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The man in the gray flannel suit

by Sloan Wilson

  Print book : Fiction

Epic Hero in 1950s Suburbia    (2013-05-05)

Very Good

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by vleighton

I enjoyed this novel, though I have enjoyed others more. I think it well written, but I have to admit that from a feminist or racial point of view, it is very weak. There are only two filled out female characters; the former is the beautiful 18-year-old Italian lover during the war; and the latter is the good wife who reconciles herself to the existence of the former. And I cannot remember a single black character, though much of the setting is in New York City. The book also feels like it edges toward the melodramatic.

Nevertheless, for what it is, the story is well-written. I was surprised by it, because I was expecting a story about a man of modest background from a traditional close-knit community, whether urban or rural, who faces the alienating struggles of ambition in the rootless tracts of suburbia. But that is not the main character of this book. Instead, this protagonist is more in the mold of a traditional epic hero who finds himself dealing with suburbia.

As I say, I was expecting the typical story of "1950s maladjustment to suburbia," such as Revolutionary Road on the tragic side or Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman on the darkly comic side. Instead, Tom Rath comes from an upper class New England family that has fallen into hard times, and he strives to deal with the family legacy and fit into the new, post-WWII society. In this way, it is like Steinbeck's Winter of our Discontent and Tallant's melodramatic New Orleans novel Angel in the Wardrobe . All of these tales have elements in common with the traditional epic. The old Rath mansion in this book is downright gothic.

But this novel is set in 1950s suburbia, so this epic hero drinks martinis and highballs continuously, and everyone is lighting a cigarette and thinking about investing in a new housing development. The protagonist had fought heroically in World War II, and part of the novel is the story of his efforts to come to grips with peacetime America and reconcile his two lives. Traditional epics often feature the male hero in a strong emotional relationship with another man, male bonding, especially in battle, and Tom Rath has to deal with his inner anger because he had accidentally killed his close friend in a melee battle.

Sometimes the archetypal epic hero is, like Harry Potter, raised an orphan only to discover that his lost father was a courageous man in whose footsteps he must follow and triumph where his father failed. This novel follows in that vein. But it also wrestles with the classic 1950s dilemma between wanting to get ahead financially and wanting to be honest with oneself and the people in ones life. The fear is that if one sticks to integrity, one will be honest but poor. The hero wrestles within himself, decides to be honest come what may, and then succeeds because of that honesty. Left unsaid is that if Tom were from an oppressed group, his honesty may have been punished. His loyal wife is the one who appeals to him to choose the path of honesty rather than shallow wealth, so his male head-of-household status is balanced by her moral integrity. She also acts as an anchor of self-discipline within the family. This relationship is by no means radical, however, a can be viewed as oppressive to women.

Narratives also often have a subtext of which groups within society offer hope to take over the mantle of honorably carrying on the values of the society. In social psychology, one could say that this function is redefining the in-group. This novel, like others from the period, looks in part to Italian-Americans to fulfill that role. In Tallant's Angels, the heroine marries the poorer but more ambitious and caring Italian American rather than a member of the decaying upper class. In Steinbeck's Winter of our Discontent, the ambitious, undocumented Italian store owner has honor where others do not. In Flannel Suit, the Italian Americans, a fellow veteran and a housing contractor, display duty and honest ambition respectively. The one jewish character in the book also carries on a social role in which he is trustworthy: he rose from a meagre beginning and is a successful judge who is also impartial and humane. The trend in post-WWII culture represented here runs counter to the discrimination these two groups received at the hands of dominant American culture in the early 20th century. However, in the 1960s, the social avant-garde was trying to bring blacks and women into the in-group, so this subtext looks almost quaint.

One thread of the story involves the hero's war-time Italian lover Maria, and it can be seen as a alternative path and complication of the plot. Tom receives the humanizing guilt of a passionate and tragic relationship which returns to threaten his love for his wife and his suburban happy ending. Caesar intrudes into Tom's career path to remind him of that alternative path of honoring your passion with integrity and possibly poverty. This subplot also gives Tom another reason to be angry at the world: he was praised for having killed others in war, but he might lose his reputation for having fallen in love and having brought a child into a war-torn world.

The path that Tom chooses at the end of the book is a less ambitious career for the sake of his family. The dilemma between achievement and status on the one hand and emotional support for ones offspring on the other is exemplified by Ralph Hopkins, the president of Tom's corporation. Tom gets to trade away the path to higher status to be more emotionally supportive of his American family, and he comes into just enough wealth to support all of his children. Ralph for his part is seen sympathetically: he has climbed the corporate ladder because he was addicted to work, and his family hates him for not having stopped to spend time with them, but he is not an evil and corrupt owner of the means of production, as a Marxist might prefer. Part of the reason that the happy ending feels melodramatic is because Tom chooses not to strive for greatness. So the story's emotional focus is on someone who decides to be ordinary but happy.

The novel also gives a glimpse into the social dynamic of the early babyboom, with parents clamouring for new schools for their burgeoning families. Tom, the formerly upper class prep school grad, proudly sends his children to public school and shows up at the school board meeting to argue for new schools.

The afterword by Wilson in 1983 explains the strange history of the novel's reputation. It began as well respected, but then in the 1960s, the title became an effective laugh line for comedians. In the 1970s, college students started reading it as a period piece, and they often understood it better than many readers from the 1950s and 1960s. Wilson explained that Tom was supposed to be inwardly very angry at the world. Because Tom is polite in his anger, readers from the 1960s often missed his inner turmoil. I would add that his anger is resolved in the end because he can do the right thing by both his wife and his Italian son. He can reconcile the responsibilities left from his war years, and he can integrate those two chapters of his life.

Applying Evolutionary Literary Criticism

Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism (ELC), it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with this text.

Evolutionary Literary Criticism Explanation Boilerplate

For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of the text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.

The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?

The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to  support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful elements may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.

ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.

Flannel Suit via ELC1

This novel is straightforward to interpret through the lens of evolutionary literary criticism. When Tom finally tells Betsy about Maria, her rage is directed at the sense that he might have loved Maria more than herself. Maria does not crassly threaten blackmail, but she successfully appeals to his sense of honor to support their child. Because Tom's wife had pushed him to be honest and honorable with his employer, she ends up through her own logic coming to peace with his illegitimate child. The moral of the story is honesty, which trumps complete sexual fidelity. The protagonist male manages to both be loyal to his legitimate wife and family and leave more supported offspring that the society's customs would normally allow.

Flannel Suit via ELC2

The novel is well-written and engages the reader. The basic theme is what stories should we live by: fictions we think those in power want to hear, or a more honest version that might incur the wrath of the powerful. With his wife's encouragement, Tom choses the path of honesty, and to his surprise, it is rewarded more than had he dissembled.

Flannel Suit via ELC3

This story is set in the social context of 1950s America, where the WASP upper class was yielding to other ethnic groups. Its hero is able to negotiate the change in society with honor and success. It embraces the change in American society.

Part of the reason the book was the butt of humor after its success was that it was still an emblem of a privileged stratum of American society. The change in American society portrayed here had already occurred, and the leading edge of the culture was already pushing for more radical changes to society, including civil rights for racial minorities and women and a rejection of the traditional economic hierarchy.

The book may have been given less literary respect by scholars in part because it is accessible. Joyce knew that modern immortality requires the writer to make the text a challenging read. It also lacked respect because its social subtext was already passe. However, the book is well enough written and taps into the human need for narrative enough that it is repeatedly rediscovered by modern readers.

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