Of vice and men : a virtue ethics study of Steinbeck's The pearl, East of Eden, and The winter of our discontent

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George, Stephen K.
Miller, William V.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of English
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As a writer and thinker, John Steinbeck has often been ridiculed by the academic community as trite and sentimental--someone who appeals to the masses but has little to say on life's "important" issues. This study applies an interdisciplinary approach to three of his later novels--The Pearl, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent--in order to more accurately assess the quality of Steinbeck's later fiction and to discover what this writer has to say concerning ethics and human nature, particularly the irrational emotions and vices.In concurrence with some of the latest research available, this study reveals that the emotions play a far greater role within the moral realm than previously believed by some philosophers and psychologists. Irrational emotions, such as extreme fear, anger, hatred, and guilt, are often sequential, cyclical, and cumulative in nature and frequently form dynamic combinations which feed on and intensify each other and which may lead to acts of violence or cruelty. Moreover, far from being uncontrollable, these emotions have been shown to have a cognitive dimension which is greatly influenced by upbringing and environment. As indicated in East of Eden, parental neglect and abuse play prominent roles in making certain characters susceptible to their own states of irrationality.The emotions are also primary to the development of more permanent character dispositions, both good and bad. As illustrated in East of Eden's Cathy Ames, a vice such as cruelty is often motivated and enabled by the fear and hatred that frequently form its core. Moreover, the vices themselves seem to be interactive and cumulatively debilitating; just as dishonesty plays a key role in enabling cruelty and loss of integrity, so does a lack of integrity make sense in a morally weak world.Thus, contrary to popular critical opinion, there was no dramatic falling off of quality in Steinbeck's writing, but rather a deliberate change in emphasis from social criticism to morality and from the group to the individual. This study confirms both the importance of what Steinbeck had to say as well as the eloquent and gifted manner in which he said it.