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Betrayal, the Price of Freedom

Jonathan Dagher By Jonathan Dagher Published on April 20, 2017
This article was updated on June 16, 2017

One of many things Franzen knows he's mastered is how to draw social and political analogies from the specific troubles of his world. His characters, blessed with self-reflection, are always coming up with political conclusions from their personal tragedies, relating their hardships to the climate of post-9/11 American politics.

But before getting into that, what is Freedom about? 

At its surface, Freedom is a love story turned family drama: Patty, determined but vulnerable, meets Walter, smart but unsexy, and he loves her. Instead of him, though, Patty falls for his best friend, sexy rockstar Richard Katz, who rejects her, out of loyalty to Walter. And so, Patty settles for Walter and they raise a family and build a home. One that (metaphorically) crumbles apart, under the weight of all the many elephants living in all of its many rooms. But Patty and Walter did everything right. They raised their children freely, they read books, and shopped organic, and asked the big questions like "is a family a democracy, or is it a benevolent dictatorship?" 

Strip away the soapy facade , and what you're left with is an allegory about American politics, about freedom, and the price that Americans are willing to pay for it: willingly or not.

If this sounds a bit too Big Little Lies, it's because Franzen has made it a point, as in many bestselling works of fiction, to delve into the problems of liberal, middle class suburbia in the US. This time, Minnesota. But family drama isn't what Freedom is about. Jonathan Franzen is a political writer. Strip away the soapy facade, and what you're left with is an allegory about American politics,  about freedom, and the price that Americans are willing to pay for it: willingly or not.

Franzen holds a magnifying glass to the inner workings of his characters, and then zooms out to reveal a colorful patchwork rich with detail. It is stitched together with the relationships between characters who go so far as to destroy their privileged lives (and the rainforest) in pursuit of more freedom, or something like it. Above all, Freedom is a sharp, witty and funny work of realism. One character describes her crazed college self as “Mother Theresa on Speed” - the book’s ‘page turner’ reputation owes a lot to these metaphors.

But Franzen isn't subtle. When Walter finds out that his wife, Patty, had been passing his son money behind his back, he tells her: “you know what it’s exactly like? It’s exactly like corporate welfare. All these supposedly free-market companies sucking on the tit of the federal government.” Franzen makes a point, then underlines it, in case you missed it. 

Patty’s autobiographical account of her own life introduces the novel’s first act, Mistakes Were Made in diary entries, in which she gets raped, gets silenced, gets married, and then, desperate to break free, cheats on her husband with his best friend. Through a shameless exposé of metafiction, Franzen writes as both himself and as Patty, poking his tongue so far up his cheek we almost see it on the page. Towards the end of the novel, when another character reads that same autobiography and comments upon Patty’s ‘exquisite’ writing skills’, it is Franzen patting himself on the back. Again: not subtle. In his other novel, Purity, he mocks his own name (and mine, by the way) as “Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.” 

But Franzen uses his age old meta-games for more than just kicks and auto-fellatio. He uses them to implicate us, the readers in his story, making us culprits in the imprisonment of his characters. Like Patty. 

Patty is never free.  From the very beginning, we read about her rape. A violent assault on her freedom. She then goes from being a victim of rape to a victim of silence, when her parents force her to remain quiet about the crime, to a victim of her abusive friend Eliza, to a victim of Katz, and, finally, a victim of Walter’s guilt. But most of all, Patty is a victim of her diary's readers: herself, and us. She can free herself from anyone, but never from us. Absolute freedom cannot exist outside of loyalty. Loyalty is the price you pay for freedom, and it's expensive. Thanks Franzen. 

If your loyalty belongs to money, then your freedom is slave to the highest bidder. You will destroy the planet before you realize how much your freedom's costing you. If your loyalty belongs to your country, the USA, then your freedom will be paid for, abroad, with the blood of imperial exploits and foreign wars. If your loyalty belongs to your readers, your audience, then your freedom, will forever be owned by their judgement.

Franzen explores these loyalties as the currency for freedom, and, in having his characters throw them away, criticizes their fragility. Freedom is never free. If you don't know the price you're paying for it, then maybe it's time you look outside your borders and find out. Sooner or later, that bill is going to chase you home in one form or another: Be it a plane flying into a tower, a bulldozer tearing down a forest, or a bottle of whiskey that you down at noon in an empty lake-house. That bill needs to get paid; it is the price of freedom. 


In one of the more memorable graphic scenes of the book, Patty's son, Joey, digs out his wedding ring from a pile of his own shit. He had dropped the ring, having just removed it for a few minutes to cheat on his wife. The wedding ring, a long standing symbol of loyalty, gets muddled up in the shit of betrayal - of freedom.  This pretty much sums it up. 

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