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Light and Dark imagery in Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent - Literary analysis example paper

Ethan Allen Hawley, a model citizen in Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, is tempted by the darkness. As his morality decays, images of darkness begin to predominate. This sample high school AP English essay artfully explains how Steinbeck trades light imagery for dark as Hawley's character changes. The first paragraph about the gray cat is particularly impressive. This example literary analysis paper would be a good reference for a student who wants to study how changing images reflect a character's personality change.

Dark vs. Light: The Onset of Immorality

The polar opposites of light and dark traditionally symbolize good and evil, right and wrong. In the Christian creation myth, God creates light, signifying the introduction of goodness and morality into the world, but he does not wholly eliminate darkness, or immorality. He allows it to exist, knowing that it will convert light to shadow and virtue to dissolution. In John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, the triumph of darkness over light represents the moral degradation of the story's central character, Ethan Allen Hawley.

The entrance of darkness into Ethan's store, which reflects his inner self, sig-nifies this onset of corruption in his life. At the beginning of the novel, "a little light[comes] into the storeroom" (10), and "a gray cat dart[s] to get in, but [Ethan drives] it away" (10). The light, Ethan's virtue, is at this point unmarred by ethical trans-gressions. His moral strength allows him to repel the dark-furred cat, which represents immorality. As the story progresses, however, "peopleflicker the light inside the store" (229). Through their words and actions, these people-Joey Morphy, Mr. Baker, Marullo, Margie Young-Hunt, and others-begin to change Ethan's perspective on the importance of virtue, making him more susceptible to corruption. They convince him that he needs not be moral and honest all the time, and his virtue flickers like a candle, soon to go out. By the end, "the storeroom [is] dark" (230), and Ethan thinks "to put outmilk for that gray catand invite it in" (230). Now, with no trace of virtue, no ray of light, within him, he accepts his corruption. He welcomes in the gray cat of immorality, recognizing that it has become a permanent aspect of his life.

Ethan's willing surrender to this corruption comes from his realization that immo-rality is a universal blight. Ethan, feeling "a darkness [fall] on the world and on him" (19), pulls down the shades, allowing it "to fall on the store" (19) as well. This advent of darkness represents the worldwide spread of corruption, and the normally honest Ethan, recognizing his inability to escape, feels he must become a part of it. His scrupulous per-sonal ethics set him apart from the world's immoral majority, but when he strays from these principles and allows the darkness to assimilate him, he conforms to society's not-so-scrupulous standards. Seated in his seaside sanctuary, the Place, Ethan watches the tide "creep in, black from the dark sky" (44). As time passes, this black sea of immorality and corruption rises, extending its area of influence over the masses. It gradually flows towards Ethan, who, in time, it will consume. Near the end, when Ethan leaves his home, the "night closes thick and damp about him" (263), and "streetlightssprouthalos of moisture" (263). In leaving his home, he turns away from his family-the past Hawleys that begin the moral tradition and the present that must continue it-and gives himself over entirely to the darkness of depravity. From his new perspective, however, he can rec-ognize the honest and scrupulous few that still exist. The streetlights, with their "halos of moisture", represent these people whose resistance to corruption makes them seem an-gelic.

One such beacon of virtue is Ethan's daughter, Ellen. When Ethan stumbles upon her as she sleepwalks, he notices "a glow [coming] from [her]" (127) as she holds his ta-lisman, a translucent pink stone, and he can "see her facein the darkened room" (127). Though Ethan himself cannot penetrate the darkness that surrounds him, his daughter ex-udes an aura of virtue that defends against its onslaught; the talisman, a physical reminder of the Hawley tradition of morality, makes this defense possible. At this point in the sto-ry, Ethan does not entirely understand the significance of the light, as he has not yet suc-cumbed to corruption, but he does realize that the talisman is necessary to maintain it. And by the time he discovers its meaning, it is almost too late to preserve it.

Ethan only recognizes the true implications of this light after losing himself entirely to corruption. Marullo, his Italian employer, is blind to his clerk's moral degrada-tion and therefore, by giving him the store, makes Ethan his "down paymentso the light won't go out" (226). In doing so, Marullo entrusts that Ethan, the epitome of honesty, will fend off the immorality that has overcome society, but instead, the Italian unkno-wingly hastens the demise of Ethan's virtue. He forces Ethan to take care of his own life, the store, but Ethan, unable to escape corruption on his own, only falls deeper into his pit of immorality, now filled with regret and remorse for his many betrayals. When Ethan finally realizes that his "light is out" (275) and that there is "nothing blacker than a wick" (275), he goes to the Place, which will soon be "under dark water" (202), to commit sui-cide. He can find no glimmer of morality within himself, no ray of virtue, no gleam of honesty; he is as black and corrupt as the society in which he lives. Sitting in the Place, the "dark water" of the ocean surrounds Ethan, signifying that corruption has finally con-sumed him. Trapped in this void of darkness and despair, he realizes he has lost his most important possession: his virtue. But as he lies in the water, the talisman in his pocket reminds him of "the caressing, stroking hands of the light-bearer" (276), his daughter, to whom the talisman must be returned "else another light might go out" (276). At this mo-ment of enlightenment, Ethan becomes conscious of the meaning of his daughter's light, that she must be the one to carry on the tradition of morality, and he must be the one to nurture her flame to prevent her following in his footsteps. For Ethan, Ellen represents the sole light of truth in a world of dishonesty; she is the moral beacon, the shining example that present and future generations must follow. Though Ethan's own light has been extinguished, he hopes that his daughter's will be the impetus for the survival of morality in the world.

Recognizing the corruption in the majority of society, Ethan succumbs to immo-rality and dishonesty, embracing the seemingly inevitable darkness. When he can find no light of morality in the world around him, he surrenders to depravity, and though his daughter opens a way for his salvation, he can never return to his former, honest ways. Since Ethan's time, not much has changed, though controversial issues with questionable morality have surfaced. For example, abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty all in-volve the same moral question: Is it right to take a human life? Though the circumstances vary in each of these cases, one thing is certain: due to different views on the idea of mo-rality, humanity will always dispute this question's answer.

Works Cited
Steinbeck, John. The Winter of Our Discontent. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
 
1,134 words / 5 pages
 

 
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