The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (novel)
|Published||1955, Simon & Schuster|
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a 1955 novel by Sloan Wilson about the American search for purpose in a world dominated by business. The main characters, a middle-class young couple named Tom and Betsy Rath, share a struggle to find contentment in their hectic and material culture while several other characters fight essentially the same battle, but struggle in it for different reasons. In the end, it is a story of taking responsibility for one's own life.
Tom and Betsy Rath live in a rundown house in Westport, Connecticut around 1953. They have three television-addicted children (two girls and a boy) and have money problems. Tom is 33 years old, a Harvard graduate. He barely survived as an Army paratroop officer during World War II, having fought in both the European and Pacific combat theaters, during which he had an extramarital affair.
Tom has haunting flashbacks of the affair as well as his combat experiences. He killed 17 men in combat. His stay-at-home wife knows only that Tom is somehow "changed" since the war. She feels his job with a Manhattan charitable organization pays too little, so she and a fellow train commuter urge him to interview for a job at a New York-based television network.
Tom lands a public relations job, working for Ralph Hopkins, the top man at the network, an empire-builder surrounded by politicking yes-men. Hopkins is to propose the establishment of national mental health services to a group of physicians and offer his own prestige and network toward that end. Tom must figure out how his boss can best present the proposal so that the learned doctors will rise in unison and appoint Hopkins to spearhead the campaign.
Hired on a six-month probationary basis, Tom reports to a humorless game-player who rejects five different drafts of the speech and ends up substituting one of his own. Hopkins is satisfied, but Tom persuades him that the approach is all wrong, that it misrepresents Hopkins' qualifications to head the campaign. Tom's approach is more sensible; Hopkins is impressed. Tom reminds Hopkins of his own son, who was killed in combat.
There are a number of subplots:
- The fraudulent scheme of the caretaker of Tom's late grandmother, who forged a will in an attempt to inherit the deceased woman's home.
- Hopkins' estrangement from his daughter (who quits school to elope with an undesirable man).
- Tom's adulterous behavior during the war, which resulted in a son conceived in Italy, whose mother suddenly contacts him to seek monetary support at a most inconvenient time. With no understanding of the horrors of war, Betsy becomes furious upon learning of this secret and becomes estranged from Tom. However, she comes to understand that mutual emotional support—not just mutual ambition—bind wife and husband.
In the end, seeing the example of how his boss's marriage and family life have been ruined by overwork, Tom turns down a high-pressure position involving travel, in order to work normal hours and spend more time at home.
The book was largely autobiographical, drawing on Wilson's experiences as assistant director of the U.S. National Citizen Commission for Public Schools. The character of "Ralph Hopkins", the high-ranking network executive, was based on Roy Larsen, Wilson's real-life boss at Time, Inc.
The novel became a bestseller. The title entered the popular vernacular and has continued to appear for decades in the references of sociologists to America's discontented businessman. Columnist Bob Greene wrote in 1992 that "[t]he title of Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel became part of the American vernacular—the book was a ground-breaking fictional look at conformity in the executive suite, and it was a piece of writing that helped the nation's business community start to examine the effects of its perceived stodginess and sameness."
The book was re-issued in 2002, with a foreword by author Jonathan Franzen.
In 1984, Wilson released a sequel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II. Although published nearly thirty years after the original book, the sequel is set approximately a decade after the original novel, taking up Tom Rath's story in 1963. The plot concerns Tom's extramarital affair with a younger woman, his subsequent divorce and remarriage, and the death of his son in the Vietnam War. Unlike the original novel, it was neither a critical nor a commercial success.
- Bob Greene (1992-07-05). "Another view of the man in the gray flannel suit". Chicago Tribune.