Study Guide

Freedom Friendship

By Jonathan Franzen


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.

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