...