Study Guide

Freedom Freedom and Confinement

By Jonathan Franzen

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 f*** 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?