Study Guide

Freedom Quotes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    "Walter thinks the liberal state can self-correct," Richard said. "He thinks the American bourgeoisie will voluntarily accept increasing restrictions on its personal freedoms." (2.2.649)

    This is Walter in college. What do the next twenty years do to this philosophy? Does he still think this is true in 2004? And what has changed? Him or the world?

    "But maybe especially the banality of the lyrics. 'Gotta be so free, so free, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can't live without my freedom, yeah, yeah.' That's pretty much every song." (2.3.172)

    This doesn't sound so bad, does it? (That is, as a worldview; we're not questioning the quality of the lyrics or Dave Matthews as a musician.) Is Walter bitter because he himself isn't free, and resents the younger generation's optimism about all this? Or is there something deeper going on here?

    There was the house and garden she'd neglected in her year of drunkenness and depression. There was her cherished freedom to go up to Nameless Lake for weeks at a time whenever she felt like it. There was a more general freedom that she could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of.

    This passage reminds us of standing in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. There are like a hundred choices. So many choices, it's almost impossible to make a decision, or to even know where to start. But think about this: what if someone said, "No sugar cereal"? Or, at least, "I don't like marshmallows"? Wouldn't that make it that much easier to pick something and get on with your life, instead of falling on the floor and curling up into the fetal position?

    Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free. (2.3.583)

    This passage suggests that the "luxurious life" is simply not a natural way to live. Humans are built to work their bodies and challenge their minds. (For example, search for water, carry it home. Build trap, catch food.) The absence of any sort of mental or physical stimulation saps us of our vivacity.

    When Jessica did not reply to this, Patty forced herself to look up. Her daughter was gazing with desolate self-control at the main college building, on an outside wall of which Patty had noticed a stone graven with words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM. (2.3.607)

    Interesting use of the term "desolate self-control" here, illustrating that Jessica has an almost innate ability to restrict her own freedom (that is, "use it well"), in a way that her mom Patty simply can't. Bonus points to Franzen for the clever use of the engraving, which might well serve as an epiphany for Patty, if she weren't so imprisoned by her lack of imprisonment.

    Almost everybody in his dorm communicated with their parents daily, if not hourly, and although this did make him feel unexpectedly grateful to his own parents, who had been far cooler and more respectful of his wishes than he'd been able to appreciate as long as he lived next door to them, it also touched off something like a pain. He'd asked for his freedom, they'd granted it, and he couldn't go back now. (3.2.89)

    This is, we think, the first instance of Joey articulating an awareness of his relatively limitless freedom. Appropriately enough, this realization arrives soon after 9/11, when the entire nation was waking up to questions of freedom.

    "I think for a young person today it ought to have a particular appeal, because it's all about personal choice. Nobody tells a Jew what he has to believe. You get to decide all of that for yourself. You can choose your view own apps and features, so to speak."
    "Right, interesting." (3.2.401)

    Let's phrase this in a different way: "In our belief system, you get to choose whatever you believe. But in order to get to that point – that is, in order to believe whatever you want, first you have to join our belief system." Wait, what? Why can't I do that without joining any belief system at all? Why do I need to give up my freedom in order to have freedom? Can't I just have total freedom on my own? Lots to chew on.

    "I owe a lot to my great-grandfather in Cincinnati, who came over here with nothing. He was given the opportunity in this country, which gave him the freedom to make the most of his abilities. That's why I've chosen to spend my life the way I have – to honor that freedom and try to ensure that the next American century be similarly blessed. Nothing wrong with making money, nothing at all. But there has to be something more in your life than that. You have to choose which side you're on, and fight for it." (3.2.405)

    It almost sounds like Jonathan's father is proposing that only the wealthy have the opportunity to be free. Isn't the American Dream supposed to go the other way, though? That being free gives us the opportunity to make money?

    "It's all circling around the same problem of personal liberties," Walter said. "People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can't afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to. That's what Bill Clinton figured out – that we can't win elections by running against personal liberties. Especially not against guns, actually." (3.4.184)

    This line of thinking sounds a whole lot like then-Senator Barack Obama's infamous remarks regarding the so-called "bitterness" of some working-class voters at an April 2008 fundraiser (source). What do you think? Does it sound about right? Or is it a mischaracterization of American values?

    America, for Einar, was the land of unSwedish freedom, the place of wide-open spaces where a son could still imagine he was special. But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special. Having achieved, through his native intelligence and hard labor, a degree of affluence and independence, but not nearly enough of either, he became a study in anger and disappointment. [...] (The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.) (3.6.4)

    This passage, referring to Walter's immigrant grandfather, practically begs to be interpreted as a metaphor for the United States as a whole. It brings up questions of whether American is so exceptional anymore, especially in this age of declining economic might, and as it becomes more and more of a nation that's deeply polarized politically, culturally, economically…pretty much everything-ically.

    Hearing that [Patty had] gone back to Richard ought to have liberated him, ought to have freed him to enjoy Lalitha with the cleanest of consciences. But it didn't feel like a liberation, it felt like a death. (3.6.324)

    Walter never actually asked for total freedom. In fact, he remains devoted to Patty even as she seemed more and more determined to make his life miserable. Certainly he should be relieved (even if only momentarily) to leave behind a painful relationship for one full of passion and hope, so why in the world would it feel like a death? Does it have something to do with his philosophical connection between personal freedom and environmental destruction?

  • Visions of America

    And that's what I find so refreshing about the Republican Party. They leave it up to the individual to decide what a better world might be. It's the party of liberty, right? That's why I can't understand why those intolerant Christian moralists have so much influence on the party. Those people are very antichoice. Some of them are even opposed to the worship of money and material goods. (3.1.84)

    Richard's sarcastic diatribe in his interview with Zachary commends the Republican Party for its rhetoric that praises freedom. Here he questions the alliance in the modern Republican Party between social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and neoconservatives.

    "I was still halfway OK as long as I was in St. Paul, but I kept having to drive all over the state for the Conservancy, and it was like having acid thrown in my face every time I passed the city limits. Not just the industrial farming but the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the <em>worst</em>. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet Skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The god-damned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns." (3.1.252)

    This passage recalls the one that opens the chapter "The Nice Man's Anger," in which we get our first real glimpse of Walter's boiling rage. Fittingly, in both cases, he's behind the wheel. Reading this, we imagine him looking back on his twenty-plus years of environmental activism, and realize that not only has he <em>not</em> made a difference, things have noticeably gotten much worse.

    Walter handed him a laminated bar chart. "In America alone," he said, "the population's going to rise by fifty percent in the next four decades. Think about how crowded the exurbs are already, think about the traffic and the sprawl and the environmental degradation and the dependence on foreign oil. And then add fifty percent. (3.1.273)

    …And here, instead of thinking about the past, Walter is projecting into the future, and realizing the utter hopelessness of his position. No wonder he's so angry.

    He spoke of the "new blood libel" that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and of the need, in times of national emergency, to country evil lies with benevolent half-truths. [...] He referred to members of the president's cabinet by their first names, explaining how "we" had been "leaning on" the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom. In normal times, he said, the great mass of American public opinion was isolationist and know-nothing, but the terrorist attacks had given "us" a golden opportunity, the first since the end of the Cold War, for "the philosopher" (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn't clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary. "We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts," he said, with his smile, to an uncle who had
    Mildly challenged him about Iraq's nuclear capabilities. (3.2.374)

    Hmm, does that sound right? But what proof does the philosopher have that his philosophy is correct? Or, more to the point, if his philosophy were indeed right, then why would he still need to stretch the truth? Lastly, if the public keeps its eyes covered for decades at a time, how in the world can it expect to see straight once it removes its hands?

    "And what are your other plans? Are you interested in a business career the way everybody else seems to be these days?"

    "Yes, definitely. I'm thinking of majoring in econ."

    "That's right. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money." (3.2.403-405)

    What does Jonathan's father mean by "these days"? How would he describe things as being different in the past? And then he describes Joey's decision as "fine," suggesting there's a much better option. What would he consider a more constructive career path? Political science? Philosophy? Public policy?

    Sitting with Blake in the great-room, the dimensions of which were more modest than he remembered, he watched Fox News's coverage of the assault on Baghdad and felt his long-standing resentment of 9/11 beginning to dissolve. The country was finally moving on, finally taking history in its hands again, and this was somehow of a piece with the deference and gratitude Blake and Connie showed him. (3.5.95)

    Joey identifies the obstacles in his personal life with a display of overwhelming American military force. Does this seem strange or unusual? Or common and understandable? What does it say that an American boy would find satisfaction in such an event? How do we understand these parallel events in terms of national and personal freedoms?

    He became another data point in the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn't get along well with others. (3.6.2)

    Whoa, ouch. Does that sound like you and the people you know? Or your parents, or your grandparents? Does that explain American racial strife and partisan gridlock? And, if this is true (that America is founded on "self-government"), why in the world would the States have United in the first place? Maybe we should just have 300 million little miniature states. ("We hereby claim this land for New Shmoopington!")

    After his retirement, in the 1950s, he began sending his relatives annual Christmas letters in which he lambasted the stupidity of America's government, the inequities of its political economy, and the fatuity of its religion [...] Though an entrepreneur himself, Einar detested big business. Though he'd made a career of government contracts, he hated the government as well. And though he loved the open road, the road made him miserable and crazy. (3.6.4)

    Franzen seems to be poking fun (well, OK, really it isn't much "fun" – just "poking" maybe) at the double standards many of us hold in our political views. For example, everyone hates taxes, but we sure do like many of the things they pay for (roads, schools, the fire department).

  • Family

    And Patty was undeniably very into her son. Thought Jessica was the more obvious credit to her parents – smitten with books, devoted to wildlife, not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it, admired even by Merrie Paulsen – Joey was the child Patty could not shut up about. In her chuckling, confiding, self-deprecating way, she spilled out barrel after barrel of unfiltered detail about her and Walter's difficulties with him. Most of her stories took the form of complaints, and yet nobody doubted that she adored the boy. She was like a woman bemoaning her gorgeous boyfriend. As if she were proud of having her heart trampled by him: as if her openness to this trampling were the main thing, maybe the only thing, she cared to have the world know about. (1.1.10)

    Wow guys, doesn't Jessica sound awesome? We'd really like to hang out with her. In fact, we'd like to call the Berglund house, and Patty would pick up the phone, and she'd be like, "Oh, would you like to talk to Joey?" And we'd say, "No, actually, we're calling for Jessica." And she's say, "Wait, Jessica, really?" Then we'd say, "Yes, Jessica." And she'd say, "Oh, I'm sorry, Jessica's not here; she's out saving orphans. Can I take a message?" We'd say, "Yes, please tell her that she's much cooler than Joey, and that Joey is lame for being so mean to his mother just for loving him too much. Oh, also ask her if she did the biology homework, and if she can help us with question five. Thanks! Bye."

    "[...] and all he's asking is that Joey come to dinner and sleep in his own bed and be a part of the family. And Joey's like, 'I'm still part of the family,' which, by the way, he never said he wasn't. But Walter's stomping around the kitchen, for a couple of seconds I think he's actually going to hit him, but he's just totally lost it, he's yelling, GET OUT, GET OUT, I'M SICK OF IT, GET OUT, and then he's gone and you can hear him upstairs in Joey's room, opening up Joey's drawers or whatever, and Patty runs upstairs and they start screaming at each other, and Connie and I are hugging Joey, because he's the one reasonable person in the family and we feel so sorry for him, and that's when I know for sure it's the right thing for him to move in which us. Walter comes stomping downstairs again and we can hear Patty screaming like a maniac – she's totally lost it – Walter starts telling again, DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU'RE DOING TO YOUR MOTHER? Because it's all about Patty, see, she's always got to be the victim. And Joey's just standing there shaking his head, because it's so obvious. Why would he want to live in a place like this?" (1.1.123)

    In relaying these events to the neighbors, Carol can't hide her obvious satisfaction in helping to destroy the Berglunds' supposedly perfect family unit (not to mention being there to watch it unfold). If she weren't already so emotionally attached to Joey, surely she'd be wondering what kind of kid could put his parents through such misery without even an ounce of remorse. But she'll eventually learn about that herself. One more thing: of course no one even mentions Jessica as being a part of this family, since here the word "family" seems to necessarily include heavy drama and conflict.

    Sort of by default, because her mother was so relentless in promoting impressive careers for her daughters, and also because her mother had been, in Patty's opinion, a substandard parent, Patty was inclined to want to be a homemaker and an outstanding mother. "I want to live in a beautiful old house and have two children," she told Walter. "I want to be a really, really great mom." (2.2.541)

    Does it seem healthy for Patty to base her life around making her mother look bad? (No, you don't actually have to answer that one.) Or does it poison her desire to be a "really, really great" mom by wrapping it up in competition and revenge? As for her own career, her mom wanted her to do everything, so Patty chose to do nothing. Somewhere in the middle seems a better option.

    Important fact: Richard had no relationship with his mom. [...] After four raucous years of drinking and serial infidelity, she stuck Mr. Katz with the job of raising their son (first in the Village, later in Yonkers) while she went off to California and found Jesus and brought forth four more kids. Mr. Katz quit playing music but not, alas, drinking. He ended up working for the postal service and never remarrying, and it's safe to say that his various young girlfriends, in the years before drink finally ruined him, did little to provide the stabilizing maternal presence that Richard needed. (2.3.117)

    It's not difficult to connect this passage to Richard's difficulties with commitment and fidelity. The "various young girlfriends" in his father's life are certainly echoed in Richard's own promiscuity. But he may take after his mother more, whose "drinking and serial infidelity" is accompanied by a wandering instinct (similar to the one Katz finds after his success) and a spiritual relationship (hers in Jesus, his in music).

    For the prosecution: Walter was appropriately wary. Patty was the one who tracked him down in Hibbing and threw herself at him.

    For the defense: But she was trying to be good and make a good life! And then she forsook all others and worked hard to be a great mom and homemaker.

    For the prosecution: Her motives were bad. She was competing with her mom and sisters. She wanted her kids to be a reproach to them. (2.3.181-183)

    Patty brings this up a few times: that she's actually <em>not</em> a very good person, and that at least part of why she marries Walter is she hopes some of his goodness will magically rub off on her. (Unsurprisingly, since she goes in with such questionable motives, this method doesn't seem to be working.)

    "Never mind Connie even," Carol said. "Leave Connie out of it for a minute. You and I lived together like a family for almost two years. I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I'm starting to get an idea of what you put your mom through. Seriously. I never understood how cold you are until this fall. (3.2.47)

    A few examples in the novel suggest that the word "family" is not necessarily limited to blood relatives. Walter and Richard's friendship comes to mind.  Patty's relationship with her estranged brother offers a counter-example – a family member who's basically a stranger. This conversation between Carol and Joey is perhaps the best example, and her uncomfortably close relationship with Joey helps her empathize with a woman she had long hated, Patty.

    His [Walter's] father and older brother, who together had been the bane of his youth, were alcoholics, and his wife, who was fast becoming the bane of his middle age, had alcoholic proclivities. He's always understood his own strict sobriety in terms of opposition to them – first, of wanting to be as unlike his dad and brother as possible, and then later of wanting to be as unfailingly kind to Patty as she, drunk, could be unkind to him. (3.3.16)

    Once again we see how family, marriage, and love are inextricably linked to one another. They're also deeply dependent on personal history and the history of those around you.

    Dorothy had been the only grandparent in his life, and she'd impressed him, when he was still very young, by inviting him to handle her crippled hand and see that it was still a person's hand and nothing to be scared of. After that, he'd never objected to the kindnesses his parents had asked him to do for her when she was visiting. She was a person, maybe the only person, to whom he's been one-hundred-percent good. And now suddenly she was dead. (3.2.164)

    This is sort of a strange anecdote, isn't it? What's important about the crippled hand? Maybe it serves as a lesson to Joey that not everyone's life is quite as blessed as his own. Very interesting how powerfully affected he is by this. What effect can we expect her death to have had on him? That is, here's the only person he's ever been totally good to, and now she's dead. Do you think that will make Joey more or less likely to be good in the future?

    It wasn't clear that [Gene] would have married Dorothy if he hadn't made her pregnant, but once they were married he set about loving her with all the tenderness he believed his father had denied his mother.

    That Dorothy ended up working life a dog for him anyway, and that his own son Walter ended up hating him for this, was just one those twists of family fate. (3.6.5-6)

    These two sentences pretty well summarize Franzen's views of familial generations in <em>Freedom</em>. Step One: Parents behave in a way their children hate. Step Two: Their children grow up and vow to not repeat one or more parent's mistakes. Step Three: They are either successful or (more commonly) unsuccessful.

    As much as possible, though, Patty sat with her father, held his hand, and allowed herself to love him. She could almost physically feel her emotional organs rearranging themselves, bringing her self-pity plainly into view at last, in its full obscenity, like a hideous purple-red growth on her that needed to be cut out. Spending so much time listening to her father make fun of everything, albeit a little more feebly each day, she was disturbed to see how much like him she was, and why her own children weren't more amused by her capacity for amusement, and why it would have been better to have forced herself to see more of her parents in the critical years of her own parenthood, so as to better understand her kids' response to her. Her dream of creating a fresh life, entirely from scratch, entirely independent, had been just that: a dream. She was her father's daughter. (2.4.32)

    This passage is pretty much self-explanatory, and it follows on the heels of the passage we just discussed above. We also want to point out, though, how closely linked it is to a line in the fifth paragraph of the book, where Franzen writes, "One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots" (2.1.5). When we first read that line, we knew very little about Patty. Now that we know her very well, how does it change our understanding of that initial introduction? (Also, as a side note, why is it that these fence-mending reunions often seem only possible at the end of a parent's life? Can't we decide to make amends in good health?) 

    "Oh, Abigail!" Patty burst out. "We're never going to get along, are we."

    Perhaps catching a hint of pity in her voice, Abigail pulled a stupid-face, a mean face. "I'm not the one who ran away," she said. "I'm not the one who turned her nose up, and could never take a joke, and married Mr. Superhuman Good Guy Minnesotan Righteous Weirdo Naturelover, and didn't even pretend not to hate us. You think you're doing so well, you think you're so superior, and now Mr. Superhuman Good Guy's dumped you for some inexplicable reason that obviously has nothing to do with your sterling personal qualities, and you think you can come back and be Miss Lovable-Congenial Goodwill Ambassador Florence Nightingale. It's all verrrry interesting."

    Patty made sure to take several breaths before replying to this. "Like I said," she said, "I don't think you and I are ever going to get along." (2.4.56)

    For most of Patty's life, she seems terrified of and overmatched by her sisters. Having gone through the crucible, as it were, of her own family's struggles, she's now risen above her sisters' pettiness, and Abigail's barbs no longer bother her.

  • Depression

    Time passed in a peculiar manner which the autobiographer, with her now rather abundant experience of murdered afternoons, is able to identify as <em>depressive</em> (at once interminable and sickeningly swift; chock-full second-to-second, devoid of content hour-by-hour), until finally, as the workday ended, groups of young laborers came in and began to pay too much attention to her <em>muletas</em>, and she had to leave. (2.2.835)

    We like the term "murdered afternoons" here, showing both the listlessness and hopelessness of being depressed, and the image of one's time on Earth being stolen by some malicious foe. The difference between seconds and hours is also a keen insight.

    It occurred to her to drive to Grand Rapids and buy some actual wine. It occurred to her to drive back to the house without buying anything at all. But then where would she be? A weariness set in as she stood and vacillated: a premonition that none of the possible impending outcomes would bring enough relief or pleasure to justify her current heart-racing wretchedness. She saw, in other words, what it meant to have become a deeply unhappy person. And yet the autobiographer now envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she'd reached the bottom: that, one way or another, the crisis would be resolved in the next five days. (2.3.254)

    Patty experiences a panic attack in the grocery store. Although its direct cause is a relatively insignificant matter – whether or not to purchase some beer – the two options set her on widely different paths, affecting her marriage, her mental health, and pretty much everything in her world. But, of course, it's only through her past decisions (and the decisions of others) that Patty has arrived at this unhappy place.

    When Patty considered this question, all she could see was the great emptiness of her life, the emptiness of her nest, the pointlessness of her existence now that the kids had flown. (2.3.330)

    Here, Patty unintentionally acknowledges the selfishness of her desire to have children. That is, she was never interested in raising children so that those kids can have their own great lives that are fulfilling to themselves and beneficial to others. If that were part of her motivation, then Patty would take great joy in having raised Joey and Jessica to be reasonably well-adjusted, successful individuals, rather than seeing it all as "pointless."

    Katz had read extensively in popular sociobiology, and his understanding of the depressive personality type and its seemingly perverse persistence in the human gene pool was that depression was a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship. Pessimism, feelings of worthlessness and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a tormenting awareness of the world's general crappiness: for Katz's Jewish paternal forebears, who'd been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's side, who'd labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summer of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibrating themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. (3.1.3)

    So here's the theory that a depressive disposition is not only inherited, but an evolutionary development to help cope with painful life situations. What do you think?

    He wasn't worried about having given offense; his business was giving offense. He was worried about having sounded pathetic – too transparently the washed-up talent whose only recourse was to trash his betters. He strongly disliked the person he'd just demonstrated afresh that he unfortunately was. And this, of course, was the simplest definition of depression that he knew of: strongly disliking yourself. (3.1.101)

    Do you agree with this claim? We'd say that Patty's example supports it, but Connie's example contradicts it. And what about Walter and Joey? Actually, come to think about it, what about Richard? Does he really seem like a guy who "strongly dislikes" himself?

    Walter shook his head grimly. "I've been living with a depressed person for a very long time now. I don't know why she's so unhappy, I don't know why she can't seem to get out of it. There was a little while, around the time we moved to Washington, when she seemed to be doing better. She'd seen a therapist in St. Paul who got her started on some kind of writing project. Some kind of personal history or life journal that she was very mum and secretive about. As long as she was working on that, things weren't so bad. But for the last two years they've been pretty much all bad. (3.1.375)

    Walter's comment suggests that her writing project allowed Patty to step back and revisit the events in her life, examine her choices, and consider her actions in terms of her intentions. It also implies that this process was the one thing that freed her from her prison of self-pity and self-doubt. It's a personal enactment of the familial reunion she has at the end of the book, revisiting the people from her past. (Please excuse the similarity to Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," because it really isn't like that. OK, maybe a little.)

    "This isn't funny, Joey. She's very depressed. You've given her a depression and you need to stop messing around. Do you understand?" (3.2.41)

    Carol gives Joey a serious (and well-deserved) guilt trip. Fair enough. But is it possible to "give" someone "a depression"? We'd say it's a little more complicated than that.

    Somewhere above the fog, the sky was turning blue. (3.3.372)

    This just might be our favorite line in the book. Franzen's prose, which involves such deep excavation of emotion, doesn't usually lend itself to short power-packed lines like this. But this is a great one, simple and direct. The fog is depression. Above the fog, life is great, the sky is blue, and things are really turning around for the better. For the person under that fog, though, she'd never know about this blue sky business, because the fog is so thick, and prevents her from seeing the blue.

    Although Joey knew enough to be afraid of hard-core mental illness, it seemed to him that if he eliminated from his pool of prospects ever interesting college-age girl with some history of depression, he would be left with a very small pool indeed. (3.5.94)

    We might just as easily put this passage in the "Visions of America" section, because it is a pretty devastating portrait of the millennial generation.

    "I have some acquaintance with depression myself, and, believe me, I know it's no picnic. Is Connie taking something for it?"

    "Yeah, Celexa."

    "Well, I hope that works out for her. My own drug didn't work out so well for me."


    "You have to give those drugs some time," he said.

    "Right, so everybody said. Especially Dad, who's kind of on the front lines with me. He was very sorry to see those good times go. But I was glad to have my head back, such as it is." (3.5.112-114; 120-122)

    Let's focus on the larger theme of Walter and Patty's relationship here: that Walter knows what's best for Patty better than she does. In this case, it's pretty clearly selfish on his part, being less interested in relieving her depression than he is in removing it from his daily life.

    Ubiquitous though depression seemed lately to have become, Joey still found it a little worrisome that the two females who loved him the most were both suffering clinically. Was it just chance? Or did he have some actively baneful effect on women's mental health? In Connie's case, the truth was that her depression was a facet of the same intensity he'd always so much loved in her. On his last night in St. Paul, before returning to Virginia, he sat and watched her probe her skull with her fingertips, as if she were hoping to extract excess feeling from her brain. She said that the reason she'd been weeping at seemingly random moments was that even the smallest bad thoughts were excruciating, and that only bad thoughts, no good ones, were occurring to her. (3.5.127)

    It's certainly a valid question. We'd argue that although Joey undoubtedly has a "baneful effect" (in other words, bad) on the women around him, he can't be blamed for causing their depression. That said, the second half of this passage is really heartbreaking, and Joey <em>is</em> at fault for not doing more to help this young woman he supposedly loves.

    He threw himself onto the bed and sobbed in a state to which all previous states of existence seemed infinitely preferable. The world was moving ahead, the world was full of winners [...] while Walter was left behind with the dead and dying and forgotten, the endangered species of the world, the nonadaptive... (3.6.324)

    This is Walter's first real taste of depression, although it does seem markedly different from any of the other examples in the book. Can you identify what sets it apart?

  • Love

    "I wonder if she's actually in love with Walter, or not," Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. "Physically, I mean." (1.1.17)

    Umm, in love… <em>physically</em>? Isn't that what we usually call <em>lust</em>?

    "And so her face gets all twisted, and she's like, 'You think he <em>loves</em> your daughter? You think he's <em>in love</em> with her?' In this high little voice. Like it's impossible for somebody like Joey to be in love with Connie, because I didn't go to college or whatever, or I don't have as big a house or come from New York City or whatever, or I have to work an honest-to-Christ forty-hour full-time job, unlike her." (1.1.123)

    This is one of the novel's more potent examples of class-consciousness. Carol immediately assumes that Patty objects to Connie and Joey's relationship on class grounds, instead of more personal problems with Connie and/or Carol. While we can't say which is right (truth be told, it's probably a mixture of all of the above), it's natural for her to latch onto that explanation, since it paints Patty in the worst possible light amongst her neighbors, and it turns Carol into the victim.

    For the defense: She loved her kids!

    For the prosecution: She loved Jessica an appropriate amount, but Joey she loved way too much. She knew what she was doing and she didn't stop, because she was mad at Walter for not being what she really wanted, and because she had bad character and felt she deserved compensation for being a star and a competitor who was trapped in a housewife's life.

    For the defense: But love just happens. It wasn't her fault that every last thing about Joey gave her so much pleasure.

    For the prosecution: It was her fault. You can't love cookies and ice cream inordinately and then say it's not your fault you end up weighing three hundred pounds. (2.3.184-187)

    Interesting that Patty, of all people, would claim that "love just happens," since she really doesn't have much experience with the word – neither with her husband nor her lover. The love of a parent for her child, meanwhile, can hardly be described as just "happening," especially when said parent doesn't even love her children equally.

    For the defense: She loves Walter!

    For the prosecution: The evidence suggests otherwise.

    For the defense: Well, in that case, Walter doesn't love her either. He doesn't love the real her.

    He loves some wrong idea her.

    For the prosecution: That would be convenient if only it were true. Unfortunately for Patty, he didn't marry her in spite of who she was, he married her because of it. Nice people don't necessarily fall in love with nice people.

    For the defense: It isn't fair to say she doesn't love him!
    For the prosecution: If she can't behave herself, it doesn't matter if she loves him. (2.3.192-197)

    What do you think of this last line? Does it really <em>not</em> matter? Well, what happens if we turn that statement around to say, "If she doesn't love him…" Then what? It seems to follow, "If she doesn't love him, then she won't be able to control herself." Which is exactly the case. If this is true, then not loving him turns out to be exactly the problem.

    It pains the autobiographer to admit that she was a tiny bit embarrassed to let her family see him, and, worse, that this may have been another reason why she didn't want a wedding. She loved him (and <em>does</em> love him, <em>does</em> love him) for qualities that made abundant sense to her in their two-person private world but weren't necessarily apparent to the sort of critical eye that she was sure her sister, Abigail in particular, would train on him. (2.3.6)

    The key moment here is what's inside the parentheses, as Patty catches herself using "love" in the past tense, and then tries to convince herself that she still loves Walter, repeating the words like they're some incantation. (But we'll ask something else too: Does this sound like love? To worry about what the people around her think about Walter? Hasn't she ever seen Beauty and the Beast or Shallow Hal?)

    He'd always liked Connie a lot. Always. And so why now, of all the inopportune moments, was he being gripped, as if for the first time, by such a titanic undertow of <em>really liking her</em>? How could it be, after years of having sex with her, years of feeling tender and protective of her, that he was only now getting sucked into such heavy waters of affection? Feeling connected to her in such a scarily consequential way? Why now? (3.2.278)

    Why is Joey so surprised by his feelings for Connie? Honestly, it's almost like he's embarrassed by them. But, as he puts it, "Why now?" It seems likely that the timing has something to do with 9/11 throwing off his equilibrium. Maybe he needs some sort of stabilizing force, or at least something familiar to connect him to the world he knew before the attacks.

    "I spend my life jumping out of my skin with frustration at myself."

    "That's what I love about you."

    "Oh, love now. Love. Richard Katz talking above love. This must be my signal that it's time to go to bed." (3.4.359)

    It isn't clear what Richard means by saying "love." He might really be confessing his love for her. Or he might be using the word in the way one might say, "I love the way peanuts come in shells." Or he might just be trying to get her into bed. But Patty's pained reaction to the loaded word leaves little doubt that she's been waiting to hear him say it for over twenty years.

    And why had he stuck with Connie? The only answer that made sense was that he loved her. He'd had his chances to free himself of her – had, indeed, deliberately created some of them – but again and again, at the crucial moment not to use them. (3.5.92)

    In this book we have to keep looking out for words like "free" and "freedom," and here we see a particularly interesting use. Connie has allowed Joey to be nothing if not "free." Is this part of what makes him love her, that she makes no demands?

    "Parents are programmed to want the best for their kids, regardless of what they get in return. That's what love is supposed to be like, right? [...] But my point is that I've given some real thought to this question of love, regarding you. And I've decided –"

    "Mom, do you mind if we talk about something else?"

    "I've decided –"

    "Or, actually, maybe some other day? Next week or something? I've got a lot of stuff to do here before I go to bed."

    A silence of injury descended on St. Paul. (3.2.138-144)

    This scene is pretty brutal, for showing how heartless Joey can be towards his mother. On the other hand, the difficulties in their relationship have stemmed directly from Patty's suffocating love of her son, and here she wants to indulge in talking about it some more. So maybe Joey is right for ending the conversation, knowing it will only dig them into deeper difficulty. Does that make sense? What do you think?

    And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they'd ever said or done, every pain they'd inflicted, every joy they'd shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.

    "It's me," she said, "Just me."

    "I know," he said, and kissed her. (4.1.99-101)

    This is certainly the happiest of endings – and suggests that after everything that has happened between Patty and Walter, they did (and still do) love each other. Or, perhaps, considering Patty's doubts of whether she <em>ever</em> loved Walter, this suggests that we can come to love someone by sharing our life with them, sort of like the way we naturally love our family members (even if we might not like them very much).

  • Sex

    "I know essentially nothing about sex," Walter confessed.

    "Oh, well," she said, "it's not very complicated." (2.3.105-106)

    Oh, the irony. Since sex will become very complicated indeed, for Patty in particular. Not only between each other (although their sex life will be a continual source of tension between her and Walter), but of course with their extramarital temptations as well.

    One hesitates to ascribe too much explanatory significance to sex, and yet the autobiographer would be derelict in her duties if she didn't devote an uncomfortable paragraph to it. The regrettable truth is that Patty had soon come to find sex sort of boring and pointless – the same old sameness – and to do it mostly for Walter's sake. And, yes, undoubtedly, to not do it very well. There just usually seemed to be something else she'd rather have been doing. (2.3.155)

    Patty's disinterest in Walter sexually is, in one way, symptomatic of their larger problems. But she can't act as if it comes as a surprise, since from the very beginning she admits that she's not attracted to him.

    This was very unusual of her, but thankfully not so unheard-of as to provoke comment and examination; and Walter needed no persuading to oblige her. It wasn't a big deal, just a little late-evening surprise, and yet in autobiographical retrospect it now looks almost like the high point of their marriage. Or maybe, more accurately, the endpoint; the last time she remembers feeling safe and secure in being married [...] <em>their marriage was working</em>. (2.3.177)

    Wow, for an autobiographer who "hesitates to ascribe too much explanatory significance to sex" (2.3.155), this passage ascribes some seriously weighty significance to sex. Come on, "the high point of their marriage"? That's a pretty big statement. And pretty disturbing, in a way, since it's precipitated almost entirely by her latent desire for her hubby's pal Richard.

    This seemed to her, in any case, the first time in her life she'd properly had sex. A real eye-opener, as it were. (2.3.409)

    Can we argue that the really "eye-opener" for Patty is the realization that she never truly got over Richard, and thus never committed herself completely to Walter? Or is she really just talking about the act of sex?

    It was fine, having sex with him [Walter]. There was nothing so wrong with it. (2.3.527)

    Have you noticed how most of the quotes about sex are from Patty's perspective? She sure spends lots of time talking about it. Sadly, the above quote is pretty much the nicest thing she has to say about having sex with her husband. As for his best friend, well, you read about that above.

    "Well, if you did have [a daughter], you might let yourself recognize the actually-not-terribly-hard-to-recognize fact that very young women can get their desire and their admiration and their love for a person all mixed up, and not understand –"

    "Not understand what?"

    "That to the guy they're just an object. That the guy might only be wanting to get his, you know, his, you know –" (3.1.345-347)

    This is a pretty characteristic exchange between Richard and Walter, and here they're talking about Lalitha. Can we turn it around and apply it to their relationships with Patty as well?

    Only when enough beer had been consumed to bring a group conversation around to sex did [Joey] feel isolated. His thing with Connie was too intense and strange – too sincere; too muddled with love – to be fungible as a coin of bragging. He disdained but also envied his hall mates for their communal bravado, their porny avowals of what they wanted to do to the choicest babes in the Facebook or had supposedly done, in isolated instances, while wasted, and seemingly without regret or consequence, to various wasted girls at their academies and prep schools. (3.2.28)

    In <em>Freedom</em>, sex means many things to many people. Here we get a glimpse of the sexual world of the college male. It's a world, of course, that we have all become far too familiar with through movies and television, whether or not we've ever stepped foot in a dorm. Interesting, then, to have Joey's view as a contrast, where his time with Connie seems like such an entirely different thing that he can't even engage in conversation with these guys.

    "So have you been sleeping with other people? Connie said. "I thought that might be why you weren't calling."

    "No! No. Not at all."

    "It's OK with me if you do. I meant to tell you that last month. You're a guy, you have needs. I don't expect you to be a monk. It's just sex, who cares?" (3.2.245-247)

    Joey is, of course, totally psyched to hear this. What sweeter freedom to add to his collection than sexual freedom? Sex in relationships is, of course, much more complicated than Joey and Connie would like to believe…as they find out just a few months later.

    The kiddies were perennially enticing and perennially unsatisfying in much the same way that coke was unsatisfying: whenever he was off it, he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn't fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty: neuro-mechanic, death-flavored. (3.4.42)

    This is the most direct reference to Richard's sex addiction being just that: an addiction. Here he equates sleeping with younger women (whom he grossly refers to as "the kiddies") with the fleeting high from snorting cocaine.

    The mute fact of his sweet Connie having lain down with some middle-aged pig, of her having taken off her jeans and her little underpants and opened her legs repeatedly, had embodied itself in words only long enough for her to speak them and for Joey to her them before returning to muteness and lodging inside him, out of reach of words, like some swallowed ball of razor blades. He could see, reasonably enough, that she might care no more about her pig of a manager than he'd cared about the girls, all of them either drunk or extremely drunk, in whose overly perfumed beds he'd landed in the previous year, but reason could no more reach the pain in him than thinking Stop! could arrest an onrushing bus. The pain was quite extraordinary. (3.5.182)

    This is a powerful representation of how easy it is to value one's own freedom over other people's. We can find examples of this double standard everywhere in this book, and in our daily lives. So Joey, of course, feels just fine with cheating on Connie with other women, not thinking anything of it. As soon as she turns around and does something similar, though, he sure doesn't like that very much at all. To his credit, he's able to see how irrational his thinking is, but logic isn't nearly powerful enough to stop him from feeling it.

    Up in Lalitha's slope-ceilinged little room, the onetime maid's quarters, which he hadn't visited since she'd moved in, and whose floor was an obstacle course of clean clothes in stacks and dirty ones in piles, he pressed her against the side wall of the dormer and gave himself blindly to the one person who wanted him without qualification. It was another state of emergency, it was no hour of no day, it was desperate. [...] [A]nd then one of those pauses descended, an uneasy recollection of how universal the ascending steps to sex were; how impersonal, or pre-personal. He pulled away abruptly, toward the unmade single bed, and knocked over a pile of books and documents relating to overpopulation. (3.6.163)

    This passage has a lot going on. The description of Lalitha's room is crucial, reminding us that Walter is both her boss and her landlord, and she, in the tiny maid's quarters, is thus, kind of like his servant. Although later (more explicit) passages will make clear that in many ways she's the more powerful figure in their relationship, here we see how fragile Walter is emotionally – needing, more than anything else, to know she wants him. Two more brief things to take note of: 1) the general statement about sexual passion (coupled nicely with the use of the word "blindly" above), and 2) Franzen's wry humor in having the couple knock over a pile of books about overpopulation on their way to taking their clothes off and, well, you know.

  • Loyalty

    In one letter Eliza wrote, I think we need to make rules for each other for protection and self-improvement. Patty was skeptical about this but wrote back with three rules for her friend. <em>No smoking before dinnertime. Get exercise every day and develop athletic ability.</em> And <em>Attend all lectures and do all homework for ALL classes (not just English).</em> No doubt she should have been disturbed by how different Eliza's rules for her turned out to be – <em>Drink only on Saturday night and only in Eliza's presence; No going to mixed parties except accompanied by Eliza; and Tell Eliza EVERYTHING</em> – but something was wrong with her judgment and she instead felt excited to have such an intense best friend. (2.2.107)

    This passage is totally about obsession, and an obsessive relationship can be described as a form of extreme loyalty – or, more specifically, of <em>demanding</em> extreme loyalty. Here Patty not only plays along, gamely offering Eliza her loyalty, but ends up reinforcing Eliza's demands by making demands of her own.

    Richard was especially unreliable whenever a girl entered the picture, and Walter resented these girls for being even momentarily more compelling than he was. Richard himself never saw it this way, because he tired of girls so quickly and always ended up kicking them to the curb; he always came back to Walter, whom he didn't get tired of. But to Walter it seemed <em>disloyal</em> of his friend to put so much energy into pursuing people he didn't even like. (2.3.121)

    Once again we see the unusually fraught connection between close and casual friendships that exists in the book. This example is especially strange, since Walter and Richard are both uninterested in each other sexually, yet Walter still considers Richard disloyal for sleeping with lots of women instead of…what? Reading books with Walter? Is there any way to get around calling him jealous?

    The first big crisis came during their senior year, two years before Patty met them, when Walter was smitten with the evil sophomore personage named Nomi. To hear Richard tell it (as Patty once did), the situation was straightforward: his sexually naïve friend was being exploited by a worthless female who wasn't into him, and Richard finally took it upon himself to demonstrate her worthlessness. According to Richard, the girl wasn't worth competing over; she was just a mosquito to be slapped. But Walter saw things differently. He got so angry with Richard that he refused to speak to him for weeks. (2.3.122)

    This is a much more serious example and points to divergent ideas of what "loyalty" means. Walter's version is simpler and more direct: stand by your friend, at all costs. For Richard, loyalty is something deeper and more complex: that is, sometimes "standing by your friend" entails doing precisely the thing that will hurt him the most.

    "You have to take people the way they are," Dorothy told him. "Richard's a good friend, and you should be loyal to him." (Dorothy was big on loyalty – it lent meaning to her not so pleasant life – and Patty often heard Walter quoting her admonition; he seemed to attach almost scriptural significance to it.) He pointed out that Richard himself had been extremely disloyal in stealing a girl Walter cared about, but Dorothy, who herself perhaps had fallen under the Katzian spell, said she didn't believe that Richard had done it deliberately. (2.3.147)

    Here we learn the roots of Walter's steadfast loyalty. If he really does attach "almost scriptural significance" to her words (that we should "take people the way they are"), then we should be able to apply their example to all of his relationships.

    She [Patty] didn't see how he [Joey] could possibly be <em>loyal and devoted</em> to the neighbor girl [Connie]. She thought that Connie Monaghan, sneaky little competitor that she was, had managed to get some kind of filthy little momentary hold on him. She was disastrously slow to grasp the seriousness of the Monaghan menace, and in the months when she was underestimating Joey's feelings for the girl – when she thought that she could simply freeze Connie out and make lighthearted fun of her trashy mom and her mom's boneheaded boyfriend, and that Joey would soon enough be laughing at them, too – she managed to undo fifteen years of effort to be a good mom. (2.3.202)

    Patty doesn't italicize many words, so when she does, these words sort of jump out at us. One thing we know – that she has no clue about – is that Joey isn't really loyal or devoted to Connie. But the way she expresses her surprise almost suggests that she can't understand how <em>anyone</em> can be loyal and devoted, because she herself sure struggles with it. In fact, the only person she might be loyal to is Joey, and if he doesn't return <em>her</em> loyalty, how can he possible return <em>Connie's</em>?

    "Not sure exactly what the point of that is."

    "Just that I'm still committed to my family."

    "Good. It's a great family."

    "Right, so I'll see you in the morning."

    "Patty." He put out his cigarette in the commemorative Danish Christmas bowl of Dorothy's that he was using as an ashtray. "I'm not going to be the person who wrecks my best friend's marriage."

    "No! God! Of course not!" She was nearly weeping with disappointment. (2.3.363)

    All things considered, Richard is pretty loyal to Walter. He tries – he really tries! – to be a good friend. When he finally betrays him, it's through his convoluted logic that it's for Walter's own good.

    She'd fallen for the one man in the world who cared as much about Walter and felt as protective of him as she did; anybody else could have tried to turn her against him. And even worse, in a way, was the responsibility she felt toward Richard, in knowing that he had nobody else like Walter in his life, and that his loyalty to Walter was, in his own estimation, one of the few things besides music that saved him as a human being. (2.3.476)

    This has to be the most powerful statement about loyalty in the book – that a man with very few virtuous qualities can be defined (can be saved) by his loyalty to one. In other words, that he can be saved by his loyalty to loyalty.

    But Walter was mostly disappointed and hurt by Richard's moment in the sun. He said he understood why Richard hardly ever called him anymore, he understood Richard had a lot on his plate now, but he didn't really understand it. [...] Walter wouldn't have minded getting a little more credit for having been so morally and intellectually and even financially supportive of Richard, but what really hurt him was how little he seemed to matter to Richard, compared to how much Richard mattered to him. And Patty of course couldn't offer him her best proof of how much he actually did matter to Richard. (2.3.621)

    This is another example of the difference between Walter's and Richard's conceptions of loyalty. For Walter, Richard is disloyal for not including him in his rise to fame, especially after Walter was forced to participate (and even support Richard) during his decades of struggle. For Richard, things are not as Walter imagines them to be – they are, as ever, more ambiguous.

    "'Fame requires every sort of excess' […] You should be out trashing hotel rooms and recording your most repellent fuck-you songs ever" (3.1.120, 124).

    Walter argues that, now that Richard has gotten the music world's attention, he should go back and write all the anti-everything songs they talked about way back in college. To just drop out, and ignore the opportunity to shake the bars of his cage, would be disloyal to his (their!) punk rock roots.

    Now that she was a tired, drunk, bleeding person crouching between his legs and doing businesslike oral work, she could have been almost anybody, except Connie. (3.5.390)

    Surely the unshakable comparisons with Connie have something to do Joey's inability to perform (in addition to the many glasses of wine, that is).

  • Friendship

    Things came, Patty complained, too easily to Joey. [...] He perfected a highly annoying smile of condescension when face with toys or games that other boys owned but Patty and Walter refused to buy him. To extinguish this smile, his friends insisted on sharing what they had [...] (1.1.25)

    Let's think for a moment about the use of the word "friends" here. Both here and elsewhere, it rarely seems like Joey actually cares about his so-called friends. He has learned the movements of socializing, but never really connects with anyone outside his tiny circle (his birth family, the Berglunds, and his other family, the Monaghans). Joey always stands apart and can't really be said to have friends, per se, although he has plenty of people to hang out with.

    Patty had always had friends plural, never anything intense. (2.2.87)

    So, let's see. Patty barely speaks to her family (least of all her sisters) and she's never had any close friends. Then, the one close friend she <em>does</em> make turns out to have an unhealthy obsession with her. Oh, and then the first real boyfriend she has, she marries a few weeks after graduation? Is it a stretch to argue that this would leave her ill-equipped to enter into such an emotionally intense and unavoidably co-dependent relationship? No, we don't think so.

    Eliza turned out not to like any of Patty's other friends and didn't even try to hang out with them. She referred to them collectively as "your lesbians" or "the lesbians" although half of them were straight. Patty very quickly came to feel that she lived in two mutually exclusive worlds. There was Total Jockworld, where she spent the vast majority of her time and where she would rather flunk a psychology midterm than skip going to the store and assembling a care package and taking it to a teammate who'd sprained an ankle or was laid up with the flu, and then there was dark little Elizaworld, where didn't have to bother trying to be so good. (2.2.76)

    Is it surprising how well these two "worlds" complement each other? As unhealthy and deranged as Patty's friendship with Eliza turns out to be, at its most basic level it represents the deep emotional connection so important in our lives. Meanwhile, the basketball team stands in for the less intense, less demanding friendships in our lives, that are also important or nourishing, just in a different way. After all, here it's the less intense relationships, which we might usually assume to be "superficial," that she describes as more demanding, and that bring out the best in Patty. Super interesting.

    Few circumstances have turned out to be more painful to the autobiographer, in the long run, than the dearness of Walter and Richard's friendship. Superficially, at least, the two of them were an odder couple than even Patty and Eliza. [...] Later, as Patty got to know them better, she saw that they were maybe not so different underneath – that both were struggling, albeit in a very different ways, to be good people. (2.2.186)

    It's funny. The first time we read this, we just assume Patty's saying that Walter and Richard's friendship is painful to her because it caused her (well, all of them) so much suffering. But then we read it again and think, could she be saying something else entirely? Like, maybe it's so painful for her because it makes her realize how she has never had any comparably close friendships of her own?

    Intellectually, Walter was definitely the big brother and Richard his follower. And yet, for Richard, being smart, like being good, was just a sideshow to the main competitive effort. This was what Walter had in mind when he said he didn't trust his friend. He could never shake the feeling that Richard was hiding stuff from him; that there was a dark side of him always going off in the night to pursue motives he wouldn't admit to; that he was happy to be friends with Walter as long as it was understood that he was the top dog. [...] It made Walter feel weak and small to be forever available for Richard to come back to. He was tormented by the suspicion that he loved Richard more than Richard loved him, and was doing more than Richard to make the friendship work. (2.3.121)

    Wow, Walter and Richard's friendship isn't just a friendship at all, is it? It's part-friendship, part-marriage, part-sibling rivalry. Ideally close relationships would not entail so much insecurity and fear. Unfortunately, though, that's the way we're built.

    She had terrible fights with Walter in which he blamed her for making Joey ungovernable and she was unable to defend herself properly, because she wasn't allowed to speak the sick conviction in her heart, which was that Walter had ruined her friendship with her son. (2.3.205)

    We're not really sure if this belongs in the Family section, or in the Friendship column. What does it say about Patty's role as a mother that the thing she values most highly in life is her friendship with her son? And what sort of friendship can a son have with his mother, especially if it comes at the expense of his sister and father?

    Katz couldn't have said exactly why Walter mattered to him. [...] And then there was the complication of Patty, who, although she'd long tried hard to pretend otherwise, was even less ordinary than Walter, and then the further complication of Katz's being no less attracted to Patty than Walter was, and arguably more attracted to Walter than Patty was. This was definitely a weird one. No other man had warmed Katz's loins the way the sight of Walter did after long absence. These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow, but there was definitely something deep-chemical there. Something that insisted on being called love. (3.1.110)

    This one is intense. Should we take his description at face value? Does describing things in terms of sex and drugs just come naturally to Richard? Whatever his motives, we certainly can't question the validity of his observation: that he's more passionate (in his own cool, detached way) about both Walter and Patty than either of them are about each other.

    He gravitated socially to hall mates from prosperous families who believed in carpet bombing the Islamic world until it learned to behave itself. He wasn't right-wing himself but was comfortable with those who were. (3.2.27)

    This can be read as an example of Joey's habit of associating with people who make him feel superior. But the details – the specificity of "prosperous families," the violence of "carpet bombing," the arrogance of "behave itself" – make us think something else is going on here. Maybe it's this: living with Blake, for example, Joey could feel powerful in being intellectually superior. With these guys, standing apart from their aggressive rhetoric, Joey can feel morally superior. But how did this work out for Joey? What does he really believe?

    "Are you making lots of new friends? Meeting lots of people?"


    "Well, good good good. Good good good. It's nice of you to call, Joey. I mean, I know you don't have to, so it's nice that you did. You have some real fans here back at home."

    A herd of male first-years burst out of the dorm and onto the lawn, their voices amplified by beer. "Jo-eeee, Jo-eeee," they lowed affectionately. He nodded to them in cool acknowledgement.

    "Sounds like you've got some fans there, too," his mother said.


    "My popular boy."

    "Yep." (3.2.103-110)

    This sort of seems like a set-up. Know what we mean? As in, it's kind of hard to believe that these things would happen simultaneously. So why does Franzen set it up like this? Is it to align Patty with a bunch of drunk college guys? Or to emphasize how effortlessly Joey manages to endear himself to people? One thing it definitely does is reinforce Patty's loneliness on the far end of the telephone, while Joey is here on the front end, surrounded by people chanting his name.

    The one bad aspect of Joey's good fortune were the moments when it seemed to come at someone else's expense. Never having experienced envy himself, he was impatient with its manifestations in other people. In high school, more than once, he'd had to terminate friendships with kids who couldn't handle his having so many other friends. (3.2.423)

    OK, one more example of the way <em>Freedom</em> approaches casual friendships. Here's Joey, who has a wake of starry-eyed devotees trailing him everywhere he goes. But even in these relationships, which should demand relatively the same from each side, there's no symmetry. They want more than Joey is willing to give, or feel more deeply about Joey than he does them.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Oh Walter: did he know that the most intriguing thing about him, in the months when Patty was getting to know him, was that he was Richard Katz's friend? Did he notice how, every time Patty saw him, she contrived to find nonchalant ways to lead the conversation around the Richard? Did he have any suspicion, that first night, when she agreed to let him call her, that she was thinking of Richard? (2.2.320)

    This is deceit. Just because Patty does a lousy job of pretending otherwise, and Walter knows full well that Richard is irresistible to women, doesn't mean it isn't dishonest. In a way, Walter becomes complicit in Patty's lies, by not trying to communicate with her about their relationship. When he finally attempts to deal with it, in Room 21 in the Whispering Pines, the effort overwhelms him, and he ends up crying and shaking and pacing and all kinds of unpleasant stuff. Better to talk about things in the beginning, no?

    "Look," she said, "you have to swear not to tell Richard," although she realized, even as she said it, that she'd never quite understood this prohibition, "but Eliza has leukemia. It's really terrible."

    To her surprise, Walter laughed. "That doesn't seem likely."

    "Well, it's true," she said. "Whether or not it seems likely to you."

    "OK. And is she still doing heroin?"

    A fact that she'd seldom paid attention to before – that he was two years older than she was – suddenly made its presence felt. (2.2.394-397)

    Why does this conversation cause Patty to realize that Walter is older than her? Maybe because it shows her naïveté – that she is too easily trusting. and life experience (that is, experiences like these) will make her more wary of believing people, and bring her to expect the worst of people (specifically, to expect people to lie).

    "Here's the choice," Richard said. "We stop now, or you leave Walter. And since the latter is not acceptable, we stop now."
    "Or, third possibility, we could not stop and I could just not tell him."
    "I don't want to live that way. Do you?"
    "It's true that two of the three people he loves most in the world are you and me." (2.3.431)

    Wow, Patty doesn't even answer the question. Richard, on the other hand, either has a strong moral fiber that makes lying to Walter out of the question, or has enough experience with deceit to recall the corrosive impact it can have on one's body and mind (nightmares, ulcers, etc.).

    She tried hard to be a good wife, and to please her very good husband, but a full accounting of the success of her efforts must include the e-mails that she and Richard began to exchange within days of his departure, and the permission she somehow gave him, a few weeks after that, to get on a plane to Minneapolis and go up to Nameless Lake with her while Walter was hosting another V.I.P. trip in the Boundary Waters. She immediately deleted the email with Richard's flight information, as she'd deleted the others, but not before memorizing the flight number and arrival time.

    A week before the date, she repaired to the lake in solitude and gave herself entirely to derangement. It consisted of getting stumbling drunk every evening, awakening later in panic and remorse and indecision, then sleeping through the morning, then reading novels in a suspended state of false calm, then jumping up and pacing for an hour or more in the vicinity of the telephone, trying to decide whether to call Richard and tell him not to come, and finally opening a bottle to make the whole thing go away for a few hours. (2.3.530-531)

    Did you read the above quote and think, "Well, here's the perfect illustration"? We call it, "Why Lying Is A Bad Idea – Because It Makes You Feel Like This." The lie never stops, you know? It's not like one mistake, which you can just walk away from. In a way, by lying to Walter, Patty will be continually cheating on him (until she confesses what happened).

    She'd flown to Philadelphia on Thursday, in order to spend, as she carefully told Walter, an actual day on her own as a tourist. Taking a cab to the city center, she was pierced unexpectedly by regret for not doing exactly that: not walking the streets as an independent adult woman, not cultivating an independent life, not being a sensible and curious tourist instead of a love-chasing madwoman. (2.3.554)

    This brings us back to freedom, as Patty feels imprisoned by her betrayal. But it's specifically her lies to Walter that bring the divergent paths into sharp relief.

    Having sworn to Jonathan that he wouldn't have sex with Jenna, Joey felt insured against every contingency in Argentina. If nothing happened, it would prove him honorable. If something did happen, he would not have to be chagrined and disappointed that something hadn't. (3.5.326)

    So let's see: Joey swears that he won't do the thing he most wants to do, but that probably won't happen. So then if nothing happens, he'll have told the truth. And if something does happen, the awesomeness of that result will outweigh the guilt of having lied (you know, to his best friend… about having sex with his best friend's sister). Well, we certainly know where his priorities lie.

    To be able just to laugh and shrug and walk away: to be more like Jenna, who, for example, knew almost everything about Connie expect the fact that Joey had married her, and who nevertheless considered Connie, at most, an adder of thrill of piquancy to the games she'd like to play with Joey. Jenna took special pleasure in asking him if his girlfriend knew how much he was talking to somebody else's girlfriend, and in hearing him recount the lies he'd told. (3.5.56)

    OK, now here's a mystery. Why is Jenna the one person to whom Joey tells everything? An easy answer is that she just has a mystical (read: sexual) power over him. But is there something more significant that we're missing here?

  • Betrayal

    And a neutral bystander he [Walter] remained all through the spring and summer of Joey's sophomore year and into the following fall, when Jessica went off to college in the East and Joey moved out of his parents' house and in with Carol, Blake, and Connie. (1.1.120)

    One could make the argument that the entire book pivots around this one fateful decision. What do you think Joey's motives are? Is it just to share a bed with his girlfriend? Or to get out from under his parents' thumb? Or to flex his freedom muscles? Or just to spend time in Blake's awesome room? Does he even understand how betrayed his parents will feel? Does he consider the consequences of his actions?

    "No, seriously, I can see why you don't respect us. If all you ever see, year after year, is girls who want you to betray your best friend. I can see that's a weird situation." (2.2.781)

    Is this an accurate description of Richard's view of women? Is this why he doesn't respect them? Or do you think it inflates his view of himself to deny these temptations?

    That she could say all this, and not only say it but remember it very clearly afterward, does admittedly cast doubt on the authenticity of her sleep state. But the autobiographer is <em>adamant</em> in her insistence that she was not awake at the moment of betraying Walter and feeling his friend split her open. Maybe it was the way she was emulating the fabled ostrich and keeping her eyes firmly shut [...] (2.3.393)

    Again, that italicized word: "<em>adamant.</em>" Patty's highest priority is to absolve herself of blame for betraying Walter. That is, she totally gets what an unforgivable betrayal it is, but in order to live with herself she needs to do whatever she can to make it seem, um, less bad.

    The most traumatic events ever to befall the longtime front man of the Traumatics had been (1) receiving a Grammy nomination, (2) hearing his music played on National Public Radio, and (3) deducing, from December sales figures, that Nameless Lake had made the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households. The Grammy nomination had been a particularly disorienting embarrassment. (3.1.2)

    Richard sees his mainstream success as a betrayal of himself and his values. It's noteworthy that he describes it through the prism of being the "longtime front man of the Traumatics."  This seems to suggest that he's actually betraying some younger version of himself, and concerned he might have compromised his ideals somewhere along the way.

    The angry stirring of Katz's blood was of a piece with the divinations of his dick. I'm going to do you a different kind of favor now, old friend, he thought. We're going to finish some unfinished business, and you and the girl will thank me for it. (3.1.406)

    Betrayal! Richard seeks to once again seduce Patty and destroy her marriage, and he's committed to this (um, terrible) plan both emotionally and sexually. But of course Richard insists that this is another example of his devoted loyalty. Can it be both?

    "And I totally abandoned her, because Dad hated her so much. She was suffering, and I never called her again, and I threw her letters away without opening them." (3.2.173)

    What most obviously follows betrayal? Guilt. Decades later, Patty cannot have forgotten that it was Eliza who lied and deceived her. Nevertheless, she feels guilty for not forgiving her, and <em>this</em> now feels like a betrayal. Perhaps it's because Patty has had so few meaningful relationships in her life. But notice how she prefaces this remark by blaming Walter – "It's <em>Walter's</em> fault that I betrayed her!" Maybe she's just looking for yet another reason to feel bad.

    According to his moral calculus, his having <em>married</em> Connie entitled him to one last grand use of his sexual license, which she'd granted him long ago and never expressly revoked. If he and Jenna happened to click in a big way, he would deal with that later. (3.5.37)

    Let's put this another, less flattering, way: a long time ago, Connie told Joey he could sleep with other women. And he did. Then they got married – which, needless to say, entails a more serious commitment than some freshman year long-distance relationship. It would've been pretty weird if, after they got back from the courthouse, Connie turned to Joey and said, "Just so you know, this probably means you shouldn't sleep with other woman anymore." And Joey would've been like, "Dude, obviously! I can't believe you would even say that. We just got married." Yet here he is, not one month later, scheming to get into bed with Jenna.

    "You did the worst thing you could possible do to me," he said. "The worst thing, and you knew very well it was the worst thing, and you did it anyway. Which part of that am I going to want to think back on?"

    "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, weeping afresh. "I'm so sorry you can't see it the way I see it. I'm so sorry this happened."

    "It didn't 'happen.' You did it. You fucked the kind of evil shit who would leave this on my desk for me to read."

    "For God's sake, though, Walter, it was just sex."

    "You let him read things about me you never would have let me read."

    "Just stupid sex four years ago. What's that compared to our whole life?" (3.6.137)

    It's a fair question, that last one. But is it the sex that Walter is most upset about and hurt by? One could make the argument that it's really the things <em>surrounding</em> the sex – the desire she felt for Richard, and her pursuit of that man's affection. But perhaps most of all, like Walter says, it's really upsetting that she would share this revealing document with Richard, and Walter would only read it once Richard had cruelly placed it on his desk. Ouch.