The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955) Sloan Wilson

The protagonist is often called simply ‘The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit’ in Sloan Wilson’s partly auto-biographical novel. However Tom Rath is a misunderstood character in his own right. In fact the name is ironic in that he is often very mild-mannered under the most stressful situations. Often lionised as being the archetypal square conservative, the epitome of conformist, of 1950’s America, The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit became a figure of fun, which is far away from what is actually depicted in the book.

Tom Rath is thought of as the typical advertising man of 1950’s America who would characteristically be ruthless, economically motivated and to some extent soulless. Yet this is not the case, though money is a key proponent of Tom’s life, a fact that he has to wrestle with throughout the novel, the reasons for it are justifiable. He does not want money for money’s sake but rather to offer a suitable life for his wife and children, to give them the best start in life. In fact Tom’s background is working for a charitable foundation and setting up a mental health committee which is far removed from the world of advertising and television.

Tom Rath is an army veteran of World War II and he has to wrestle inner turmoil throughout the novel, that he is praised for killing 17 men such as, that he had an affair with an Italian woman and the fact that he does not want to work endlessly as a cog of the consumerist trap.

On the face of it The Raths are the typical 1950’s suburban American couple; Betsy Rath stays at home with the 3 children whilst Tom commutes to his job in Manhattan however they both rail against their lot in life. Tom is unwilling to submit to his life of mediocre bread-winning in a constant rat race, he is disconnected from the world around him due to his experiences as a paratrooper in WW2. Yet he is also aware of the need to offer for his family. From a contemporary point of view we could deduce that perhaps Tom is traumatized by warfare or contrarily that he’s pining for the sense of exhilaration that he got from his experience either way the books is rife with existential quandaries of the meaning of life in a capitalist conservative America.

Tom Rath finds himself in the consumer age conundrum; he dare not plough the beatnik furrow of Kerouac and co. Yet he scorns the idea of conforming to consumerism, desiring the goods that everybody else wants. The idea of working harder, to get a better job so he can afford a newer car “a bigger house and a better brand of gin” is not an appealing one. As a result the first half of the novel is spent squirming between these two equally unacceptable options. This spiritual debate is punctuated quite literally by a question mark shaped crack in the wall of their modest house. The consequence of a heated argument in which an object was thrown and the subsequent botched repair job resulting in a quite obvious moral and spiritual indicator, which is never repaired until they move home and move up in the world.

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