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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.