Jonathan Franzen has said of fiction that if it “isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown” it “isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” The author’s passion we read in his the novel Freedom was hardly an adventure for money. This novel hurts to read. It makes you ache. It makes you depressed. I makes you yearn for the freedom of having finished it.
I’m not quite sure if that’s comfortable. His characters are mostly detestable in one way or another. The plot takes forever to come together as unified. It’s hard to care for these people, unless we count feeling sorry for them. They make horrible choices, they live selfish lives, and Franzen doesn’t hold back anything in their depiction. They are very real, very human, very disgusting. They are Americans, and they are free, free to be miserable. What I walked away with was how this very word, “freedom,” became not only a theme, but a character in itself—perhaps the only redeeming character.
Our dysfunctional family show us everything wrong with having freedom. As an outsider to the family observed, “they haven’t figured out how to live,” perhaps because they are wracked with the choices behind and before them. Patty’s freedom of sexuality and self is taken from her in her youth, and if we readers forget this throughout the story, it is difficult to have sympathy for her. Perhaps it is difficult to have sympathy for any of these characters because we stack their choices overtop of what is done to them. And perhaps we do that with people.
Patty “pitied herself for being so free”—at least, according to her autobiography. The anxiety of decision-making, of infinite possibilities that one must close off by making one choice at a time, the responsibility of being accountable for everything because one feels so free, so powerful—these freedoms haunt Franzen’s characters because they haunt America. Patty pities herself, and we pity Patty. We pity all Franzen’s characters. We pity each other.
I can only Pity Franzen’s characters for their use of freedom. Richard is a rocker with a theme of freedom, free to sleep with the world’s women, and not only does he do so, but he sleeps with his best friend’s wife. In a disdainful interview about his music, Richard laments that our generation is not about anything meaningful—justice, truth, ideals, or wisdom—”we’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else[…]about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes.” Richard has the freedom to use his music as a platform, but he seems swallowed in an industry that exchanges the responsibility of freedom for consumerism.
And then the Cerulean warbler comes into the picture—you know, the one from the cover. You’d think that using an endangered bird as a symbol of freedom would be cliche, but Franzen transforms it into a complex, layered, multi-faceted motif, an emotional mascot. A bird that must be free to come and go as it pleases, an animal without ambition other than to survive and exist. And yet it is Walter’s yearning for this bird’s freedom that seems to enslave him, and to limit the freedom of those who wish to leave in destructive ways. Walter is even willing to take our freedom to reproduce at our will in order to save this bird, to save even the planet.
In America, we have the freedom to think and say just about anything, and to possibly influence others to do just about anything. This is a source of great pain in Franzen’s characters. They are “free” from a narrative, “free” from purpose. Their pursuits all end up curving back to their selfishness. They are free to remain centered on what they want, even at the cost of their most valued relationships.
The novel is both political and personal. The problem of personal liberties haunts both the nation and our character’s personal lives. There are too many choices open to us, and too many of them cause pain and chaos. Even making the right choice, the selfless choice, is too painful, because it cuts us off from the possibility of other choices. We are too free to be at peace.
These characters are free to migrate from relationship to relationship, from job to job, from ideal to ideal, but their freedom to decide without a direction leads them to an absence of freedom, eventually trapped by guilt, lust, anger, indecision, and cynicism.
This is why Walter chooses to live alone for five years after the death of Lalitha. He wants to be free from people so that he cannot hurt. But he has built a cage around his own self. The birds come and go, but he traps himself in solitude. He does not recover any freedom until he reunites with the one woman he had “trapped” himself with in the first place, the one he married and committed to. “A universe that permits[…]cannot be wholly cruel,” Franzen writes from the point-of-view of Patty. It is not the world itself we live in that is cruel, but our choices. These birds of flight have no actual choices. They live as if programmed. But they live free as long as we let them, as long as we do not destroy their home or have our pets eat them up. This is why the warbler is a symbol of freedom for Franzen, and why it was the only thing lovely to Walter for a long time.
Freedom is a novel haunted by its own curse of the liberal democracy’s contradictory obsession with freedom. We want to sleep with whomever, enjoy whatever sing about whatever, separate ourselves from whomever, say “no” to whomever we please in the name of saying “yes” to whomever we please. This inclination imprisons us in pain, because it is only about what we want. The characters of our story are detestable and pitiable because they are American, because they are human. They are we who demand freedom on our own terms.
In the end, we are given a bird sanctuary, a place paradoxically fenced in and emancipatory. For the birds to be free, they must have a closed off place, a scared place. Whether he has meant to or not, Franzen has given us an Edenic call to embrace the meaning of freedom, the acceptance of limitations, boundaries, and commitments in order to live a free and happy life.