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January 20, 2013

“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”

by Anne Paddock

There were really four completely unrelated worlds in which he lived,…there was the crazy, ghost-ridden world of his grandmother and his dead parents. There was the isolated, best-not-remembered world in which he had been a paratrooper. There was the matter-of-fact, opaque-glass-brick partitioned world of places like the United Broadcasting Company and the Schanenhauser Foundation. And there was the entirely separate world populated by Betsy and Janey and Barbara and Pete, the only one of the four worlds worth a damn.

Tom Rath is an unhappy 33-year old married man, father of three trying to figure out what to do with his life. Raised in his grandmother’s once grand estate in Connecticut after his father’s untimely death and having returned from the war a changed man, Tom finds it difficult to live in the present because by his own admission, he is either brooding about the past or worrying about the future.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson was written nearly sixty years ago in 1955 and is considered a classic piece of literature because it exemplifies the struggle we all tangle with no matter what the decade: finding the purpose of our life while trying to balance ambition and family life.

Sloan Wilson was born in 1920 in Connecticut and graduated from Harvard in 1942. After serving in the US Coast Guard during World War II, he was employed as a reporter for Time-Life, the premier media company at the time. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was his second published book and was well received and made into a movie the following year starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones.

Autobiographical in nature according to the author, the novel tells the story of Tom and Betsy Rath – a young couple in their early 30’s living in Connecticut with their three young children.  Tom Rath has a safe job (that he obtained through his grandmother’s connections) working for a foundation but feels pressure to provide a better life for his wife and children. Betsy, a beautiful former debutante loves Tom but doesn’t feel connected to him telling herself that “nothing seems to be much fun anymore.”

Tom and Betsy did what was expected of them:  they got married, had kids, and bought a house in the suburbs. Tom went to work everyday while Betsy stayed home with the children in a crappy old house in Westport, Connecticut. Determined to move out of a neighborhood in which they don’t feel they belong, Tom takes a better paying job with a big broadcasting company that requires him to work long hours, much to Betsy’s dismay. When Tom’s grandmother dies and leaves the crumbling old family estate to him, Betsy sees a way out.

Instead of being happy to be out of Westport and in a better paying job, Tom is more unhappy than ever. His boss is a workaholic and Tom feels the pressure to be the same. He wants money but he also wants a life because he knows life is short from his war experience, which continues to haunt him. In a contemplative moment, Tom thinks

They ought to begin wars with a course in basic training and end them with a course in basic forgetting. The trick is to learn to believe that it’s a disconnected world, a lunatic world, where what is true now was not true then; where Thou Shalt Not Kill and the fact that one has killed a great many men mean nothing, absolutely nothing, for now is the time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and to 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…..- I’m just a man in a grey flannel suit.

The story of Tom and Betsy is the story of many: people falling in love, getting married, buying a house, having kids, moving to a bigger house, taking a higher paying job, working more hours, spending less time with the family, debating whether to send the kids to private school, joining the country club, buying a new car, and on and on. The background of the book may be the early 1950’s but the struggles could be any decade.

When Tom returned from the war he “always thought peace would be peaceful” but he found otherwise and the story unfolds with his very personal struggle to figure out whether he should do what he thinks everyone wants him to do or be honest with himself and the world and pay the consequences. Although he admires his boss’s success, he doesn’t admire his personal life. Tom tells himself “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 gray 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.”  But, in another moment, he also knows “It doesn’t really matter.”

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