by Jonathan Franzen
For a guy who we are told is defined by his "niceness" (1.1.119) Walter sure does a lot of yelling in this book. Lots of capital letters. But really, we can't blame the guy. He had a rough childhood. And a really rough time at college. Then, when he finally gets the girl and they start their perfect life together, things really start to turn south.
Franzen has explained, "Walter is a portrait in the displacement of unspeakable rage about what's going on in his family through speakable rage about what's going on in his country" (source). Whoa, heady stuff, right? What exactly does that look like?
Let's unpack that statement a bit. First, the phrase "Walter is a portrait" indicates that Franzen is using Walter to represent something very specific in today's world.
Next: "displacement." You know how when you get into the bathtub and the water level goes up? That's because the space that had been taken up by the water is now taken up by your body, and that water has to go somewhere… So you've got to be careful or the bathtub will overflow. Something similar happens with Walter. He's holding onto this "unspeakable rage" about his family – the things he can't talk about because they're too painful, or too embarrassing. He doesn't really have anyone to talk to in the first place, but even if he did, he could never admit how bad things really are for the Berglunds.
Walter tries to bottle this rage up, but the pressure is just too much. This man needs an escape valve. One place we see this is in his road rage. But there's a more direct connection: the real issue with his family problems is his powerlessness: he can't control Patty or Joey, and they both ignore and ridicule him. This powerlessness is pretty similar to how he feels about his country – forces beyond his control (corporate, military, industrial) are, in his view, destroying this thing he loves, and yet he can't do anything to stop them. So, yeah, this guy's ready to blow his top.
Walter and Freedom
Let's try to talk about Walter solely in terms of freedom. Speaking roughly, he is a man obsessed with the worst aspects of America's obsession with freedom:
- The occupation of foreign countries
- The consumption of resources
- The doctrine of "manifest destiny" that leaves us feeling entitled to do whatever we want, without consequence
As a reaction to those concerns, Walter has effectively refused to exercise any of his own freedom. (Someone has to have restraint here, right?)
What are some of the ways this manifests in Walter's life? He sacrifices every scrap of free time he might have had in college in order to help his family make ends meet. Similarly, he abandons his artistic ambitions and instead pursues a career he can be sure will help provide for his parents. When he and Patty are married, he immediately bows to her wishes and takes a less-than-thrilling job just so that she can have everything she has dreamed of.
In a sense, we can describe Walter's approach to problems as an attempt to balance relationships between those who are free and those who are oppressed. For example, he's horrified by the wanton slaughter of birds on his property, so he tries to get his neighbors to control their cats. (More on this in our "Symbolism" section.) Patty blames his dedication to feminism as the thing preventing him from being more aggressive about their courtship (he refuses to dominate the supposedly powerless), and as a result she sees him as weak. As parents, Walter blames Patty for giving Joey total freedom, while Walter insists on instilling in Joey an appreciation of boundaries and control. And the more Joey acts out, the more he reminds Walter of his ethical responsibilities.
For Walter, the example of oppression that's ruffling his feathers the most is the relationship between the environment and the people destroying it. He sees the plant as totally powerless against overpopulation and environmental destruction. Oh, and his ultimate concern is to curtail people's reproductive freedoms (!). All this leads him to his most controversial self-restriction –going against his own ideals and making a questionable deal with an untrustworthy ally, just to make some progress towards his ultimate goal. In other words, he can't even allow himself the freedom to stick to his own deeply-held beliefs.
The effect of all this, of a lifetime of bottling up emotion and refusing himself even a moment of self-interested action, has an unbelievably harmful effect on Walter's psyche (no, we aren't surprised either). From an early age, he was made to feel super guilty about doing anything nice for himself. Then his family situation made it necessary for him to sacrifice everything to take care of them. Later, in order to keep Patty, he again had to put his own interests aside. In other words, he's been continually oppressed by outside forces, and allowed very little freedom. Now in adulthood he seems incapable of doing anything nice for himself.
Walter finally reaches a breaking point. He becomes a simmering volcano of rage, ready to violently erupt at any moment. He has a few mini-eruptions through the course of Freedom, until finally, at the end of 2004, he finally blows his top and ends up in the hospital.
Even then, we can't really believe that he's in any better shape. Although his anger seems to have subsided once he's with Lalitha, he himself explains, "That's because I'm with you every minute of the day, and I'm not so compromised, and I'm not having to deal with people. I suspect the anger will come back" (3.6.390). When he retires to Nameless Lake (sorry, "Canterbridge Estates Lake"), his grief is still tinged with a lifetime of anger and, as he says, compromise. This man never stops stewing.