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A Thought-Provoking Lesson on The Winter of Our Discontent

written by: Mildred Wilson • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 12/4/2012

Integrity, morality and honesty are character traits examined by John Steinbeck in his novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. Your students will learn through systematic analyzation and discussion how the author used these principles to illustrate an aspect of human behavior.

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    What Motivated Steinbeck?

    The late 1950s was a time of social turmoil for America and it led Steinbeck to believe that America had become corrupt, immoral and rampant with greed and selfishness. The Winter of Our Discontent was written to address these issues and bring them into the light.

    These lesson plans provide an opportunity for students to read his novel, analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and engage in meaningful discussions about the issues and their relevance in today's society.

    Grade Level:

    High School (Grades 10-12)


    The students will recall the plot and discuss the merits of the book.

    The students will explain how literature can reflect real life.

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    Preliminary Discussion Before Reading the Novel

    Pre-Reading Survey Question:

    Write the following question on the board and have the students write down their thoughts. Explain that this is not a test. There is no right or wrong answer. It is for discussion purposes later. Collect the responses, but indicate that they are confidential and will not be read by anyone. They will be saved and returned after the novel is read.

    Do you feel cheated, that somewhere, somehow, persons less deserving than you are reaping rewards disproportionate to their own merit?

    Brief Bio of John Steinbeck:

    John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr., was born on February 27, 1902. He attended Stanford University at Palo Alto, but never graduated. In 1927, he sold a short story, The Gifts of Iban (a fable), to The Smoker's Companion under a pen name, John Stern. He was paid $15.00. In 1928, he sold a more comprehensive piece, Cup of Gold for $250.00. His career spanned forty years before his death in 1968.

    (If you wish to give the students more indepth information on the author, see the reference section below.)

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    Discussion During the Reading of the Novel

    The Origin of the Title

    The title of the novel is a takeoff from Shakespeare's play, Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 1. It created much speculation as to its implication. The lines as well as the term "discontent" are used in the novel. On page 105, Ethan says, "All this wondering was the weather vane on top of the building of unrest and discontent." On page 178, Ethan sang the words,

    "Now is the winter of our discontent

    Made glorious summer by this sun of York."

    What is the significance of these two instances? Do they impact the plot?

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    After Reading the Novel

    Literary Elements:

    Discuss the main literary elements of the book: setting, plot, characters, diction and problem/conflict.

    Setting - The novel was set in the 1960s. Discuss the fact that this novel is considered to be a departure for Steinbeck from his other books. Is he equally as successful developing an east coast setting as he is with a west coast setting?

    Plot - Have students discuss what they believe the plot to be. Discuss what events or actions in the novel support their opinion.

    Characters - Have the students offer a character study of the main characters. Given that the social class is different in this novel, well-to-do or upper class, as opposed to many of his others, poor or working class, did Steinbeck develop these characters fully? If not, which one(s) needed more development? Is social class easily defined? For example, Danny Taylor tells Ethan on page 57, "...I'm better off than you are. I'm not a clerk." Is it possible to define one's own identity regardless of what others think? Did any of the characters engender any empathy or sympathy? Explain.

    Diction - Throughout the novel Ethan makes disparaging remarks about Mr. Marullo, ex., pages 232 and 248. These remarks would be considered inappropriate today. Why do you think the author felt the need to include that language?

    Problem/Conflict: Is the problem/conflict clear? Does it get resolved?

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    Assessment Suggestions

    In order to measure student understanding of the novel, the following are some assessment suggestions:

    1. Have the students generate a written test with five questions and corresponding answers. Select twenty questions from among the class and pattern a test after the game of "Jeopardy!" For example, use quotes as a category, "You talk terrible when you're silly?" (Who is Mary Hawley?) or use food as a category, "Joey Morphy's favorite sandwich." (What is ham and cheese?)

    2. Steinbeck indicated that he failed on his first job as a reporter, because he favored literature over journalism. Have the students act as journalists and write a summary of the novel. Remind the students that readers are busy and reporters are trained to write the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How in an article in the first paragraph or two.

    3. Use a rubric to analyze the novel.

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    Honesty in Literature

    John Steinbeck wrote The Winter of Our Discontent in 1961. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Many of his critics stated that he didn't deserve the award. They believed that he had not written anything important since The Grapes of Wrath. This prize was established by the will of Alfred Nobel for the encouragement of persons who work for the interests of humanity. With respect to everyday experiences, fiction allows one to live vicariously through the experience of others. One could say with a fair degree of certainty that Steinbeck's work meets that criteria.

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    Steinbeck, John, The Winter of Our Discontent, The Viking Press, New York, New York,1961

    Florence, Donne, John Steinbeck, America's Author, Enslow Publishers, Inc, Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, 2000.

    Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Publishers, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1985

    John Steinbeck Life, Books and Awards Timeline. Retrieved from