Study Guide

Freedom Themes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    What, you're surprised? It's right there in the title, just that one word: Freedom. Big letters! Freedom! Franzen has acknowledged that the book is, at least in part, an exploration of the ways in which America's big-time fetish – freedom – affects each of us on a personal level (source). But the word itself has a wide variety of connotations, aside from the ones one might hear in a State of the Union address, or with a declaration of war. These are the freedoms the book focuses on, and we find the word speckled through the text like a bunch of Easter eggs hidden around the backyard. Ultimately we are urged to ask: What is freedom, really? Are we as free as we think we are? If not, how are we bound? If so, how can we go about choosing the best way to live?

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How does Katz's unexpected success affect his personal freedom? (Think in terms of his music, his work, and being spotted on the subway.)
    2. The national dialogue about "freedom" during the Bush administration is reflected in the characters' struggles with personal freedom. Can you find any specific examples that connect the two in the novel?
    3. Walter says, "People came to this country for either money or freedom" (3.4.184), and he seems to assume that those remain the only two options available. Does that sound right to you? Is it an either/or thing, as Walter suggests?
    4. Patty gives Walter permission to sleep with Lalitha. Why is this precisely the wrong thing to say to him?
    5. In his interview with Zachary, Richard questions the "subversive edge" of rock and roll, and claims that the last revolutionary song was the "Marseillaise" in 1792. Is he saying that traditional means of seeking or expressing freedom are no longer available to us? If not, then what is he suggesting? If so, what does he recommend we do instead?
  • Visions of America

    We can approach this theme on a small scale (microscopic) and on a large scale (telescopic). In Freedom, Franzen certainly tries to craft characters that are representative of what it's like to live in 21st century America. So, um, this points us right to depression, ennui, and the disintegration of traditional family dynamics. At the same time, each character opens to us to a larger sense of what America means today (telescopic). It's what people often call the Zeitgeist , or the spirit of an age. So through Walter we learn about big environmental issues, Joey leads us to consider the Iraq War, and Richard vents about the corrosive nature of American consumer culture.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Compare the introductory and concluding sections of the book, bracketing the main narrative within. What should we take away from these portraits of America? Are things getting better or worse? Or do things always just sort of stay the same?
    2. How do you read the section where Walter is harassed by the racist person in the West Virginia restaurant? Is this a fair representation of American intolerance?
    3. We know how Joey reacts to 9/11, but his sister Jessica responds off-stage, so to speak. How do you imagine her response to the tragedy?
    4. Project the characters five or ten years into the future. How do you think they're doing? What about the powerful players like Vin Haven, Kenny Bartles, and Jonathan's father? What happens to them in the Obama administration and beyond?
  • Family

    In a recent interview, Jonathan Franzen described family as "the one thing you can't change," much as we might like to (source). For a nuclear family of four, the Berglunds sure pack a whole lot of allegiances and alienation into a mere two decades. The parents play favorites with their children, the children expose and exploit weaknesses in their parents. More than one son in Freedom reacts to (OK, revolts against) his father's politics by embracing the exact opposite position, and more than one parent champions the child she considers most like herself. What does all this tell us about the modern family unit? One might wind up thinking it would be better to have no family at all, given how maladjusted these characters from broken homes are.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why is Joey so cruel to his mother? Is there anything she could she do to reconcile with him?
    2. Jonathan's father is conservative, and Jonathan ends up liberal; Joey's father is liberal, and Joey ends up conservative. Is this type of reaction inevitable? Or does it say something about the older men having failed as fathers, to the point where their sons will do anything to be different from them?
    3. Then on the female side, we have Jessica, who for most of the novel hates her mother, but becomes more and more like her over time. In the end, the two end up having a great relationship. What difference does this suggest between the mother-daughter relationship and the father-son relationship?
    4. If she could go back and do it again, what sort of relationship do you think Patty would want her kids to have with their grandparents?
  • Depression

    Pretty much every character in Freedom struggles, at one point or another (or the whole time), with depression. Walter and Joey, for example, sink deeply into depression out of grief and guilt, respectively. Of course, sadness and depression have always been a part of the human condition. What sets apart the depiction of depression in Freedom? One easy thing we can point to is the fact that anti-depressants seem to be everywhere: at the very least, Patty and Connie try to ease their pain with meds. We might also point out how self-conscious all these people feel about being depressed – being depressed, recognizing it as unhealthy, unhelpful, etc., yet feeling helpless to escape its dragging weight.

    As an interesting (and relevant) side note, a lot of the commentary on this book has mentioned Jonathan Franzen's close friendship with the writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace committed suicide just as Franzen was beginning the writing process, and thus the book was largely written while Franzen was grieving for his absent friend (source).

    Questions About Depression

    1. Can you find any parallels between Patty's and Connie's difficulties with depression, in either causes or effects?
    2. What about Eliza? Can we interpret her actions as stemming from depression?
    3. Walter reports that Patty's depression improved while writing her personal history. Does it seem just as likely to have plunged her into greater despair, reliving all those terrible times? Or is going back to examine those things actually beneficial?
    4. Who doesn't experience some form of depression in the novel? How can we explain this?
  • Love

    What is love? As in, what is it besides being the subject of 95% of the songs you hear on the radio…and almost all of Shakespeare's sonnets…and the biggest cash cow for Hallmark? Actually, more to the point, why isn't love in real life more like it is in romantic comedies? Seriously, why have Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson and Matthew McConaughey ruined love for the rest of us? Why isn't it always easy, like it is in that Frank Sinatra song "Love and Marriage"? Why do we need terms like "bromance" and "rebound" and "friends with benefits"? Why can't we just love and be loved? Yeah, all that and more, explored in the pages of Freedom.

    Questions About Love

    1. Do we believe Joey when he says he loves Connie, even when his actions seem to say otherwise? What changes between them after his trip to Paraguay?
    2. Patty compares her excessive love for Joey to "[loving] cookies and ice cream inordinately" (2.2.185)? What do you make of that? What food-related item does she love Jessica like?
    3. Compare Walter's love for Patty to his love for Lalitha. Don't they seem almost like totally different things? What's up with that? Try to attach some adjectives to each. What do you come up with?
    4. Agree or disagree: Walter loves nature. What about this one: Richard loves music. Don't they both sort of hate those things as well? Does anyone in the novel have something they love without reserve or complication?
  • Sex

    There's no getting around it; sex is seriously important in Freedom (and important to any discussion of the book too). Relationships are founded upon sex; relationships dissolve because of sex. At least one character is defined by his sex addiction; another character we hardly know aside from her sexual activity. Franzen recognizes the incredible power and weight that sex and sexuality have, and have always had, in human life. He doesn't shy away from the uglier sides of sexuality, either, from obsession and abuse to rape and adultery. More importantly, though, he explores what sex means now in the 21st century.

    Questions About Sex

    1. How does Patty's rape in high school affect her sexual identity as an adult?
    2. Richard is embarrassed by his attraction to older women and admits that it stems from never having a relationship with his own mother. Does that make sense? Or is he just a sex addict, plain and simple?
    3. Should we be surprised that Walter is unable to please Patty sexually, yet can effortlessly satisfy Lalitha?
    4. Can we draw any conclusions from Joey's inability to perform in the hotel room with Jenna? Should we?
  • Loyalty

    There's a surprising amount of talk about loyalty in Freedom. Most of this talk centers on being loyal to loved ones, and puts loyalty on a pedestal as one of the highest virtues. Walter's mother Dorothy, in particular – whom Joey describes as being "one-hundred-percent" (3.2.164) – is very big on loyalty. But while Dorothy managed to remain loyal to a lousy husband, the next two generations of Berglunds have considerably more difficulty. Joey, in particular, struggles all the time (it seems) with loyalty to Connie, even as Connie remains completely and utterly committed to the guy.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. How do you read Connie's infinite patience and loyalty to Joey? Do you it as a virtue? Or fault her for being naïve?
    2. We know the roots of Walter's loyalty to Richard. What is the foundation of Richard's loyalty to Walter?
    3. Patty tells us Walter attaches "almost scriptural significance" to his mother Dorothy's advice that we should "take people the way they are [...] and be loyal" to them (2.3.147). If he really does, then we should be able to apply these words to all of his relationships: with Joey, with Richard, and with Patty. How does he fare?
    4. What does Patty learn about her parents' loyalties that helps change her opinion of them?
    5. Does loyalty simply mean non-betrayal, or does it involve something more proactive?
  • Friendship

    This might seem like a gimme. Of course, there are friends in the novel; friendship exists. But Freedom explores the nature of friendship to an extent that few novels are willing. Needless to say, things get complicated when you've got a love triangle between a woman, her husband, and her husband's best friend. These are intense, intimate relationships. What about the acquaintances most of our lives are filled with too? (You know, like the 400 people you're friends with on Facebook.) Yeah, the people in Freedom aren't so good at those. What's that all about?

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What do you make of the fact that Connie doesn't have any friends? How does this impact how you view her?
    2. We don't know much about Jessica's friendships. All we get is a passing comment, when she says, "I have friends who hardly even check their e-mail anymore" (3.4.70). We imagine she makes friends easily and is surrounded by casual acquaintances and intimate friends alike. How does this separate her from the rest of her family?
    3. The few times we meet Patty's friends at college, they actually seem pretty awesome. So then why does she still hang out with Eliza, with whom she not only has nothing in common, but who's unquestionably a bad influence on her?
    4. Joey and Patty only befriend people they know they'll feel superior to. What does this say about their motives in entering friendships?
  • Lies and Deceit

    We've got a few equations to suggest here. See what you think about these:

    Loyalty + Lies and Deceit = Betrayal
    Love + Lies and Deceit = Depression
    Freedom + Betrayal = Lies and Deceit

    So, what do you say: do those necessarily follow from one another? Certainly not always, but you might not know that from reading Freedom. Most of the lies and deceit in the book are based around adultery, temptation to commit adultery, and, yes, more adultery. What a mess.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. How does Joey justify lying to Connie? Or does he even bother?
    2. Why don't we expect Richard to come clean to Walter, instead of continuing to lie to him about his affair with Patty?
    3. A possible definition of lying is any omission or exaggeration. Seen in this way, is there more or less lying than you thought in Freedom?
    4. Is there any one completely honest relationship in this book?
  • Betrayal

    Betrayal is closely aligned with loyalty – or, rather, its evil twin, disloyalty. Freedom is deeply concerned with betrayal of principles. Walter compromises the purity of his beliefs in his dealings with coal companies. Richard considers his unintentional success a betrayal of his revulsion with the state of mainstream music. Even Joey's great betrayal of his parents (moving in with his girlfriend next-door) is presented more as a rejection of Walter and Patty's ideals and values than as a personal grievance against them.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. What character definitely deserves blame for his or her betrayal? Or should we say, is there anyone who you don't blame for his or her betrayal?
    2. What about Jessica? Can we consider any of her actions a betrayal? (Think, for example, of her aligning herself with Patty against Walter.)
    3. How does each character respond to his or her betrayal, and how does he or she then make amends?
    4. Can we really consider a son choosing different political beliefs than his father a betrayal? Or is that terminology too strong? Does he really have any responsibility to follow his father's path?
    5. What's the difference between betrayal and disloyalty?