Study Guide

Freedom Loyalty

By Jonathan Franzen

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 f***-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).