Study Guide

Freedom Sex

By Jonathan Franzen


"I know essentially nothing about sex," Walter confessed.

"Oh, well," she said, "it's not very complicated." (2.3.105-106)

Oh, the irony. Since sex will become very complicated indeed, for Patty in particular. Not only between each other (although their sex life will be a continual source of tension between her and Walter), but of course with their extramarital temptations as well.

One hesitates to ascribe too much explanatory significance to sex, and yet the autobiographer would be derelict in her duties if she didn't devote an uncomfortable paragraph to it. The regrettable truth is that Patty had soon come to find sex sort of boring and pointless – the same old sameness – and to do it mostly for Walter's sake. And, yes, undoubtedly, to not do it very well. There just usually seemed to be something else she'd rather have been doing. (2.3.155)

Patty's disinterest in Walter sexually is, in one way, symptomatic of their larger problems. But she can't act as if it comes as a surprise, since from the very beginning she admits that she's not attracted to him.

This was very unusual of her, but thankfully not so unheard-of as to provoke comment and examination; and Walter needed no persuading to oblige her. It wasn't a big deal, just a little late-evening surprise, and yet in autobiographical retrospect it now looks almost like the high point of their marriage. Or maybe, more accurately, the endpoint; the last time she remembers feeling safe and secure in being married [...] <em>their marriage was working</em>. (2.3.177)

Wow, for an autobiographer who "hesitates to ascribe too much explanatory significance to sex" (2.3.155), this passage ascribes some seriously weighty significance to sex. Come on, "the high point of their marriage"? That's a pretty big statement. And pretty disturbing, in a way, since it's precipitated almost entirely by her latent desire for her hubby's pal Richard.

This seemed to her, in any case, the first time in her life she'd properly had sex. A real eye-opener, as it were. (2.3.409)

Can we argue that the really "eye-opener" for Patty is the realization that she never truly got over Richard, and thus never committed herself completely to Walter? Or is she really just talking about the act of sex?

It was fine, having sex with him [Walter]. There was nothing so wrong with it. (2.3.527)

Have you noticed how most of the quotes about sex are from Patty's perspective? She sure spends lots of time talking about it. Sadly, the above quote is pretty much the nicest thing she has to say about having sex with her husband. As for his best friend, well, you read about that above.

"Well, if you did have [a daughter], you might let yourself recognize the actually-not-terribly-hard-to-recognize fact that very young women can get their desire and their admiration and their love for a person all mixed up, and not understand –"

"Not understand what?"

"That to the guy they're just an object. That the guy might only be wanting to get his, you know, his, you know –" (3.1.345-347)

This is a pretty characteristic exchange between Richard and Walter, and here they're talking about Lalitha. Can we turn it around and apply it to their relationships with Patty as well?

Only when enough beer had been consumed to bring a group conversation around to sex did [Joey] feel isolated. His thing with Connie was too intense and strange – too sincere; too muddled with love – to be fungible as a coin of bragging. He disdained but also envied his hall mates for their communal bravado, their porny avowals of what they wanted to do to the choicest babes in the Facebook or had supposedly done, in isolated instances, while wasted, and seemingly without regret or consequence, to various wasted girls at their academies and prep schools. (3.2.28)

In <em>Freedom</em>, sex means many things to many people. Here we get a glimpse of the sexual world of the college male. It's a world, of course, that we have all become far too familiar with through movies and television, whether or not we've ever stepped foot in a dorm. Interesting, then, to have Joey's view as a contrast, where his time with Connie seems like such an entirely different thing that he can't even engage in conversation with these guys.

"So have you been sleeping with other people? Connie said. "I thought that might be why you weren't calling."

"No! No. Not at all."

"It's OK with me if you do. I meant to tell you that last month. You're a guy, you have needs. I don't expect you to be a monk. It's just sex, who cares?" (3.2.245-247)

Joey is, of course, totally psyched to hear this. What sweeter freedom to add to his collection than sexual freedom? Sex in relationships is, of course, much more complicated than Joey and Connie would like to believe…as they find out just a few months later.

The kiddies were perennially enticing and perennially unsatisfying in much the same way that coke was unsatisfying: whenever he was off it, he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn't fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty: neuro-mechanic, death-flavored. (3.4.42)

This is the most direct reference to Richard's sex addiction being just that: an addiction. Here he equates sleeping with younger women (whom he grossly refers to as "the kiddies") with the fleeting high from snorting cocaine.

The mute fact of his sweet Connie having lain down with some middle-aged pig, of her having taken off her jeans and her little underpants and opened her legs repeatedly, had embodied itself in words only long enough for her to speak them and for Joey to her them before returning to muteness and lodging inside him, out of reach of words, like some swallowed ball of razor blades. He could see, reasonably enough, that she might care no more about her pig of a manager than he'd cared about the girls, all of them either drunk or extremely drunk, in whose overly perfumed beds he'd landed in the previous year, but reason could no more reach the pain in him than thinking Stop! could arrest an onrushing bus. The pain was quite extraordinary. (3.5.182)

This is a powerful representation of how easy it is to value one's own freedom over other people's. We can find examples of this double standard everywhere in this book, and in our daily lives. So Joey, of course, feels just fine with cheating on Connie with other women, not thinking anything of it. As soon as she turns around and does something similar, though, he sure doesn't like that very much at all. To his credit, he's able to see how irrational his thinking is, but logic isn't nearly powerful enough to stop him from feeling it.

Up in Lalitha's slope-ceilinged little room, the onetime maid's quarters, which he hadn't visited since she'd moved in, and whose floor was an obstacle course of clean clothes in stacks and dirty ones in piles, he pressed her against the side wall of the dormer and gave himself blindly to the one person who wanted him without qualification. It was another state of emergency, it was no hour of no day, it was desperate. [...] [A]nd then one of those pauses descended, an uneasy recollection of how universal the ascending steps to sex were; how impersonal, or pre-personal. He pulled away abruptly, toward the unmade single bed, and knocked over a pile of books and documents relating to overpopulation. (3.6.163)

This passage has a lot going on. The description of Lalitha's room is crucial, reminding us that Walter is both her boss and her landlord, and she, in the tiny maid's quarters, is thus, kind of like his servant. Although later (more explicit) passages will make clear that in many ways she's the more powerful figure in their relationship, here we see how fragile Walter is emotionally – needing, more than anything else, to know she wants him. Two more brief things to take note of: 1) the general statement about sexual passion (coupled nicely with the use of the word "blindly" above), and 2) Franzen's wry humor in having the couple knock over a pile of books about overpopulation on their way to taking their clothes off and, well, you know.

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