[12 March 2003]
“To decide, to be at the level of choice, is to take responsibility for your life and to be in control of your life.”
Abbie M. Dale
Now, I could start by telling you the obvious: That this is one of the best novels written about the post-WW II lifestyle and how families were coping with the traumas induced on the men who saw combat overseas. I could tell you that this book came out in the mid-‘50s, that it was made into an award-winning film starring Gregory Peck not long after its initial release, and that it was an international bestseller, translated into 26 languages and banned in Russia (apparently for espousing capitalist values.) It has recently been re-released by Four Walls Eight Windows.
I could point out that this novel is a precursor of sorts to such diverse latter-day reads as The Accidental Tourist and Bright Lights, Big City as well as the acclaimed film The Deer Hunter.
I could give you a short, essay-style synopsis such as:
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was written by a man named Sloan Wilson in 1955. It is about a man named Tom Rath, a hapless office-drone, with a wife and kids to take care of, a car that’s in its death throes, and a job with no chance of advancement. He decides to take a gamble and apply for a position at a bigger company, even though he has no real experience or even true desire for the job. He hears himself saying things like “. . . it certainly sounds interesting,” when inside he wants to tell his new employers how ridiculous and implausible they all seem. He sacrifices time with his family for nightly meetings at the boss’ apartment that get nowhere. He flies on the company card to set up press conferences and out of town meetings for his boss, one of the richest and most influential men in the country. He tries his hardest to like his job, but never quite gets comfortable with it. He feels a sham, a liar to everyone around him. But he keeps his thoughts to himself because he’s finally able to make enough money to take care of his family without worrying about next month’s bills.
But then many unexpected events occur: his mother dies, leaving him a crumbling mansion and the worries that come bundled with it; he discovers that he had a child with the woman whom he had an affair with while fighting overseas and that she’s in dire financial straits; he realizes that his community needs his influence to grow and become a part of the fast-changing 20th century. And in the end, it’s Rath’s decisions about his difficult life that matter, that show us how he’s developed, changed—become responsible—because it’s the right thing to do. With a little influence from his wife, the true unsung hero of the book.
But, I feel it is my responsibility to tell you that, like many out there in today’s world, the only thing I could recall hearing about the book before it crossed my desk was the title, which has become a sort of put-down for corporate clones and business executives. The book was (apparently) about a man in the business ranks of America struggling to climb the corporate ladder, doing whatever it takes to be a success. I imagined the yuppies of the ‘50s, fighting each other for dominance like rats in a cage.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is really about that nearly missing ingredient in today’s world—responsibility and its re-release is timely and significant.
Now, responsibility when checked online at www.yourdictionary.com reads as follows: 1. The state, quality, or fact of being responsible; 2. Something for which one is responsible; a duty, obligation, or burden.
But when checked in my copy of Thorndike and Barnhart’s Handy Pocket Dictionary (copyright 1951, not long before The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was written, which may have sat on Sloan Wilson’s desk for all we know), it reads a little differently: 1. Being responsible. 2. Thing for which one is responsible: A debt is a responsibility.
It’s that last part that really matters so you better read it again: A debt is a responsibility. And The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is really—before anything else—about being responsible and paying one’s debts. To society, family, the past. Wilson’s character of Tom Rath (whom Wilson based mostly on himself, not just a generic “everyman” like many critics and readers originally supposed) learns to become responsible to his wife, family, neighborhood, the things he did in the past. He accepts his past faults, decides that if he’s ever going to make it in the world he has to improve his relationship with his wife and family first and foremost.
He becomes a better person by deciding to face the truth and live responsibly. To gain respect from his family and peers instead of working towards a life with no substance at all might be harder work than anything he’d ever attempted before but, by God, he was going to try.
Tom Rath, responsibly, decides he would rather have a soul.
Something everyone—not just those in the business world—needs to remember.