Jonathan Franzen's Freedom performs a reduction on the role of general history, or historical details, in the realistic novel. Freedom, focusing on characters' personal histories and, further, on characters' personal choices, represents a reality in which general history is made meaningful by the characters' choices, rather than the other way around. In the novel, general history, i.e., national or global history, is reduced to character psychology--that reduction is the first of Freedom's turns in an effort to press together a reality. The next turn is toward metaphor. The characters' psychologies are metaphors for their choices. However, the novel pushes past metaphors. Choice, itself, is the reality represented in the folds of Freedom. So, general history is thrice reduced: once to psychologies, then again to metaphors for choices, and then, ultimately, to choice.
The Historical Now
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is obviously set in the twenty-first century U.S.A., but, less obviously, tends to play down the significance of details explicitly referring to the twenty-first century U.S.A. For Franzen, in this novel, characters’ interactions with referential details are greater sources of historical significance than the details themselves. The ways his characters relate to details of the twenty-first century U.S.A. matter more to the novel's representation of reality than those details, those specific references to time and place. Of course, such references or details are not entirely without significance; Franzen uses them to communicate milieu to readers, to create tension between characters, and, in general, as a sort of skin to which novelistic muscle is attached. The novelistic muscle, though, begins with the way Franzen’s characters view details about their times and places. The characters consistently look through their personal histories upon such details. That is, the context of such details is consistently the characters' personal histories. This approach to referential details matures as the characters reflect on the choices they make, as their lives or arcs progress: the characters clearly privilege features of their own, personal histories over general details of the twenty-first century U.S.A., as they construct reasons for their choices. The narrator does so, too; he/she has a clear tendency to use features from the characters’ personal histories to explain the characters’ choices. So, historical details of the twenty-first century U.S.A. are wrapped, first, in the characters’ personal histories, and then compressed further within explanations of the characters’ choices or reasons for choices. In a sense, it is just as reasonable to say that Freedom’s historical settings are the moments of the characters’ choices (or, even, of the explanations of their choices) as it is to say the novel’s historical setting is the general time and place its referential details suggest. These assertions about the novel are unpacked in greater detail in the following paragraphs.
Franzen’s use of referential details, in Freedom, aims to communicate a particular milieu to readers and to create tension between characters. From the novel’s first paragraph:
The passage is about the character Walter Berglund. It presents features about Walter’s personal history, “His old neighbors”, “quotes about him in the Times”, “pedaling his commuter bicycle”, which explain that Walter has gained enough importance or notoriety to be mentioned in a large newspaper and once had neighbors who care at least enough about him to remember some of his looks and work-life. Then, the passage presents explicitly referential details, the names “3M” and “Greenpeace”, which in tandem connote a certain social position, that of being well-employed and liberally educated. The explicitly referential details also create tension between Walter and his old neighbors, tension between the way he’s been characterized by “the Times” and the way his neighbors remember him. Explicitly referential details function similarly in the following passage:
Though Nameless Lake and the newly kindled consumer interest in old Traumatics recordings had brought him more money than his previous twenty years of work combined, he’d managed to blow every dime of it in his quest to relocate the self he’d misplaced. The most traumatic events ever to befall the longtime front man of the Traumatics had been (1) receiving a Grammy nomination, (2) hearing his music played on National Public Radio, and (3) deducing, from December sales figures, that Nameless Lake had made the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households. The Grammy nomination had been a particularly disorienting embarrassment. (Franzen 192)
This passage is about the character Richard Katz. The novel depicts Richard as a musician who once headed a rock band called the “Traumatics”, and “Nameless Lake” is one of his albums. Those, along with other features of his personal history, “he’d managed to blow every dime of it in his quest,” “The… nomination had been a particularly disorienting embarrassment,” explain Richard’s lifestyle and anxiety toward being the center of attention. The explicitly referential details, “National Public Radio… NPR-listening households,” and “a Grammy nomination,” connote a certain social position and create a tension. The “NPR” and “Grammy” references connote that Richard’s music achieved a high degree of mainstream success, and so his social position is that of a publically renowned rock musician. The tension the explicit references create is one between Richard and his NPR-listening, Grammy nomination-celebrating fans.
Franzen’s explicit or specific referential details work as a sort of skin to which novelistic muscle is then attached. Franzen animates the details through, or finds vitality or novelistic muscle to move them in the personal histories of his characters. The two passages above are simple examples of this. In both passages, features of the characters’ personal histories have greater significance for the novel than specific details about the twenty-first century U.S.A.. In the passage about Walter, though the references to 3M and Greenpeace do have connotations for his character, it is the features of his personal history, as they relate to those organizations, that make 3M’s and Greenpeace’s connotations matter to both Walter’s character and narrative arc. The references to 3M and Greenpeace do place Walter in a milieu and in tension with other characters, but characteristics of his personal history place the milieu and tension within the bounds of Walter’s development over time. His “rural” roots, the quotes about him in the “Times”, the way he pedaled his “commuter bicycle”, all raise interest in where he came from, where he’s ended up, and how he got there. The milieu and tension, then, become parts of Walter’s story, rather than the other way around. The passage about Richard follows a similar logic. The explicitly referential details are subsumed by features of Richard’s own history, personal historical characteristics like his work as a musician, how he used his money, and his attitude toward mainstream success. Moreover, the very structure of the novel reflects Franzen’s tendency to give a character’s personal history more significance than he gives to specific details about the time and place in which the character lives. The character and narrative arc of Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife and, for a short time, Richard’s lover, is explored and explained primarily through an autobiography that makes up slightly more than one third of the novel. The autobiography is separated into two sections. Each section of Patty’s autobiography focuses on situations that trace the progression of her relationships with her parents and siblings, and her relationships with Walter and Richard. In the first autobiographical section, Patty explains her psychological development as it results from her experiences as a high school basketball player, alienated from her parents and siblings, through her experiences as a discontented housewife who lusts after Richard Katz. In the second autobiographical section, she explains her psychological development as it results from the end of her affair with Richard, her reconciliation with her family members, and her desire to try again to be content as Walter’s wife. Each section of Patty’s autobiography also, in contrast to all other sections of the novel, none of which is autobiographical, marks the passage of long durations. This is to say that the only long durations the novel covers in any extended way, Patty’s teenage years through her middle age, and then her seven year separation from Walter, are measured predominantly by Patty Berglund’s psychological development, which amounts to a character’s personal history, and not events in national or global histories.
The tendency toward the significance of personal history, the significance of characters’ psychology, matures. The characters’ development over time is concentrated in and depicted by the choices they make. The reasons for, or the mechanics of, the choices that the characters make as their narrative arcs progress are frequently explained at length. Additionally, explanations of the reasons for or mechanics of the characters’ choices are based on the characters’ personal histories rather than referential details specific to the twenty-first century U.S.A. The following passage is an example:
Walter was frightened by the long-term toxicity they were creating with their fights. He could feel it pooling in their marriage like the coal-sludge ponds in Appalachian valleys. Where there were really huge coal deposits, as in Wyoming County, the coal companies built processing plants right next to their mines and used water from the nearest stream to wash the coal. The polluted water was collected in big ponds of toxic sludge, and Walter had become so worried about having sludge impoundments in the middle of the Warbler Park that he’d tasked Lalitha with showing him how not to worry about it so much. This hadn’t been an easy task, since there was no way around the fact that when you dug up coal you also unearthed nasty chemicals like arsenic and cadmium that had been safely buried for millions of years. You could try dumping the poison back down into abandoned underground mines, but it had a way of seeping into the water table and ending up in drinking water. It really was a lot like the deep shit that got stirred up when a married couple fought: once certain things had been said, how could they ever be forgotten again? Lalitha was able to do enough research to reassure Walter that, if the sludge was carefully sequestered and properly contained, it eventually dried out enough that you could cover it with crushed rock and topsoil and pretend it wasn’t there. This story had become the sludge-pond gospel that he was determined to spread in West Virginia. He believed in it the same way he believed in ecological strongholds and science-based reclamation, because he had to believe in it, because of Patty. But now, as he lay and sought sleep on the hostile Days Inn mattress, between the scratchy Days Inn sheets, he wondered if any of it was true… (Franzen 333)
The quoted passage is quickly followed by Walter’s decision to express love to his assistant, Lalitha, and, too, to cheat on his wife, Patty (335). The quoted passage may seem to contradict the assertion above, the assertion that explanations of characters’ choices are based on the characters’ personal histories rather than referential details specific to the twenty-first century U.S.A., since it is a long explanation of explicitly referential details about an aspect of the twenty-first century U.S.A. The passage is about coal mining in Wyoming and West Virginia, the ecological damage of coal mining, and contemporary strategies to reduce that damage. It is clearly about the environmental significance of the mechanics of twenty-first century, American coal mining, and yet, the passage is also clearly about Walter’s relationship with his wife and his reasons for choosing to cheat on her. Features of Walter’s marriage are represented by images of coal mining operations. “Polluted water was collected in big ponds of toxic sludge,” represents Walter and Patty’s years of alienation from each other and the resulting resentment. “Dumping the poison back down into abandoned underground mines,” is an image that represents Walter’s attempts to ignore his marital problems. Walter’s personal history allows the early twenty-first century details of American coal mining to lean away from their metonymic function and toward a metaphoric function. The contemporary details of coal mining, because of Walter’s personal history, lean away from describing coal mining itself and toward describing Walter’s reasoning process as he chooses to sleep with Lalitha. In this way, the explicitly referential details are not only subsumed by Walter’s personal history, but subsumed by the moment in which he engages with his personal history while making a choice. The moment of choice comprises his history leading up to that moment.
Water's wife, Patty Berglund, is the novel's symbol for such freedom. She spends some time living apart from her husband, Walter, on his lakeside property in a rural, undeveloped area of the northern mid-west. It is property that Walter will eventually turn into a mining-free sanctuary for blue cerulean warblers. During Patty’s stay, Walter’s friend Richard Katz visits her. The following passage describes Patty’s process of choosing to cheat on her husband with Richard:
In her sleep, at some still-dark hour… she rose from the bed and let herself into the hall and then into Richard’s bedroom and crawled into bed with him. The room was cold and she pressed herself close to him… That she could… remember it very clearly afterward, does admittedly cast doubt on the authenticity of her sleep state. But the autobiographer is adamant in her insistence that she was not awake at the moment of betraying Walter and feeling his friend split her open. Maybe it was the way she was emulating the fabled ostrich and keeping her eyes firmly shut, or maybe the fact that she afterward retained no memory of specific pleasure, only an abstract awareness of the deed that had been done, but if she performs a thought experiment and imagines a phone ringing in the middle of the deed, the state she imagines being shocked into is one of awakeness, from which it logically follows that, in the absence of any ringing phone, the state she was in was a sleeping one. (Franzen 167-168)
A metaphor with an image of the natural world, or with an image of man’s treatment of the natural world, is already in play when the passage begins. Patty, living on Walter’s property, is like a warbler living on bird sanctuary land. Moreover, the passage is an excerpt from Patty’s autobiography. So her words, her speech, her voice all are on a sort of protected ground. This metaphoricity isolates the possibility that Patty’s choices could have been other than what they are. Patty is in no way caged on Walter’s land. She can come and go as she pleases. She is only there because she likes it there. Her autobiography extends this freedom. She could have avoided writing about this particular feature of her history. She also could have forgotten it altogether. The point is that it is possible this event in her life could have gone differently, if she had made different choices. Franzen’s strategic use of metaphor penetrates or mines the passage further. There is something necessary, a reality, something solid Patty feels through her use of her freedom, something she experiences through her choices. And she closes her eyes to it. She declares her experience of the reality her freedom enframes a dream. Franzen, however, suggests to the reader an image of the natural world sticking its head in sand, while a man “splits her open”. That image is enframed by Patty’s own voice. The feeling that Franzen’s suggested image evokes is the feeling or experience Patty has through her freedom; and it is the limit, the deeper reality that is somehow an end to her freedom yet only experienced through it. As the story plots along, Patty’s choice to be with Richard and her choice to write about it result in her alienation from Walter’s land, and in Walter’s refusal to read anymore of her writings.
Richard, the successful musician, chooses to refrain for a short time from playing his songs and exercise one of his other skills, carpentry. In deciding to take up carpentry again, Richard experiences the limit within freedom, through his freedom to make his decision. The following passage explains his decision making process:
Katz had read extensively in popular sociobiology, and his understanding of the depressive personality type and its seemingly perverse persistence in the human gene pool was that depression was a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship. Pessimism, feelings of worthlessness and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a tormenting awareness of the world’s general crappiness: for Katz’s Jewish paternal forebears, who’d been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother’s side, who’d labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summers of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibriating themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. This obviously wasn’t an optimal way to live, but it had its evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations handed down their genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz’s niche the way murky water was a carp’s. His best years with the Traumatics had coincided with Reagan I, Reagan II, and Bush I; Bill Clinton (at-least pre-Lewinsky) had been something of a trial for him. Now came Bush II, the worst regime of all, and he might well have started making music again, had it not been for the accident of success. He flopped around the ground, heavily and carplike, his psychic gills straining futilely to extract dark sustenance from an atmosphere of approval and plenitude. He was at once freer than he’d been since puberty and closer than he’d ever been to suicide. In the last days of 2003, he went back to building decks. (Franzen 193)
Franzen distills the perception that freedom is the ability to have made a choice other than the choice made. He does this by breaking into metaphor immediately after the sentence “Now came Bush II, the worst regime of all, and he might well have started making music again, had it not been for the accident of success.” This sentence, minus its final clause, explains that Richard has every reason he needs to make music and not take up carpentry. However, the final clause complicates the explanation. The final clause explains that Richard also has every reason he needs not to make music, and thus to employ one of his other skills. As a whole, the sentence explains that Richard has every reason he needs to either take up music or refrain from doing so. In this way, Franzen prepares readers for the full force of meaning of the metaphor that follows, “He flopped around the ground, heavily and carplike.” The carp, flopping around the ground, could flop in either of two directions: its left or its right. Though Richard ends up choosing to refrain from making music and to take up carpentry, the “carp” in carpentry itself working as a symbol of the sort of decision making process Richard inevitably is in, the image of the carp flopping remains as an sign that Richard’s choice could have been other than it turned out to be. The image of a carp is also mentioned earlier in the passage, again to explain the decision making process Richard is inevitably in. So, this image of the natural world, the carp as it is in its murky water and then as it is flopping on land, just as reasonably an image of man’s treatment of the natural world as it is an image of the natural world itself, works doubly as an explanation of Richards choice and an evocation of the feeling or experience Richard has of the inevitable limit within his freedom. The natural world image, the reality within his freedom, is that of being a carp in “grim situations” underwater, in its own murk, and being a carp in a grim situation out of its element, flopping about aimlessly to find its way back to its earlier state. (If Richard would just realize that he’s a bird, his flopping around wouldn’t seem so grim to him.) Richard’s carpentry job ends up forcing him to confront his success as a musician, and so his freedom to choose between music and carpentry reaches an end through the very choice it enframed.
Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Print.
Furst, Lilian R. All Is True: the Claims and Strategies of Realist Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. Print.
Mill, John Stuart, and Alan M. Dershowitz. On Liberty and Utilitarianism. New York: Bantam, 1993. Print.
 3M is a global technology company: “3M is a diversified technology company serving customers and communities with innovative products and services. Each of our six businesses has earned leading global market positions.” (http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/About/3M/); and Greenpeace is a global organization dedicated to the causes of environmentalism: “There are more than 40 Greenpeace offices around the world… making us one of the few environmental groups that truly works globally on environmental problems.” (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/about/worldwide/)
 NPR is a radio station that reaches listeners all across the U.S.A. and North America (http://www.npr.org/templates/stations/stations/); and Grammys are one of the U.S.A.’s most celebrated awards in popular music (http://www2.grammy.com/Grammy_Foundation/).
 It is true that neither passage contains details uniquely about the twenty-first century U.S.A., but only details about late twentieth/early twenty-first century U.S.A. Other referential details, like the title of the novel’s third section, “2004” (p188) and a reference to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center (p232) and locations of the characters’ jobs, situate the story in the twenty-first century U.S.A.
This is a moment of self-reflection for the author, Jonathan Franzen, as well. The front of the dust cover for the 2010, first printing of Freedom has a picture of a large, shiny, blue cerulean warbler on it.