Study Guide

Freedom Lies and Deceit

By Jonathan Franzen

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?