The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: Recognition and Responsibility
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson is a novel filled with themes of depression and disillusionment as a result of living in a Capitalist society. The main character, Tom chronicles his life experiences in the world of business and the resulting impact of family neglect in lieu of family legacy, through success. Money is the center of the novel’s conflict and the career that Tom enters begins to interfere with his family. The cost of estrangement from his family becomes too much to bear and he eventually decides that the ultimate social responsibility is spending more time with those he loves. But economics are not the only cause for the novel’s protagonist Tom feelings of despair. The responsibility he feels towards his work and family along with the responsibility he feels toward his actions in the military from his past collide in his life to confuse him. Most importantly, ideals of achievement and success inherited from his grandmother serve to burden Tom’s ability to grasp the concepts of what success and responsibility entail. The alienation of Tom from his family in such a Capitalist culture and his constant striving for success culminate in this novel to illustrate that responsibility to self and family as a duty and ideals such as the “American Dream” as a myth.
Tom notes his dilemma early on in the novel when he speaks of his disconnection from “the four worlds” in which he lives; these worlds are his current family, his career, his military past, and what he refers to as “the ghost-ridden world of my grandmother and my dead parents”. He is also haunted by his memories in terms of the flashbacks he endures about the war and even the deaths that he caused are reduced to a number of seventeen “it was just a small isolated statistic”. Not only does the character ruminate over the death he caused of his best friend in WWII, he is haunted by discovering he fathered a child while on military tour. These personal issues concern Tom into wandering if he can be successful in the future, due to mistakes of the past. His wife Betsy is caught in the precarious position of realizing that their ideal life is marred by how little she knows of what her husband feels and experiences. “How strange, she thought, to know so little about one’s husband”. The Rath family becomes unraveled by the success that Tom attempts to use to compensate for his past mistakes and the ideals of American success and patriotism.
Tom is also haunted by “dreams of family glory” and the ideals that his grandmother has set before him. Tom remarks on his grandmother’s carriage house “which itself was bigger than Tom’s house” and though he is grateful that she provided so much for Tom in his upbringing and education, she did not understand how money was such an issue in his life. To her “money is such a bore” and she held the same sentiments about business. She exalted the lives of her son and husband and looked to Tom to fulfill a revered role in the world, “business is such a bore-the Major never could stand it and neither could the Senator”. Tom is still very kind to his Grandmother and genuinely sad when she passes away, even though she has left her estate to him. This, however becomes an issue when the estate is contested in court and the battle over his family’s legacy and money further prove the conflict over money and success inherent in American culture.
With long working hours at the United Broadcasting Company under the rule of Mr. Hopkins, Tom realizes that there is not much happiness to well-paid work and that men like Mr. Hopkins enjoy their fame at the cost of their families. Due to Tom’s disillusionment and flashbacks, he drinks excessively and the family is pushed farther apart. His whole purpose in work becomes simply to do it to “buy a better house and better gin”. The rift between Tom and Betsy and the two children’s obsessive television watching creates a chaotic environment that causes Betsy to remark “there’s something that seems to be hanging over us”. The court proceeding, as well, illustrate how greed can transform people and the judge in the novel presents himself as a good man in a sea of greed and corruption. Luckily Tom realizes that his family would be better served by him being with them more and that quality is better than quantity. The entire novel is filled with numerical figures and the amount of money it would take to but a new home, educate the children, and meter out the inheritance. When Tom takes these numbers out of the equation, as well as relinquishing the ideals of the American Dream and of success, only then does the family show happiness and hope for the future.
In conclusion, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit written by Sloan Wilson illustrates themes of disillusionment and despair inclusive to Capitalist society, through the protagonist Tom Rath. More importantly, ideas of success as family legacy versus family alienation as a result of the search for success exemplifies the conflict that many American felt at the time of the writing and continue to feel today. This conflict is resolved in Tom’s realization that social responsibility and success begin with strong family ties and the trials and tribulations of life’s issues can only be dealt with through family support and less so through monetary means.
Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, London: Cassell and Co., 1956.
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