Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Stoicism is a major theme in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in FullBut Wolfe portrays Stoicism as a religion rather than a philosophy. Yet, while ancient philosopher Epictetus believed in Zeus, it’s hard to find a Stoic today who worships Greek deities.

In Wolfe’s novel, Conrad discovers Stoicism while in prison. An out of work father, Conrad leaves a job interview only to see his car being towed. He hadn’t parked on the sidewalk – a truck parked behind him had pushed his car out of its spot. Conrad argues with parking enforcement to no avail. Then he goes to the impound lot only to find that the fee is higher than he was told. So Conrad attempts to break his car out of impound. He fights back when the attendant tries to physically restrain him, and even attacks a police officer who intervenes. Conrad believes he was justified, however, so he turns down a misdemeanor plea bargain and is convicted of felony aggravated assault.

Maybe if Conrad had been a Stoic beforehand he would have handled things differently. His attempts at persuasion having failed, he might have realized that an impounded car is not within his control. He can’t force others to do anything against their will, and choosing assault must also come with choosing the consequences.

After escaping from prison, Conrad assumes a stolen identity and begins working as a personal care assistant for business tycoon Charlie Crocker, who recently had a knee replacement. Crocker is deep in debt, but a corrupt politician offers to pull some strings with the bank if Crocker will serve as a political pawn.

Crocker asks Conrad for advice, and Conrad says, “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”

Confused, Crocker asks for clarification, and Conrad tells him the story of Agrippinus. Emperor Nero had asked Agrippinus and Florus to humiliate themselves by acting like clowns – or face execution. Florus didn’t know what to do, but Agrippinus says that Florus will act like a clown while Agrippinus will not.

Why? Because Florus had already considered the possibility of acting like a clown. Agrippinus, instead, tells Nero, “It’s up to you to do your part, and it’s up to me to do mine.”

Point being, your only true possession is your character.

Crocker decides to sacrifice his business empire (and lose his trophy wife in the process) rather than be the politician’s clown. Then he becomes a Stoic evangelist.

Wolfe does a great job of illustrating a central Stoic idea – that there are no dilemmas when you’re asked to sacrifice your character. Maybe that’s why Stoicism appealed to early Christians. It echos Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”

This underscores the point that Stoicism is a philosophy independent of any religious tradition, though it can intersect with many different religions – or no religion at all.


Jane Austin vs John Steinbeck: The Ultimate Smackdown

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. I’ve never made it through a Jane Austin novel, though I did watch the movie version of Pride & Prejudice. Twice. Mainly because Keira Knightly is in it, and she has the best smile in Hollywood.

The problem is that the book is full of snobby English people who talk fancy and are always trying to one up each other. I keep waiting for one of them to declare, “I do say, my kind sir, why don’t you close your pie hole!”

But that scene never happens.

My ex-wife likes Jane Austin, which is why I once tried to read Pride & Prejudice. She did make it all the way through the novel I recommended, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But she didn’t like the Joad family. They’re too crude and ignorant. And the scene at the end where Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the old man (to save his life) is kinda gross.

Pride & Prejudice has a point to make, mainly that these vices can blind us to seeing the real person inside. I just can’t connect with the characters. The Grapes of Wrath has a point to make as well. Set during the Great Depression, extreme poverty can create an every-man-for-himself attitude, or it can draw people together.

Rose of Sharon, a poor farm laborer like the rest of her family, has shared the same hardships as everyone else. Plus one. Her baby is stillborn. But despite such suffering, she isn’t thinking of herself when he finds the emaciated old man. And that’s why she breastfeeds him.

There is a common theme with Pride & Prejudice and The Grapes of Wrath, however. Darcy is a gentleman who deserves a high status wife, but Elizabeth is merely middle class. The Joad family, however, is even lower class: poor uneducated farmers who don’t speak proper English, and who find meaning in life through their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They don’t bathe often because they’re transient worker, they spit a lot on account of chewing tobacco, and one of them did time in the slammer. But they are people of character. They see each other through.

Low social class doesn’t make you a bad person, and high social class doesn’t automatically make you respectable in a way that really matters. It’s about how you treat other people.

I like Steinbeck because he wrote like like a psychologist. East of Eden takes place before the First World War. The novel explores the fear of rejection, and the destructive behavior this fear can lead to.

Adam’s father rejects him because he’s not manly enough. And Adam’s macho brother gets away with physically abusing him. Later, his brother impregnates Adam’s psycho wife (who will never love Adam and actually despises him for loving her). Adam’s wife eventually abandons him and the children, but not before shooting Adam for good measure (he survives).

But it’s Lee who articulates East of Eden‘s central point. Lee speaks broken English when he’s around white people he doesn’t know well. Though born an American, whites can’t see him as anything but a “Chinaman.”

Lee says that Cain and Abel “is the story of mankind.” He asserts that “the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears.” He concludes that “with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt.”

Eventually, Adam’s son learns the truth that was kept hidden from him. Will the boy seek revenge on his mother? The boy, however, realizes he has a choice. And that’s what breaks the cycle of rejection and revenge.