“The most significant fact about me is that for four and a half years my profession was jumping out of airplanes with a gun, and now I want to go into public relations.” That probably wouldn’t get him the job, Tom thought…. “The most significant fact about me is that I’ve become a cheap cynic.” (Wilson 15)
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Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit has become a cornerstone within the genre of fictional stories that depict American corporate and consumer culture directly following the Second World War. The American 1950s had the imprint of many linchpin historical events that created a rift between civilians and war veterans. Wilson effectively ties together the two main themes of the era: the traumatic effects of participating in the war effort and the attempt to pursue traditional capitalistic happiness within these new circumstances.
The “Consumer Culture” of the 1950s
The meaning of the American dream was embedded in its possible attainment by anyone through working hard, as the American society was said to have few barriers between an individual and their success. Happiness becomes accessible through product attainment, and even the opening of the story deals with the fact that the protagonist and his wife, Tom and Betsy Rath, want to live in a better house (Wilson 1). This theme is, coincidentally, one that the story attempts to dispute, demonstrating the disturbing aspects of the American dream, consumerism, and corporatism for those making their way up the social and business ladder.
Formation, History, Representation
To contend such a keystone idea, prominent on a national scale it is first necessary to understand the origins of it. Already during the 19th century, Americans are in general are described as “the most energetic people [that] were paired with the most boundless trove of natural resources” (Morris 288). World War II made America in the 1940s an economic behemoth both internally and externally (Wooldridge and Greenspan 273). This kind of prosperity even gave the name of the Fabulous Fifties to this decade of American history, demonstrating the extravagance of the epoch.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, however, shows the negative sides of corporate culture presenting the cynicism and the two facades of those who adapt their individuality for the benefit at a moment’s notice. Things that get a person the job position become valued and falsely or in reality adhering to the work-unrelated whims and interests of employers decides movement up the corporate ladder. The business setting and the morality within it is a prevalent topic within the Fabulous Fifties.
The movie Executive Suite (1954) depicts the chaos of the struggle for power within a company after the death of its president, showing lowly and cutthroat behavior. Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham deals with similar ethical issues throughout the book (343). However, Tom Rath’s story, set in 1953, was intended to show not just the moral compass predicament but also deal with the systematic disillusionment, which was not yet possible in the 19th century.
The Relevance of Capitalistic Happiness and Sloan Wilson Today
The story of the detriment of corporate culture, overwork, and conformism seems to be superfluously relevant to a 21st-century world. However, these questions remain acute, especially considering the idea of the importance of taking accountability for your own life, rather than just the individual actions that make it up. A demonstrative sign of error within 1950s society would be the example of Saul Bernstein, a judge, operating not by the law but by “which of the two men would be pleased by justice?” (Wilson 149). Therefore, the character of Tom Rath remains relevant primarily not only due to his veteran status and the perseverance of the story’s circumstances in today’s world but because he aspires to moral goodness and straightforwardness.
American Businessmen and Young Families in the Post-World War II America
A threat to morality and ethics stemmed from the desire to demonstrate oneself as the best candidate not only through work-related performance but also as someone fitting ideally within the mandatory corporate culture. A controlling mechanism was achieved, as may be identified by the story’s title, “by enforcement of dress codes and norms and by informal social control” (de Casanova 74). This trend within the workplace blended in with family life, affecting that which seemed utterly separate from employment.
Role of Women: Clerics and Executives’ Wives
Women take on an important but perhaps not directly visible role within Wilson’s story. The position of women workers despite experiencing an elevation due to an interest in them as employees during World War II was still that of subordination (Orleck 254; Bonaparte 12; Ruggles 1805). As an example, the depiction of secretaries in the story takes on an almost vulgar tone, with them often being hired for looks. An apt representation of this would be Tom’s thought when he, freshly raised to a special assistant, examines calling-buttons in his office: “maybe the second one’s for a redhead and the third one’s for a brunette” (Wilson 109).
The dres’ code of office-working women is additionally intended not to blend in, as the gray suit does, but on standing out (de Casanova 121; Wilson 109). This kind of thinking is not meant to be an example of Tom’s misogyny, but instead of the trends of the time, wherein women clerics and secretaries become victims of the same conformism.
Executives’ wives are not bereft of participating in this motif, advancing it in a different vector as sole caretakers of emotionally empty homes. Their husbands’ overworked state takes a toll on personal lives, with the households of Hopkins and Rath becoming two relevant examples. Helen Hopkins, distanced by her husband’s work ethic to the periphery of his attention, creates her own life, occupying herself with children and parties (Wilson 173).
The cry of their daughter Susan “you’ve hardly bothered to see me since I was born!” becomes the slogan of the children whose parents focused on work not only to attain the American dream (Wilson 230). The role of wives remains supportive, as in a way Betsy Rath makes the same sacrifices during war and peacetime through waiting for her husband, whether from work or the front.
The Rath Family
Betsy and Tom start falling into the same trap as the rest of the corporate workers’ families through their adherence to the superimposed scheme. Effectively, all of the sacrifices made during the story are a direct attempt to achieve happiness through work, perseverance, and competition, which is a straightforward idea of the American dream (de Casanova 185-186). The rift between them is deepened by their inability to sympathize with the war versus civilian experience. The conflict between their real wishes and the current situation, however, becomes too much to bear, with Tom, and therefore Betsy, eventually withdrawing from the corporate race in favor of finding their happiness.
Betsy Rath as an Executive
It is interesting to analyze the character of Betsy Rath as a strong woman, who fights against conformity and effectively becomes the catalyst for Tom’s character growth. She reacts to Tom’s preference to continue to speak what people would like to hear, all in the name of achieving the American dream, by calling this kind of behavior sickening (Wilson 204). While Tom states that “wars are full of dirt,” it is Betsy that bluntly conveys to both her husband and the reader that the corporate workplace is not much different (Wilson 291). Betsy’s character thus is portrayed not as physically but as emotionally strong.
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As seen in the story, when moving up the corporate ladder there comes a time when speaking your mind becomes rewarded, something that is, however, not welcome while at lower-standing positions. Therefore, musing on Betsy’s competency as an executive through displacing her from the traditional role of a wife to that of a business administrator becomes interesting to consider. Her character is that of a woman who is not afraid to take risks, endure hardships, and say what must be spoken to change people’s minds and mold the situation to her advantage (Wilson 269). Therefore, while maybe in a time-displaced from the misogyny of the 1950s her competency could doubtless be achieved at a higher standing corporate position it would be tempered by her vehement distaste for groveling.
Demonstrating the effects of disillusionment and work-related exhaustion through the example of numerous families and their struggle for happiness, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit becomes a story about balancing between conformity and rebellion. Through a joint effort, Tom and Betsy Rath attempt to overcome the hindrances to their happiness posed by corporate culture and deepened by World War II. Rebellion thus becomes the “winning side” of the argument, with both of the characters refusing to continue to partake in societally predestinated roles for the sake of the now almost hollow American dream.
Bonaparte, Margaret. Reexamining the 1950s American Housewife: How Ladies Home Journal Challenged Domestic Expectations during the Postwar Period. 2014. Scripps College, Senior Thesis.
de Casanova, Erynn Masi. Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity. Cornell University Press, 2015.
Executive Suite. Directed by Robert Wise, performances by Robert Wise, Wiliam Holden, and Barbara Stanwyck, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1954.
Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. Booklassic, 2015.
Morris, Charles R. The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. Owl Books, 2005.
Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. 2nd ed., University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Ruggles, Steven. “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015.” Demography, vol. 52, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1797–1823.
Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Da Capo Press, 2002.
Wooldridge, Adrian, and Alan Greenspan. Capitalism in America: A History. Penguin Press, 2018.