Freedom is, above all, a portrait of a dysfunctional family, the Berglunds. So there's no doubt it's a family drama. We can say it qualifies as historical fiction as well, since it explores some of the most pivotal events in recent American history, most notably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the second Iraq War, and the Great Recession of 2008. We're gonna throw in literary fiction as well (because we think Franzen's just such a great writer), and philosophical fiction, because it touches on some of the questions and issues most central to life in 21st century America. That's covering a lot of ground, Franzen!
We get the feeling that Jonathan Franzen, when he started thinking about writing this book, might have sat down and asked himself, "What one word describes the first decade of the 2000s?" The word he came up with was freedom.
Of course, America was founded on ideals of freedom – or, more specifically, liberty. But the national conversation during the ten years between 2000 and 2010 was especially wrapped up in the notions of freedom, and the consequences of acting on those ideals. Two wars were begun in the name of encouraging political liberty in countries other than our own. It seems that Franzen would argue that many civil liberties were compromised in America, in the name of waging the war on terror. And that in the name of economic liberty, financial regulation was loosened, contributing to a global economic meltdown.
Freedom addresses these ideas through their more practical repercussions. For example, should corporations have the freedom to damage the earth? What about individuals? Similarly, should people be allowed to make money any way they want? Or should they be expected to follow some ethical code?
Alongside these large-scale concepts, Freedom also considers how these questions trickle down into the endless complexity of our personal lives. Should we be able to sleep with whomever we want? What if we're married? Is a family "a democracy or a benevolent dictatorship" (1.1.15)? If we believe we have the freedom to do whatever we want, how do we respond when things don't turn out as planned?
In the end, all these questions are pointing at the same thing: What does it mean to be truly free? Does freedom always make us happy? Is it sometimes better to not be free? Can it sometimes be helpful to rein ourselves in a bit?
So that's Freedom. But we're not done yet – let's take this a step further. There's a lot going on with the chapter titles, so let's briefly say something about each of those as well.
In this introductory chapter, we meet the Berglunds for the first time. Are they good neighbors? What does it mean to be a good neighbor? Does it depend on the neighborhood? Or the neighbor? What does one need to do to be considered a good neighbor?
Patty sees her life as a never-ending series of bad decisions and mistakes. In the first sentence, she tells us she doesn't believe in God, and she doesn't seem to have faith in fate or destiny; she thinks her decisions are her own. Oh, and she sure makes bad ones – ending with the one in the last sentence of this section. But this phrase also suggests a sense of apology: it almost sounds to us like, "Yeah, mistakes were made, but…" Is it an apology, or an excuse? Depends on whom you ask.
Patty names the individual chapters of her personal history as well:
Her adolescence is titled "Agreeable," since that was the quality most important of a young woman in her family. Like, "Sweetie, don't cause trouble, or make a fuss. Just smile and nod."
Her time at college is "Best Friends," encompassing her creepy one-sided relationship with Eliza, Walter's sweet (if unexpected and complicated) relationship with Richard, and the eventual alignment of Walter and Patty as best friends themselves.
This is a particularly juicy title, pointing both to the wisdom of the free market and to Patty's affair with Richard (i.e., putting herself on the market, so to speak), plus the reignited competition between Walter and Richard.
The next big section of the book is titled "2004," which is pretty straightforward, as it picks up in early 2004. But what is it about 2004 that was so pivotal? Well, we might point to a few things: the Iraq War started a year earlier, and after a relatively uncomplicated first few months, became pretty chaotic. Also, in the US, there was a presidential election, representing (whatever one's political beliefs) a turning point and the possibility of a new chapter to begin (nudge, nudge).
Yes, this is where we first hear about Walter's plan with the Cerulean Mountain Trust. What else might the term "mountaintop removal" suggest, though? Blowing something up? Cutting someone down to size? Destroying something pristine? All of the above? What else?
Well, let's see, this term comes up when Joey is hitting on Jenna in the kitchen and feels like he's in his element: "How to listen and how to understand. It wasn't fake listening or fake understanding, either. It was Joey in Womanland" (2.2.492). That doesn't sound so bad, right? (Almost like a fun theme park?) But to what end? Joey is pursuing a woman he doesn't even like, just because she's pretty. Plus he has a girlfriend. What does this say about him? What does it say about him that he feels most comfortable in this strange place called Womanland?
This one's easy. Walter is introduced to us as a nice guy: "Walter's most salient quality," we learn in the first chapter, "besides his love of Patty, was his niceness" (1.1.119). For all we know, for the first half of the book, he is a really sweet, mild-mannered, gentle guy. This chapter, coming almost exactly halfway through the book, turns everything on its head. Man, Walter is fuming. He's been fuming internally for a while, but now it's starting to pour out his ears (smoke coming out his ears, like in the cartoons) and definitely out his mouth (lots of cursing, not at all like in the cartoons).
This is one of the names proposed and discarded during the brainstorming session for the music-and-politics-festival in West Virginia. The name is rejected as being too negative, but Richard Katz likes it and thinks he might use it as a song title. Why would he like it? Because that's exactly how he feels about Patty and Walter's relationship: enough already. Get it over with. Let it die. He does what he can to kill it.
Joey does indeed get some bad news in this chapter, with plenty of complications in his military contracting work. But specifically it's the object of his desire, Jenna, who is "bad news," and Joey if hoping he might manage to "become bad enough news himself to get her" (2.4.54). Whoa, that's sort of messed up, right? What do you think – does he succeed? In the way he expected he might, or in another way entirely?
This refers to Walter's shocking transformation from the mild-mannered family man we meet early on to the raging, revolutionary adulterer in the end. More directly, it alludes to a film called The Fiend of Athens, which Walter and Patty go see early on in their courtship, in which a man is mistaken for a criminal mastermind. After running away for most of the film, denying he is that criminal, the Fiend of Athens finally whips off his glasses and embraces the new identity that has been thrust upon him. In a metaphorical sense, this describes Walter's journey as well. (See our discussion in "Symbolism" for more on the movie.)
This final section to Patty's personal history, a conclusion of sorts, humbly indicates that it has been six years since Walter and Patty separated.
Of all the brilliant titles in this book, this one's got to be our favorite. For most of the book, Walter's mother's house on the little pond they call Nameless Lake serves as a touchstone for the characters: an escape from the world, and a cold, lonely place where predicaments can be reflected on more clearly. The name "Nameless Lake" suggests this removal of mental obstruction, of presenting things in their clearest terms. And what's the exact opposite of that? The most grandiose, vain, bourgeois name a suburban developer could possibly think up. But can one's problems still be seen clearly? Well that depends on your frame of mind.
Well, it's your classic Jane Austin ending, folks: everyone gets married! OK, no, that's not exactly true. The modern variation looks like something more like this: Walter and Patty get back together, after a viciously bitter separation. (So not so much of a wedding as an un-separation.) Walter and Richard are friends again, which is really nice to know. (Joey and Connie are happily married, yes, but they've been married for half the book, and that started off on a pretty weird note, as you'll surely agree.)
No, but seriously, for a book with so much strife and dissolution of relationships, this ending is sort of unbelievably happy. Still, somehow it works – or at least we think it does. Walter and Patty see that, despite their difficulties, after everything they've been through they are truly a well-matched couple. Each brings the other back from the brink of despair. They move to New York to be closer to their friends and family, leaving behind a memorial to Walter's lost love. To be honest, we have a hard time reading this ending without choking up a little.
This novel is set all over the US, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C., to Brooklyn, New York. The time period spans from the early 1900s to 2010. Franzen's previous books have all been expansive in scope, but with this one he really outdoes himself. It isn't so surprising, as we follow two characters for a full fifty years, and a few others for at least twenty. And these are no ordinary characters – they're kind of like Forrest Gump in the way they manage to entangle themselves in the most pivotal events of their time, while at the same time representing the way those events affected those of us outside the bubble.
Can we infer anything specific about all the geographical movements themselves? For example, does Franzen intend a subtle significance in the fact that it's only when our characters move from the Midwest (stereotyped as a region of good manners and traditional values) to the ruthless politics of D.C. that their lives finally combust? Is it only through returning to the Midwest that they can recapture their civility?
Similarly, Patty is from the fast-paced, affluent New York suburbs, while Walter comes from poverty in Iron Belt Minnesota. Does this explain her restlessness and dissatisfaction in their marriage? Does it explain his contentment and willingness to battle through adversity?
What about climate? Is there a reason Patty and Richard finally succumb to their desires way up north in Minnesota? Is it the cold? The isolation? The endless daylight of summer?
But to say something about the places themselves:
The house on Nameless Lake provides for a stirring meditation on wilderness and wildness (3.6.70-76), brutally contrasted against the "dour tapestry of grays and blacks" Walter finds driving through West Virginia, ravaged by coal mining's mountaintop removal.
Walter voices another contrast in setting, comparing New York City to Washington, D.C.:
"God, I love New York. […] There is something so profoundly wrong with Washington. [...] God, I love the New York subway! [...] This is the way human beings are supposed to live. High density! High efficiency!" (3.1.319, 3.1.325)
Surely the most important setting is Ramsey Hill, though, where the novel begins, and which Franzen uses to frame the events in the novel. But, wait – we'd argue it's even more important than that. We're going to theorize that Franzen intends his history of Ramsey Hill (comprising the novel's stirring first three paragraphs), as representative of the gentrification of a whole bunch of American cities in the 1980s. That the opening section ends in the cold months following 9/11, with a Gore/Lieberman sign still stuck in the Berglunds' yard (1.1.137), leave little doubt that Franzen intends to suggest that we are about to embark on an entirely new era.
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.
Freedom isn't the easiest read, but not for the reasons you might expect. The language is straightforward (sure, with the occasional big vocabulary word thrown in); the dialogue is so realistic you might start to wonder if Franzen's been listening in on your phone conversations.
One thing that does make it difficult, for us at least, is that so much of it is so painful. Like watching Precious or listening to Blood on the Tracks, everything is very beautiful and all, but it's not a very fun place to be. At the same time, Freedom is such an irresistible page-turner, you can't bear to put it down.
There are maybe just a couple of complicated sections, like when Walter is describing his shady partnership with Vin Haven. Or when Joey is walking to the emergency room and wondering how he got himself into this mess, remembering a pointless trip to Poland and a pending trip to Paraguay.
But, other than that, Freedom is smooth sailing – if you can stomach all the arguments, and can hold back your tears.
Let's just go ahead and say this straight up: in this book, birds represent freedom. Is it a coincidence that a book called Freedom is based around a small blue bird that migrates between North and South America? No, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence at all.
Franzen addresses this most directly in the book's final section, "Canterbridge Estates Lake." The birds that have long thrived in the area (i.e., around The Lake Formerly Known As Nameless Lake), and that Walter has loved watching since he was a teenager, are now being slaughtered by the cats belonging to Walter's new neighbors.
He tries doing something about the threat, and encourages his neighbors to keep their cats inside, and distributes "bibs" for the cats that hinder their ability to hunt (making him look all the crazier, but whatever). But nothing works.
Finally, when Walter and Patty move out, they donate their land to a local land trust, to become a bird sanctuary. In other words, these birds have always been free, but this area's no longer safe for them. They literally have to be kept in a big cage, to protect them from the new threats they face. Is this an endorsement of the Patriot Act's restriction of civil liberties? Or a call for greater awareness of the damage wasteful modern lifestyles are having on the planet? Maybe both? Or maybe not.
We're just going to mention a few things here and let you come to your own conclusions: Richard's last name is Katz. He's a predator. Cats are also predators. They eat birds. Katz doesn't eat birds, but he sure "devours" young women, who are often derogatively called "chicks" or "birds." Walter loves birds; he wants to take care of them and fight for their rights. Walter is also a feminist. Richard cares not for birds. And did we mention his last name is "Katz"? Meow.
Here's an easy one: On their first real "date" back in college, Walter and Patty go see an old Greek movie called The Fiend of Athens. Here's how Patty remembers it going:
[T]he plot of The Fiend of Athens concerned a mild-mannered accountant with horn-rimmed glasses who is walking to work one morning when he sees his own picture on the front page of a newspaper, with the headline FIEND OF ATHENS STILL AT LARGE. Athenians in the street immediately start pointing at him and chasing him, and he's on the brink of being apprehended when he's rescued by a gang of terrorists or criminals who mistake him for their fiendish leader. The gang has a bold plan to do something to them that he's just a mild-mannered accountant, not the Fiend, but the gang is to counting on his help, and the rest of the city is so intent on killing him, that there finally comes an amazing moment when he whips off his glasses and becomes their fearless leader – the Fiend of Athens! He says, "OK, men, this is how the plan is going to work." (2.2.577)
Well you might read that description and think to yourself, Hey, that's just like Walter. He's really timid and polite, and Patty wants nothing more than for him to be a dangerous rebel (that is, be more like Richard). But you've only got about two seconds for this thought to flash in your mind, because in the next paragraph Patty pretty much says exactly that, imagining him "whipping his glasses off like that" (2.2.578).
But still, you're thinking, Wow, that movie really could be about Walter, because the more the book goes on, the angrier he becomes, and he sure is a bit of a revolutionary. Well then Franzen goes and steals your brilliant idea by naming the final chapter of the book's third section "The Fiend of Washington." Walter finally does embrace his inner volcano, becoming the angry madman he's had boiling inside him for so long.
Luckily for him, this fate is happier than the Fiend of Athens. Although Patty seems to have tuned out the ending, in the movie the gang realizes he isn't who they thought he was and he gets killed. Walter might delicately place his rage back in the bottle, but at least he makes it out alive. (Read more about the movie here.)
There are two main plotlines involving Walter. In one, he enters into a relationship with someone, and that person betrays him and has an affair with someone else. In the other one, he enters into a relationship with someone, and that person betrays him to go behind his back with someone else.
Wait, say what? Well, he's married to Patty, and Patty has an affair with Richard. He also has an agreement with Vin Haven to create nature reserves in West Virginia, and Haven makes a side deal with a few big corporations to mine those areas for natural gas. Interesting how similar these romantic and non-romantic entanglements are. Is Walter's marriage a representation of his environmental work? Or does his environmental work symbolize his marriage?
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 hang over this book just as they've hung over Americans' lives. The first reference to "the great national tragedy" (1.1.137) is right in the introductory chapter, as the Berglunds prepare to sell their house and move to Washington, D.C. That it immediately follows a mention of a "Gore/Lieberman" sign still stuck in the Berglunds' yard ties the attacks to the fateful election of George W. Bush in 2000 (1.1.137).
Since much of the action in the book takes place in 2004, we don't get that much dialogue about 9/11. Instead, the weeks and months following the attacks are evoked by a few poignant images scattered through the text. We discuss Joey Berglund's uniquely cranky view in "Characters," but the descriptions of scenes on his college campus are affecting in and of themselves:
In the days after 9/11, everything suddenly seemed extremely stupid to Joey. It was stupid that a "Vigil of Concern" was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that Chi Phi boys hung a banner of "support" from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was canceled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their family [...] The four liberal kids had endless stupid arguments with the twenty conservative kids, as if anybody cared what a bunch of eighteen-year-olds thought about the Middle East. A stupidly big fuss was made about the students who'd lost relatives or family friends in the attacks, as if the other kinds of horrible death that were constantly occurring in the world mattered less, and there was stupid applause when a vanful of upperclassmen solemnly departed for New York to give succor to the Ground Zero workers, as if there weren't enough people in New York to do the job. Joey just wanted normal life to return as fast as possible. (3.2.3)
A few months later, when Joey travels to Manhattan, he is no longer protected by the gilded walls of a college campus and has a more intense experience of the new world order:
Solemn firefighters nodding to the crowd assembled by a 9/11 shrine outside a station house. [...] National Guard troops patrolling Grand Central with highly advanced weapons [...] each encounter was like a poem he instantly memorized. (3.2.510)
Interestingly, however, even though Joey claims he would like see the wreckage at Ground Zero (3.2.417), something (perhaps his youth?) prevents him from actually doing so. Richard Katz, on the other hand, is world-weary and cynical enough to stand on a rooftop downtown and survey the devastation of the "pinch point of the world [...] the World Trade Center cicatrix" (3.1.65).
Our story is presented from a number of different angles, each subtly shifting our perspective (that is, restricting or enhancing freedom), so that we can only assemble a complete picture through piecing together the little bits we get.
There are two variations of limited omniscient perspective. In the first section, we meet the Berglunds through the perspective of their neighbors. So, for example, we're told that Patty "appeared to be doing some immoderate drinking of her own," judging by the way she looks in the morning when she walks out to get the newspaper (1.1.167) (italics added). When we finally hear from Patty herself, it's through what Patty reports to the other mothers (1.1.28). Much of what we hear comes from Seth and Merrie Paulsen. As Merrie is very politically active, she harps on Patty's apparent lack of any political principles. Seth, meanwhile, seems to have a crush on Patty, so he wonders whether Patty and Walter are still in love (1.1.17). That the Paulsens are "far down on [Patty's] list of go-to neighbors" (1.1.84) reinforces the real distance we have from our subjects and emphasizes just how unreliable all of these "facts" probably are.
Next, there's a rather unconventional narrative form we might call a "Third Person Autobiography," as Patty writes her own personal history, yet refers to herself in the third person in it. One purpose this serves is to give some distance from the events described. Perhaps it allow her to speak more freely about the subject matter, as if she can be totally objective about all of it.
Finally, there are a few more typical examples of limited omniscient perspectives, told from three characters' viewpoints, alternating between Walter, Richard, and Joey. Giving insight into their internal worlds, we find out that these men are not quite as strong and self-assured as they appear from the outside. In Walter's sections, we learn than the supposedly mild-mannered man is actually boiling (and sometimes boiling over) with rage. Joey has learned to almost effortlessly manipulate the world around him, but he has considerably more difficulty controlling himself. And Richard (who in these sections is called "Katz," presenting him as less of a friend and more of an autonomous subject) is continually struggling both with very real addictions and more abstract questions of authenticity.