The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, written by Sloan Wilson and published in 1955, similar to Revolutionary Road, purports to capture the mood of the Fifties’ generation. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit remains symbolic of the kind of middle-class conformity in 1950s America, namely the need for a man to submit to the rat race in pursuit of the American Dream. This is the story of Tom and Betsy Rath, a young couple with three healthy children, a nice home, a steady income. The wife stays at home looking after the kids and keeping the house. They have every reason to be happy, but for some reason they are not. With all the apparent prosperity of the post-war American world, the Raths are still struggling to make ends meet as the house needs constant repairs and the local school is underfunded and they need better education for their children. Tom, a veteran of WW II, who also struggles to deal with his memories of the war, finds himself caught up in the corporate rat race; he is a cog in a white-collar machine. Although Betsy suffers the malaise of being a dutiful wife, she silently bares it.
Tom Rath is dissatisfied with the pay at his job at a Manhattan charitable arts foundation. He is not making enough money to keep up with his family’s and the neighbor’s expectations. A neighbor tells him about a public relations position at a large New York based television company. Tom applies and is given a temporary position working with the chief executive who is trying to obtain a powerful, new account. Tom must help the executive prepare and present a winning campaign. If he is successful, he will become a permanent employee with a very bright future. However, not all of Tom’s co-employees are happy that he has come onto the team. Tom must learn how to deal with office politics.
Every day Tom puts on his grey flannel suit to commute from his Connecticut home to work in New York where he blends in with all of the other men doing the same thing, all wearing their grey flannel suits – the corporate uniform of the day. Tom laments, “I am just a man in a grey flannel suit. I must keep my suit neatly pressed like anyone else, for I am a very respectable young man.” Tom feels the pressure that this conformity brings, the need to get the better job, to be just like the neighbors. This postwar urge to conformity is a kind of collective PTSD, the desperate need of the men who went through unspeakable horrors in the war to forget them and impose some kind of normalcy on their lives. Tom has replaced one uniform, that of an army paratrooper, with another, the grey flannel suit of corporate America. Both are items from wars. Tom, the paratrooper, fought in World War II against both the Germans and Japanese with his life in danger. Tom, the executive assistant to the head of a giant broadcasting company, is also fighting a war, one where he wants enough money for his family but does not want to surrender his soul to a career that will take him from that family. To resolve the conflict, Tom tells himself, “…now it is time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought – I’m just a man in a grey flannel suit” (Wilson 98).
Ultimately, Tom is unwilling to follow in the footsteps of his boss, Ralph Hopkins, and sacrifice his family life for a job. (Hopkins was so devoted to his job, he ruined his relationship with his wife and children.) He realizes the need for money but not the need to barely see his wife and children, leaving them to become strangers while he spends his time in the office or on the road promoting his boss. Although he admires his boss’s success, he doesn’t admire his personal life. He expresses the conflict he feels this way: “I should quit if I don’t like what he does, but I want to eat, and so, like a half million other guys in grey flannel suits, I’ll always pretend to agree, until I get big enough to be honest without being hurt. That’s not being crooked, it’s just being smart.” However, in reaction, Tom turns down the offer of full time employment and rejects “the soul-sucking perils of conformity, of being nothing more than an organization man, the man in the grey flannel suit, a numb status seeker.” (Brooks, David, The Second Mountain, The Quest for a Moral Life, Random House, NYC, 2019, p.7) What he encounters on this journey propels him on a voyage of self-discovery. He learns about the enduring power of family and the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own life.
The dynamics of Tom’s relationship with his wife, Betsy, reveals themes that are more directly propounded in Betty Friedan’s feminist tome, The Feminine Mystique. (See discussion below.) Betsy is a woman who grew up in a wealthy family. Betsy dreams of bigger and better things for her family; more money, a larger house and a life of opportunities and rewards. Like many of the residents of their neighborhood, she views the family’s current position as temporary, a mere stepping-stone on the way to a more comfortable lifestyle in the future. While Tom is cautious and conservative, Betsy is more optimistic, willing to take risks to keep up with the Joneses. Betsy views the new job as a major opportunity, encouraging her husband to make the leap. For a start, it will mean additional money in their pockets, and the project itself may lead to other more lucrative things. Betsy, a woman with entrepreneurial instinct and the bravery to take a chance on her optimistic vision of a world of possibility, urges Tom to use Grandmother’s inheritance in a real estate development project.
The book was made into a film in 1956 with Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones and Frederic March.