Study Guide

Freedom Depression

By Jonathan Franzen


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?

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