In The Winter of Our Discontent John Steinbeck turns for the first time in his versatile career to the East Coast for his setting and character. Bay Hampton, where on Good Friday morning his new story begins, could be any small seaport on Long Island or on the coast between New York and Boston. It is a village once famous for its Yankee skippers and sea-plucked fortunes, now being run by the new blood from Ireland and Italy. Ethan Allen Hawley, whose name echoes the past, is a gay, unaggressive spirit working as a clerk for Alfio Marullo; like his father before him, Eth has lost the acquisitiveness of his forebears, and with it what remained of family fortune. At the age of thirty-six all he has left is the old Hawley place, a couple of frankly envious children, and the nest egg of $6500 which his patient, pretty Irish wife, Mary, inherited from her brother.
The meaning of Good Friday was burned into Ethan as a boy, and it is ironic that on this day a series of small provocations — a bribe offered and rejected, a fortuneteller at her cards, a remark of Mary’s that prodded under the skin — should startle him from his rut and even launch him on a new career.