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Freedom – Jonathan Franzen




Posted May 6, 2016 by

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen – 2010


Posted by Sterling on 6/7/2013, 19:21:33

I’ve recently finished Freedom. This novel offers a great deal of potentially interesting discussion material. I hope we can discuss it soon. I personally enjoyed it immensely. Like The Corrections, it is unmistakably a literary novel, but it is densely plotted, has detailed characterizations, exhibits considerable narrative drive– in short, it has all the things that I like in the classic novel that I’ve been missing in too many modern literary works.


Posted by Steven on 21/7/2013, 10:19:15, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”


I finished Freedom last night. It took me unusually long to read just because of “real life” distractions. I think it’s an outstanding novel, as good or better than Corrections.

From one perspective it’s a rather embittered look at what happened to 1970s liberalism. Being an embittered ’70s liberal myself, I can strongly relate to the story.

I was one of those, like Walter in the novel, who read The Limits to Growth and similar publications and thought they represented a way of thinking that would dominate a brighter future. Did anyone else here read it?


Posted by Sterling on 21/7/2013, 17:30:57, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

I suppose I am a ’70s liberal myself. (Actually, I think of myself more as a ’60s radical, but no matter.) Walter’s specific concerns were never mine, however. People did toss around thoughts about Malthusianism and I do recall folks with an enthusiasm for The Population Bomb and such, but I never personally bought into overpopulation as a big concern.


Posted by guillermo maynezEmail User on 26/7/2013, 11:19:15, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

I finished “Freedom” last night. The novel covers a lot of ground and is very brave in addressing uncomfortable subjects of contemporary life. It is VERY American, meaning that it is mainly Americans or those familiar with American culture/civilization who could get hooked on it (am I wrong here?). At least I know I did, and I found it a very good novel which left me with a bittersweet aftertaste: life is so betraying of our hopes but at the same time so generous of ways to mend at least some of our mistakes! The ending was, surprisingly for me, hopeful in a very realistic way, not the childish (but sometimes sorely missed) “happily ever after”, but “find love where it is, forgive, and appreciate what’s good in your life”. But I’m rambling here. I will defer the first comments to my fellow readers, self-described as 60’s and 70’s “embittered liberals”. I’m very curious to learn how they felt about the main issues raised by the book, to my knowledge:


  1. The socio-political atmosphere in the US in the last 40 years and how it interacts with love, relationships, family, etc.
  2. The political agenda and personal misery, e.g. the environment and modern (post) industrial life.
  3. Raising a family in an age of low expectations, free sex, erased hierarchies parents/children, etc.
  4. The paradox of lots of information and freedom, combined with voluntary ignorance and personal loneliness.
  5. The bitter division within the American society between “liberals” and “conservatives”.


If my perception of the subjects of the novel seems entirely wrong to you, I ask for your forgiveness: your input will be most illuminating.


Posted by Steven on 27/7/2013, 9:53:33, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

Freedom does cover a lot of ground, culturally and thematically, and does so with a degree of balance and subtlety that makes it interesting and entertaining. Both Walter and Richard occasionally deliver lectures that I assume represent Franzen’s views on the environment and corporate capitalism; to me they weren’t overly preachy, but then, as I said, I’m generally on their side anyway.

If I had to pick an overall theme for the novel, I’d say it is what “freedom” means to different people. To some it means free to use, to others it means free to preserve. There are other aspects to freedom as well, including the child’s desire for freedom from the parent. Parent-child relationships are very important in the novel and hearken back to Franzen’s earlier novel The Corrections.

Some comments on your list of points:

: 1. The socio-political atmosphere in the US in the

: last 40 years and how it interacts with love,

: relationships, family, etc.

Yes, it’s interesting how different political views and values can coexist peacefully in some relationships but clash horribly in others. One of Patty’s conflicts is that she has married a social activist but always remained her own person. Joey, on the other hand, is too quick to adopt the values and beliefs of the woman he loves–becoming a redneck conservative for Connie’s sake, then a Jew to get closer to Jenna.

The one character I have difficulty figuring out is Lalitha. Does she really believe in what she is doing, or is she just after Walter?

: 2. The political agenda and personal misery, e.g. the

: environment and modern (post) industrial life.

I think the novel reflects that fact that, in the 1960s and 70s, many people in this country were capable of taking a serious, long-term view of humanity and contemplating the dangers ahead of us and the sacrifices that must be made to forestall them. But then the reality set in: those sacrifices cost jobs and, more to the point, corporate profits. So we have buried our collective heads in the sand again. Walter’s foolish compromise with coal interests reflects this retreat from idealism.

: 3. Raising a family in an age of low expectations,

: free sex, erased hierarchies parents/children, etc.

I think most of us still expect that the next generation will have more material success than we did–and that continues to be the case generally–but we aren’t so confident about quality of life. That, in itself, is an interesting comment on values.

As for free sex, I think that’s been overstated. It’s no longer taboo to talk about sex, but I don’t think there is any more of it. There may even be less, thanks to AIDS and stricter laws on sexual harassment, prostitution, etc. What the novel shows in the cases of Patty and Richard, Walter and Lalitha, Joey and Jenna, is that sex is still encumbered with as much guilt, anxiety and inhibition as ever. There’s nothing “free” about it.

Parent/child relationships in the novel are a huge factor. Patty is perpetually haunted by her mother’s rejection of her, Walter by his father’s failures, and so they are both traumatized by Joey’s rebellion against what they assume is their corrected version of parenting.

: 4. The paradox of lots of information and freedom,

: combined with voluntary ignorance and personal

: loneliness.

Good point. What examples do you see of this in the novel? What one person sees as voluntary ignorance, another would see as a different interpretation of facts.

: 5. The bitter division within the American society

: between “liberals” and

: “conservatives”.

One of the things Freedom points out is how the division between the left and right (or that between Democrats and Republicans) has moved steadily to the right in recent decades. Today’s Democrats (most of whom would reject the label of “liberal”) are well to the right on many issues of 1970s Republicans. Much of what Richard Nixon did and stood for would be too “leftist” now for Barack Obama. And though the divisions between Republicans and Democrats are more bitter than they have been at times, they are, ironically, very narrow. They both have the same ultimate goal: feed the profits of the corporations that fund their campaigns. There are only a few red flag issues, like abortion, on which they disagree. There is nothing like the gulf there was in the 1930s when there was an active socialist movement in this country.

One of the things Franzen perhaps fails to point out is that the social and political evolution in this country since World War II has been largely driven by the Baby Boom bulge in population. Walter, Patty and Richard are on the trailing edge of the Baby Boom. Their lives are drawn into the priorities of people mostly a half-generation older, which is one reason they are always uncomfortable with the direction things are going. (Sterling and I are closer to the crest of the baby boom, but it appears that we both failed–or refused–to evolve our beliefs and values along with it.)

Sorry for running on, but these topics do interest (and at times infuriate) me.


Posted by guillermo maynez on 2/8/2013, 11:16:44, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

Steven, your comments amplify my understanding of the subjects approached by the novel and of the possible motivations of the writer. I guess you are right about “free sex”. Probably my impression comes from the fact that I grew up in Mexico, which was until a few years ago way more conservative than the US about sex (it’s changed a lot and very quickly): a situation like Joey’s having sex at so young an age and it being known by the parents, and even more Joey’s moving to the girl’s house, would have been unthinkable in Mexico at that time, except for a numerically insignificant niche of people. But yes, you’re right: sex is still a primary source of anxiety, guilt, and bitter fights.

As for “voluntary ignorance”, I simply meant that the novel’s characters live in an age in which information is free-flowing in vast numbers, but most people seem to be no wiser than people were in centuries past. I wasn’t thinking of any particular instances in the novel.

About the characters:

Walter, for sure, is a good man. Contrary to many saviors of the human kind, he cares about persons and not only about issues. His gradual but overwhelming emotional breakdown expresses itself in an environmentalism that falls off the cliff of hysteria (hey, I think birds are worth saving, but it shouldn’t be a cause for misery). He deserved better, but more about that later…

Patty: somehow I couldn’t connect with her. I think her autobiography was brilliant, sincere, and truthful, and I liked that, and I understand her frustrations with her (horrible) family, but she came to seem superficial and intellectually void to me.

Richard: the man rocks! I had never read so convincing a portrait of the rockstar as a human being. He seems to be a very lonely man who simply takes what being a rockstar gives you: lots of sex. But I think of all the characters, he is the one who matures most rapidly and in a least bumpy way. By the time the spoiled kid takes the young girl to the roof in NY, he has outgrown the urge to bed every teenager that comes his way, and starts to glimpse the possibility of real love. But of course things with Patty have been spoilt. Now, I hated it when he went to bed with Patty, for the sake of Walter. I know shit happens, but it was ugly anyway.

Joey: I liked the kid. It sure was a pity that he failed to do it at least once with Jenna, but well, sometimes true love falls in the way of ego-fulfilling sex and that’s for the better. He made mistakes, but he never was motivated by bad faith and, in the end, after his rocky relationship with his father, the example of Walter’s integrity won the day. Connie is one of those women who seem to know who and what they want from a very young age, and a good influence on Joey. I found very interesting what you said about him and how he camouflaged with the women he desired.

Lalitha: ugh.

One disturbing thing about the novel (or maybe just about Patty): sexiness triumphs over goodness. Perhaps it’s evolutionary and that’s that, but selfish Richard Katz was always more attractive than soft-hearted and caring Walter.


Posted by Sterling on 10/8/2013, 12:31:55, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

I wanted to talk about the characters, because I have a very different take than Guillermo.

Walter: I really couldn’t stand Walter. Maybe there’s too much of me in him. He seemed like the ultimate self-righteous liberal. On the one hand, he believes himself to be better than everybody else because he really cares about the environment, overpopulation, the future of the planet, you name it. On the other hand, he has that smarmy liberal guilt. Revolutionaries, oligarchs, conservatives, reactionaries, any group of people you can name has haves and have-nots. (I know, Marx attempted to rectify that situation. Look how well that turned out!) But only liberals feel so guilty about it. You just want to slap the merlot and brie out of their hands! Walter embodies the reason that pretty much everyone hereabouts despises liberals.

Because he is a fine writer, Franzen was able occasionally to make me care about all of them, even Walter, but only during his “We are a cancer on this planet!” screed did I really feel any enthusiasm for the character.

To some extent, the broken man in the last section is more sympathetic to me, but Jesus! He stole some children’s pet cat and took it to a shelter to die because he knew better. His birds are more important than their cat. Maybe he would have cared more if their mother hadn’t been an ignorant redneck.

Patty: Patty has some of the same traits that irritate me in Walter. But the rage seething below her bland niceness makes her more tolerable (to me). Also, her back story is somehow more touching. Walter: poverty, alcoholic father, ne’er-do-well brother, ho-hum. Patty: A child with special talents and abilities that her parents don’t value. The odd child out because she’s an athlete. (Kudos to Franzen for making me care about this. Sports are generally boring to me. I especially hate basketball. You couldn’t pay me enough to watch a basketball game on TV, much less go to one. I’d as soon watch a gang of second graders play tag. And yet, poor Patty trying her darnedest to get her mother to care was touching to me.)

Richard: Yes, Guillermo, I thought that Richard rocks, too! Franzen pulls off something that I would think is amazingly difficult here. He paints us a picture of a selfish, narcissistic rock star and allows us to somehow feel his charisma from the page. Objectively, the guy is a jerk a lot of the time, but I was drawn to him anyway. Something extraordinary is going on when it feels like a personal triumph when a guy in his forties chooses not to sleep with a high school girl. I mean, he actually checks out that she’s legal by ascertaining her year in school! How creepy is that! And yet…Richard is relatively self-aware, capable of moral choices (even though he doesn’t always choose the virtuous path), and, well, likable. And I love the detail that a Jewish guy looks like Qaddafi!

Joey: Thirty years ago, some hack in Hollywood realized that since teenagers rebel, they won’t always be hippies or punks. If the parents are left-wing, the children are likely to be right-wing. (This was the premise of the successful sitcom, Family Ties.) This is also the the basic idea of Joey. I sort of liked the kid, too, Guillermo. Steven, I think it is an excellent insight that Joey is something of a chameleon, becoming a redneck for Connie and a Jew for Jenna. (Jews for Jenna. Somebody should paint that on a placard!) The scenes at college with Joey reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Have you ever read that? Don’t.) For a while, especially when under the influence of Jenna and her horrible family, Joey is almost a caricature of the heartless, selfish, greedy, capitalist right-wing pig. But he is, ultimately, his parents’ son. When push comes to shove, he can’t be a Dick Cheney-esque monster, callously throwing soldier’s lives away to squeeze out an extra buck.

Connie: Connie is one of the most terrifying creations in contemporary literature. Poor Joey doesn’t have a chance. She seems to instinctively know how to manipulate Joey though a vicious combination of passive-aggressiveness, guilt trips, and pathological neediness. Once Joey stumbled into the Connie quicksand as a kid, he’s never had a chance. Patty’s instincts are dead-on.

For a while, I wondered why Jessica never got to take center stage. It’s been a while since I read The Corrections, but as I recall all the kids got a storyline. I suspect it’s because Jessica is truly a good kid. She’s needed as a plot device for contrast or as a sounding board, but she is not so deeply flawed as the central quartet of Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey.

I admit to being a bit puzzled about Lalitha, too. It seems as though she genuinely cares about the issues, which may be why she is attracted to Walter. This would make her the anti-Joey. If he changes his values to match those of the girl he desires, Lalitha desires someone who is not that physically attractive because he is committed to her values.

Steven, you made some very thought-provoking comments about politics over the past half-century or so. I hope to address them in another post.


Posted by guillermo maynez on 12/8/2013, 16:43:40, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

Good points, Sterling. I definitely agree with you on Walter’s nauseating political correctness; it seems to be neurotic (but you should know more about that!). But he’s still a basically decent man, and it doesn’t mean decent people have to be likable. He’s not.

But the highest point of your comments was Connie. I hadn’t realized something that was somehow trying to be expressed inside of me: Connie IS terrifying! I remember Harold Bloom saying how he got the creeps when he read the last statement by Jane Eyre, regarding his loving control of poor Rochester. Connie is that sort. By submitting to everything, she becomes impossible to dump, no matter what. And that is slavery.


Posted by Steven on 12/8/2013, 21:51:19, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

I feel somewhat the same about Walter. In the end, as you say, he’s just a cat hater, one of the lowest forms of humanity. But he does earn points for taking up unpopular causes. Population control is a very politically incorrect idea, because it’s the poor non-whites, not the rich whites, who are at the root of the problem.

I laughed at Sterling’s “brie and merlot” comment. I would call myself a liberal, but definitely not the guilt-ridden self-loathing kind. (And I’m more partial to Cabernet Sauvignon and Jarlsberg anyway.) I haven’t found a political label that actually fits my ideals. I wonder if there’s an online test you can take somewhere that will tell you what you are. Maybe I’m an anarcho-socialist!

I mostly liked Patty except when she let her feeling sorry for herself take over her relationships and she started being sarcastic with people who didn’t deserve it. (I don’t like basketball either, by the way. I haven’t watched a game since I was in high school and my best friend’s dad took us to a game. But then I don’t like any sports any more, which makes me about as popular as a child molester (or a liberal) here in Cowboy country.)

Though I agreed with a lot of what he said, I couldn’t like Richard very much. I’ve never enjoyed rock music, so from the beginning he’s just someone who makes unpleasant noises and has a huge ego.

I can see your point about Connie, but on the surface at least she’s every man’s dream girlfriend or wife: a willing sex slave who’ll do those things other girls won’t, generous and undemanding, and–best of all–someone who’ll love you for what you are, not for what she thinks she can change you into. Come to think of it, this novel should be shelved as “Fantasy” just for idea that such a woman could actually exist. She’s just not the type that will impress the boss at dinner parties.


Posted by Sterling on 12/8/2013, 22:12:17, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

Men think they want a woman like Connie, but once they are snared by one…

Guillermo, I think the Jane Eyre comparison is apt. I thought of this little tale by John Collier (an overlooked master, in my opinion):



Posted by guillermo maynez on 13/8/2013, 12:18:39, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”


Excellent story, very subtle. I will read more by this, previously unknown to me, John Collier. I also remember a tale by Woody Allen in which a man finds a way to travel to books and mingle with the characters. He seduces Emma Bovary and even invites her to New York, with predictable consequences.

Now, I wouldn’t know about the pleasures or problems of having a submissive, all-agreeing woman. Never known the type…


Posted by Sterling on 13/8/2013, 23:15:31, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

: I will read more by this, previously unknown to me, John Collier.

Guillermo, Collier’s most enduring work is a volume of short stories, Fancies and Goodnights, which I believe has been more or less continuously in print for sixty years. There are a few novels, including His Monkey Wife, and some poetry I understand, but his most enduring work is his short stories, many of which are brief sketches like “The Chaser.” Perhaps the most famous is “Evening Primrose.”


Posted by Steven on 27/7/2013, 10:52:31, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

This isn’t really about the novel itself, but one thing I found unsettling was Walter’s rant against nuclear energy and wind power, and his conclusion that the use of more coal in generating electricity is inevitable.

Personally I think the slight risk of a nuclear accident or contamination from waste is preferable to the absolute certainty of pollution and climate change associated with fossil fuels. France gets, if I recall correctly, at least 60% of its power from nuclear energy, and as a result Paris has the cleanest air of any major city in the world.

Walter’s argument that wind energy can never account for more than a small fraction of need is disturbing. Yet I’ve seen wind turbines throughout Europe and in other parts of the US. Of course Walter is biased because wind turbines are a threat to his birds.

What is the chief power source where you live?

Here in Texas it is almost all natural gas, though there are two nuclear power plants, one serving Dallas and one Houston. I’ve never seen any wind turbines here, and the land is much too flat and dry for hydroelectric. The governor wanted to build a cluster of coal-fired plants near a bed of coal in east Texas, but the idea was defeated (surprisingly) because they would have been directly upwind of Dallas, which already has serious air pollution problems.


Posted by guillermo maynez on 2/8/2013, 11:20:35, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

HA! If you think there’s something wrong with the US’s energy sector, try Mexico!! Mexico’s main source of energy is “combustoleo” a horrible form of oil burned to generate electricity. Natural gas in Mexico is US$20 / BTU, compared with US$4 / BTU right across the border in Texas, where you Steve live. Thanks to an inefficient and corrupt oil state monopoly with one of the worst trade unions in the world. Mexico has one tiny nuclear power plant which operates at half its capacity. Enjoy capitalism!! Leave state monopolies’ misery to us poor thirdworlders.


Posted by Sterling on 10/8/2013, 10:20:20, in reply to “Re: Freedom (Franzen)”

Over much of Alabama, a lot of the power is hydroelectric (you know, Woody Guthrie, the TVA, all that), but there are still plenty of coal-burning plants around here. The eastern part of the state tends toward more natural gas and less coal. There are at least two nuclear plants, one in the extreme north near the Tennessee border, one down near the Gulf. Here is an interesting map that allows you to check out power sources state by state:



Jonathan Franzen on Simpsons:


Jonathan Franzen on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:



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