"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit–Hectoring Wives And Moral Men

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, and Frederic March, tells the story of a WWII combat officer who, returning to New York after the war, takes a steady, secure, undemanding job with a foundation.  It pays poorly but is a perfect fit for a man who wants to forget the war, his moral indiscretions, his compromises, and his irresponsibility.  His wife is ambitious and intolerant of his seeming professional lassitude.  How could a man with talent, charm, and ability be so willing to languish in a non-profit backwater?  She wants and feels she deserves a better life for her and her children; but this ambition is necessarily tied to her husband, a man who only wants security and simplicity after four years of the savagery and brutality of war; and for whom the competitive, brutal ways of Madison Avenue and Wall Street are nothing more than civilian versions of the conflict he left behind.

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He keeps the war and his affair with a young Italian woman to himself.  She was a product of the war – his moral certainty and fidelity would never have been shaken had it not been for threat and fear of death – and confessing his love for her to his wife would have made no sense nor had no purpose.  The war and the woman were behind him, and although he would never forget either, he was determined to make a new, simpler, and more structured and certain life. 

However Rath is a profoundly moral man troubled by his abandonment of the Italian woman.  Yes, he was transferred from Europe to the Pacific where death was even more a probability than in Italy or Germany; yes, a soldier had a right to some humanity if not love wherever it might be found; and yes, the woman must have understood the necessary uncertainty of a soldier’s love no matter its intensity; but as a man of rectitude and principle, he could only feel guilt.  His life in New York – recommitment to his  wife, a good father to three children, and a serious professional  – might not absolve him or entirely remove his guilt,  but was at least a recommitment to the values he felt he had lost in the war.

His wife suspects nothing of his past and has no interest in hearing about the war.  For her it was four years of a difficult, solitary life; one with as many uncertainties as her husband’s – a suspended life, one with no future, certainly no present, and only an increasingly forgotten past. 

Who then is responsible for the breakdown of the relationship? An overly cautious, emotionally wounded man who refuses to move on, adjust, risk, and prosper? Or an overly ambitious, insensitive, selfish woman who is dismissive of her husband and interested only in how he can provide and provide well?

The script is very clear.  The Gregory Peck character is sensitive, patient, respectful, and honorable despite his moral failings.  He is a good man who has suffered the consequences of war and whose imperfect moral judgment should be forgiven because of circumstance.  His wife on the other hand cannot be forgiven for her emasculating, dismissive remarks.  He is less than a man, she says, an ineffectual coward and emotional weakling.  No matter how much she apologizes at the end of the film and comes to accept her husband, she is never believable, her contrition only self-serving and insincere. 

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The film, being a Hollywood product, of course has a happy ending.   Rath finds a way to rise in the Madison Avenue firm which he joined only because of his wife’s hectoring while retaining his newfound, honest, and responsible recommitment to her and his children. He has a well-paying job, has rejected the ambition and hostile competitiveness of the industry, and by so doing  has put the war to rest.  He has been rewarded for his honesty with his wife with her complaisance, and has assuaged his guilt by contributing to the education of his Italian son thanks to his new salary.

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All is not well that ends well just as the contrived marriages of Shakespeare’s Comedies were sure to fail after the final curtain fell.  The women in these plays ran rings around the men they were obliged to marry because of their wealth, status, and position; settled for less; and had duped their lovers into what they thought would be a blissful life.  Shakespeare’s female villains – Tamora, Volumnia, Dionyza, and Lady Macbeth – were all man-eaters; and even his heroines were insatiably ambitious using every wile, trick, and maneuver to assure their power behind the throne and security and legacy for their children.  There were few good marriages in his plays.  Kate, despite her harridan-like, man-hating personality comes to love Petruchio for having tamed her and for having respected her as a woman and individual.  Calpurnia and Julius Caesar love each other with respect and fidelity; Romeo and Juliet are innocent, naïve, and ‘star-crossed’ but loving; but all other relationships the women are antagonistic, opportunistic, and cunning.

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One has the same feeling about Rath and his wife in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  This marriage will soon come apart.  His principled stance to refuse the amoral personality of advertising, to moderate ambition, and to balance professional interests with home and family will soon be challenged by his wife who will be increasingly unhappy as he remains a middle-manager with decreasing prospects.

Rath’s counterpart in the movie is Ralph Hopkins, the CEO of the firm for which Rath works.  Aggressive and ambitious, he has ‘done what it takes’ to rise in the contested world of advertising; but according to his hectoring wife, he has been a moral coward, ignoring his daughter while she loses her way.  He takes the easy way out, his wife says, giving in to his daughter, refusing to discipline her and to correct her course, preferring the illusory calm and simplicity of home as a refuge from the warfare at work. Unless he challenges his daughter, insists on her proper behavior, and demand her respect and duty, she will leave him. 

Rath has a finely attuned moral sense of responsibility and little ambition while Hopkins has nothing but ambition.  He has indeed been an indifferent, absent parent; and the consequences of his indifference are obvious if melodramatically cast. 

Hopkins objects to his wife’s hectoring, but not to her face.  “If it weren’t for men like me”, he says to Rath, “there would be no America.  Leave the 9-5 men to their wives and family.  They are the weaklings”.  Yet he has lost his daughter and his wife.

Once again, who is to blame for this unhappy ending?  Hopkins, American man of enterprise, ambition, and will who sacrifices family and personal life for his work? Or his wife who insists on his male authority within the family and condemns him for his lack of it?  Is she not like any of Shakespeare’s or Ibsen’s women who refuse, in a time of patriarchy, to give in and are destructive and de-manning in the process?  The script provides fewer clues than it does regarding Rath and his wife.  Despite Hopkins’ success on Madison Avenue, he is surprisingly ignorant and dependent.  His wife is right to demand responsibility from her husband.  She cannot or will not understand how he cannot do both.  She is as intolerant of him as Rath’s wife is of her husband.  Both refuse to see how energy is not fungible, nor partitioned, nor subject to absolute responsibility.

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The label of the nagging wife is hard to remove.  Too little time has passed since the era of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; too little time for a complete reconfiguration of female expectations.  Women who came of age in the Sixties have had too little time  to forget the authority and influence of their fathers.  They are still laboring to reject male patriarchy without rejecting men. Younger women have no such heavy yoke.  In an age of post-feminism modern men are on the run, questioning their masculinity and sexual potency.  Women are in the clear ascendancy and men are increasingly befuddled.  Women need not hector and ‘harridan’ and ‘succubus’ are long-forgotten characteristics.

The gender wars are far from over.  One suspects that this current period of male sexual indecision, desires for inclusivity, and willingness to play second mate will come to an end.  It will not be replaced by 19th century male autocracy but by something more attuned to natural social biology.  Men and women are fundamentally different, and while the circumstances may change and the struggle between them attenuated or transformed, it will continue with unpredictable but likely results.

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