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?
Mistakes Were Made
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.
Free Markets Foster Competition
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?
The Nice Man's Anger
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?
The Fiend of Washington
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.
Canterbridge Estates Lake
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.