Sloan Wilson,
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
(1955; Four Walls
Eight Windows, 2002)

I'd always heard The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit discussed as an expose of 1950s conformity, a depressing tale of a man trying to shape his life into the image desired for him. So I was surprised to find out that it's also honestly funny. From the introduction to their hateful little house to Tom's morning commute, I was in sympathy with the Raths. Tom and Betsy Rath, the sometimes heroes of the novel, go through their ordinary lives with gritted teeth and sometimes fixed smiles, and such earnest confusion that I couldn't resist sharing their daily struggles as my own.

The Raths may struggle against their place in society, but they seem to have very little idea of what that is or what they want it to be. It's less a tale of struggle against conformity than a struggle through confusion. Tom lives in a rudderless world, stuck beyond his own realization in his war-time mode of thinking, resigned to morals that make it fine for him to kill 17 men and disgusting to father and support a child. Betsy embraces an enthusiastic desperation in her battle with the disgusting house, her husband's cynical apathy and the too familiar problems of stagnating income. All their problems seem small, and most of their problems stem from themselves; Tom's apathy, Betsy's panic, their unwillingness and following inability to live within their modest but sustainable means. For all their problems, Tom and Betsy are likeable in their earnest intent to be good people, even if they don't know how to define it.

Sloan Wilson does such a fine job of making the Raths likeable that I found my stomach clenched tightly as Judge Bernstein, convinced that they wouldn't overcome themselves, that their family life would fade into that meaningless gray flannel and their small dreams never come true.

So I was surprised again to discover that Wilson didn't embrace the easy pessimism lurking the shadows of his novel. Instead, he forces Tom and Betsy through the slow, careful process of figuring themselves out. The novel ends up being optimistic, but it's a well-earned otpimism. While external circumstances do work out well for the Raths, there are no Dickensian miracles. Tom and Betsy's struggles to put meaning into their lives while meeting their obligations to the world can be resolved by them alone, and they do it. It's a normal struggle, won or lost by people everyday.

Maybe a story of two people getting their lives together isn't as dramatic or grand as the purposeless rant against authority some see in the book. But it is real, and more satisfying. What you make of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is your own business; the author's afterword gives an amusing account of the many interpretations this classic has already seen. It's a classic for a reason, and it's good to see it back in print for new set of readers to discover, argue over and enjoy.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 22 February 2003

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