Study Guide

Freedom Book 3, Chapter 6

By Jonathan Franzen

Book 3, Chapter 6

The Fiend of Washington

  • This chapter (a Walter chapter) begins by taking a giant step back and introducing us to Walter's ancestors.
  • Biggest flashback thus far:
  • Walter's grandfather, Einar Berglund, comes to America from Sweden, and settles in Minnesota.
  • He does menial jobs for a while, and makes bad money. Then he hears about communism, and the idea that his labor was being exploited for someone else's gain.
  • This gives him the idea of exploiting some labor himself. So he starts a road-building company, and opens a small general store.
  • The store immediately starts losing money, and he's about to sell it... when a former friend opens up a rival store across the street. Intent on defeating this scummy backstabber, he holds onto the store and goes deep into debt.
  • He's obsessed with the idea of American freedom, and that through hard work anyone can get ahead (also known as "the American Dream"). When this dream doesn't happen for him, he becomes very bitter. He ends up hating both Sweden and America equally.
  • A dangerously aggressive driver, as an old man, he crashes their car and kills both his wife and himself.
  • His son Gene stays close to home, plays hockey, serves in World War II. He returns home and marries his girlfriend Dorothy (mostly because she's pregnant). But he vows to treat her better than his father treated his mother. Sounds like that should be easy to do.
  • But Gene ends up every bit as spiteful as his father. Also, very mean to Dorothy.
  • Gene has always dreamed of running a motel. When a very dilapidated one comes on the market, he buys it. It's not such a great place. This is "Whispering Pines."
  • Gene and Dorothy have three sons. Walter, the middle child, is the least like his father. He's sensitive and intellectual and more like his city cousins. For this, Gene treats him horribly: gives him the grossest jobs, makes fun of him with his brothers.
  • Gene becomes an alcoholic, and only treats Walter and Dorothy worse.
  • When Walter is in high school, Dorothy's father dies and leaves her the little house on what will later be called "Nameless Lake."
  • Gene insists they sell it, to help make ends meet. Walter argues against this, saying he'll go live there for a summer and fix the place up, and then they can rent it out.
  • He also argues that his mechanic brother Mitch should help out around the motel instead blowing all his paychecks on girls and guns and booze. (Gene doesn't hassle Mitch because he's just like his old man, which makes Gene happy to see.)
  • Walter tries to pressure Mitch. Mitch blows him off.
  • Walter succeeds in convincing his parents to let him spend his summer there. He cleans it out and makes improvements.
  • But the time alone there also gives him a passionate appreciation of nature and silence and solitude. He brings a Super 8 camera to shoot films of birds.
  • On his tenth day there, Mitch shows up unexpectedly, with a bunch of friends, blasting music and drinking beer and being obnoxious. He says he's renting the place.
  • Walter is devastated. He feels betrayed by nature, for having allowed himself to be so open and vulnerable. And look what came of that.
  • This moment, he thinks, is at the root of not only his deciding to become a city person, but more importantly his lifelong devotion to creating wilderness areas: places where people like Mitch can't disturb the peace and beauty.
  • Walter leaves the house and Mitch lives there for six years, until Gene dies. Mitch never pays any rent.
  • OK, back to 2004.
  • You'll recall that when we last saw Walter, Richard Katz had just left Patty's autobiography on his desk. Well, Walter finds it in the morning and, of course, reads it.
  • And he's absolutely devastated. He carries it up to Patty's room, where she's still in pajamas watching basketball highlights.
  • She sees what he's holding in his hand, and simultaneously freaks out and tries to explain. She says she never meant for him to read it. That she gave it to Richard so that he would go away. That it was her therapist's idea, and helpful for her to write all this down.
  • He starts quoting some of the things she wrote about him to her. The most painful things.
  • She begs him not to, but he does anyway.
  • Then Walter says he never wants to see her again. She has to leave the house today and never come back.
  • He also says this: "You did the worst thing you could possibly do to me [...] The worst thing, and you knew very well it was the worst thing, and you did it anyway" (3.6.133).
  • Patty agrees to leave, but wants him to know how painful it is to see Walter falling for Lalitha.
  • Walter says she drove him to it, because he's lives his entire life not being good enough for her, knowing she really wanted Richard all those years ago.
  • Walter goes downstairs and says good-bye to Jessica. He doesn't tell her about what's just happened, only that they had a fight.
  • After Patty leaves, rolling her suitcase, Lalitha knocks on Walter's door. They have sex. Lots of it. Walter cries at various times.
  • They do the press conference Monday morning. It goes fine.
  • Walter tells Lalitha that he doesn't want Richard working on the Free Space project anymore. She says that's not possible – his name is the biggest draw they have.
  • Then Walter thinks about LBI for a while (the company that's both starting the body armor factory for Walter and selling the truck parts for Joey). It's obvious to him that they're totally evil. He feels horrible about working with them in any way.
  • He tells Joey about his mom. He's already spoken to her.
  • Then the infamous New York Times article – the one we first heard about 500 pages (!) ago – comes out. It's got the headline, "Coal-Friendly Land Trust Destroys Mountains to Save Them" (3.6.234), and is not very complimentary of Walter, to say the least.
  • He calls Vin Haven on the phone. He invites Walter to the grand opening of the body armor plant. Walter says he'll be there.
  • Joey and Connie come to visit. Joey says that Patty claims that Walter kicked her out just so he could be with Lalitha.
  • Ah, this explains why Jessica is refusing to answer his phone calls.
  • They go out to dinner, the four of them (Joey, Connie, Walter, and Lalitha).
  • Walter is very impressed by both Joey and Connie.
  • The following week, Joey calls to say he has decided to give away all the money he made from selling the rusty truck parts.
  • Joey also mentions he saw Patty recently.
  • In Jersey City.
  • With Richard.
  • Walter, of course, is not so happy to hear this. He goes up to their bedroom and destroys the place: smashes Patty's photos, bashes his head against the wall (yes, literally).
  • Then he takes three of Patty's sleeping pills and falls asleep.
  • Hours later, Lalitha is shaking him violently to try to wake him up. They're late; they're going to miss their flight to West Virginia.
  • Walter is all messed up. He can't stay awake. He feels really weird.
  • Walter says he's "tired of being Mr. Good," and is thinking of becoming "Mr. Bad" (3.6.332, 334).
  • They arrive late to the grand opening. Walter sees Coyle Mathis sitting and smirking at him in the front row.
  • When Walter is asked to step to the podium and say a few words, he ditches his prepared remarks.
  • Instead, he gives a sarcastic and cynical speech, basically about how happy he is about all these West Virginians getting jobs at this body armor factory, because now they'll be able to be good middle-class consumers, and be able to buy lots of products and help grow the economy and destroy the environment.
  • "Wait, huh?" thinks the crowd. People start booing.
  • Then he calls LBI "one of the most corrupt and savage corporations in the world," who don't care if their sons and daughters die in Iraq (3.6.353). But, hey, at least they'll have money now and their kids won't have to go to war.
  • Then the microphone is cut, so Walter just starts shouting. He ends his diatribe by talking about overpopulation and finite resources and how humans are "A CANCER ON THE PLANET! A CANCER ON THE PLANET!" (3.6.354).
  • Then Coyle Mathis punches Walter in the face. And a whole bunch of guys jump on him and start kicking.
  • He spends some time in the hospital: dislocated jaw, bruised ribs, etc.
  • They assume the Free Space project is dead, but all of a sudden applications start pouring in like crazy. But instead of attracting college students, like before, now they're attracting anarchists and other revolutionary activists.
  • It seems Walter's speech has gone viral, and is appealing to a whole different group of kids.
  • Joey says he'll donate $100,000 of his dirty money to help finance Free Space.
  • Walter is really proud of Joey, for the first time ever.
  • Walter finally speaks to Jessica, and notices she's sounding more and more like Patty…
  • Oh, and Walter gets fired.
  • Then Walter and Lalitha buy a van and spend a few weeks driving across the country, spending time in nature reserves and bird-watching. (Lalitha doesn't care much about birds, but she's happy that Walter's happy.)
  • They go meet Walter's younger brother Brent at the Air Force base in California where he lives.
  • They drive through Minnesota, and have dinner with Seth and Merrie Paulsen. (Hey, remember them? Crazy blast from the past!)
  • Walter asks Lalitha to come with him to see Hibbing and Nameless Lake, and try to find his brother Mitch. But she says that people have started arriving at the festival in West Virginia, and the situation is already getting messy. So they agree that Lalitha will fly to West Virginia now, and Walter will drive there soon.
  • Walter goes to see Connie's mother, Carol, who's still living in Ramsey Hill.
  • Lalitha calls to say that things in West Virginia are, indeed, insane. They have a very sweet phone conversation.
  • And then, the next morning, Lalitha is killed in a car accident.
  • Walter, out of touch, doesn't hear the news right away. He manages to track down his brother, who's living in a campground. Mitch doesn't look so good. They have a nice brotherly chat. Mitch has softened, and Walter has grown up.
  • Walter thinks about how blessed his life has been, and is now.
  • The chapter ends with his phone ringing, to deliver the news about Lalitha.

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