You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some withered bough, and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.
– The Winter's Tale
Well, you won't be surprised to hear, what with the "your exultation" and the "withered bough" and the "old turtle" (wait, what?), that this is a line from old Mr. Shakespeare.
The Winter's Tale is sort of a mash-up of a tragedy and a comedy (for real, it's like Shakespeare's version of The Grey Album by Danger Mouse). After a whole lot of jealousy, adultery, and other kids of misery (hey, that rhymes), the play's second half turns all that on its head and all those left standing live, as they say, happily ever after. (Check out our discussion of the ending of The Winter's Tale here.)
Well, so does Freedom. For the most part, people spend the book being pretty awful to one another. But by the end, everyone kisses and makes up. (Who saw that one coming? Not us.) Freedom and The Winter's Tale share a number of other common elements too: the jealous husband, his faithful friend, and an imprisoned wife (in Patty's case, unlike Hermione's, it's only metaphorical imprisonment).
But let's get back to the epigraph. Franzen takes his epigraph from one of the last lines in Shakespeare's play, in which Paulina mourns the death of her husband Antigonus, who was eaten by a bear (don't ask). Hmm, OK, that's our first clue – maybe this means Shakespeare's Paulina is Franzen's Walter, mourning their lost loves. (Lalitha doesn't do anything awful like Antigonus does, so we can probably rule out that connection.) But Leontes (who's the jealous but ultimately apologetic husband in the play, so maybe he's Walter too) chimes in and says, Hey, I've got an idea, how about you and Camillo get married?
But, wait, it's probably more important to point out that Leontes and Hermione, after some epic marital problems, finally reunite in the play's closing scene. So yeah, they're definitely Freedom's Walter and Patty.
What can we say specifically about the epigraph itself? The first lines have a wonderful valedictory quality – wishing well to all friends and family, and finding joy in everyone's good fortune. By the end of the book, Walter has achieved this too, from the initial steps of welcoming visits from Joey and Connie, to finally reconciling with Richard.
What about the "old turtle," you ask? What's that all about? Turtles can't fly, and anyway, after all this warbler talk, shouldn't the epigraph be about some kind of bird? Well, yes, it should, and it is, because Shakespeare's not talking about a turtle, he's talking about a turtle dove (of "Twelve Days of Christmas" fame). So Walter's the old lonesome turtle dove on his withered bough. Like Shakespeare's Paulina, though, he gets a second chance at matrimony. Later, when he and Patty move to New York, they dedicate the bird sanctuary to Walter's lost love, whom he will surely lament for the rest of his life.