In Books on March 4, 2011 at 10:24 am

(So I know I said I’d do Othello, and I promise that I will, but I’m really bored of the classics right now and wanted to do something contemporary, just to show that I’m, like, ‘with it’, or whatever.   That I don’t spend my life in my room unless I’m running or driving to Mum’s to watch United.  Also, I just got this in the mail, so I’m gonna be out of commission for a while.  Enjoy.)

Freedom’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, mostly by politicians and ideologues.  They shroud it in historical nostalgia and glittering, indeterminate progressive garb, tapping into the subjective warmth and tempered patriotism it elicits in their hearers.  What exactly we need to be freed from and what we’ll do with that freedom once we have it, they never bother to clearly elucidate.  Why should they?  Freedom is good.  We want to be free.  The problem with their side-stepping is that it doesn’t address the question that’s becoming ever more prevalent in a society addicted to instant gratification – what does one do with one’s freedom?  There’s no lack of it, especially in the United States, where we have the ability and license to do pretty much anything – buy whatever we want, see whatever and whomever we will, go wherever and whenever we choose.   But what should we do with our freedom?  Once we know what we can do with it (and, more ominously) what we ought to do with it, is freedom still something that we want?

This is the question that Jonathan Franzen explores in his book, Freedom. The story has been touted as a commentary on contemporary American marriage and family life, but it’s also an insightful examination of how our political and economic environments influence those relationships – how the systems that facilitate our freedom (in the political sense of the word) help determine our freedom in our interactions with our spouses and children.   Politics are the driving force behind Patty Emerson’s aristocratic New York family – her father is described as the quintessential WASP attorney; her mother is a state assemblywoman.  So much does the political machine dominate the Emerson’s relationship with their daughter and with one another, that when Patty is raped at seventeen by a classmate, both her mother and her father counsel her against prosecuting the offender and his wealthy, influential family.  This confirms what Patty has suspected all along – that in her family of sophisticated, philanthropic parents and cultured, artistic siblings, she is nothing more than the aberrant gene, manifesting itself as a dumb jock.  As a result, she throws herself into sports, her intensely competitive nature acting as both a refuge and coping mechanism.  It was economic considerations that prompted Walter Berglund’s ancestors to leave their native ‘socialist’ Sweden for the free-market opportunities of the United States.  The problem was that once they had their freedom – the freedom to make more money, live where they chose and socialize with whom they would – they didn’t know how to use it.  As a result, they essentially gave themselves over to the impulse of the moment, and before very long, were again shackled by the poverty they sought to escape. Not only does it enfetter the Berglund forebears to a life of indigence and ignominy, it extends down the family-line to Walter.  His father’s attempts to mortify his (Walter’s) artistic tastes by forcing him to clean the blood and urine out of the carpets of the family’s decaying motel and his mother’s inability to effectively defend him to her husband confirms Walter’s sense of inadequacy, and he retreats (literally) into nature, finding the peace and comfort he seeks in the Minnesota woods.

The story centers around Walter and Patty trying to free themselves from the cycle of self-destruction that has characterized their family history – instead of allowing economic circumstances to dictate his decisions, Walter attempts to establish a new economic foundation in society; a static one focused on the preservation of nature, rather than it’s consumerist exploitation.  Instead of yielding to the feminist agenda and familial pressure that compels her to pursue a vocation outside of her home and family, Patty becomes a stay-at-home wife and mother, determined to be the nurturing and encouraging parent she lacked.  The tragedy is that despite their recognition of their sins, and their earnest, genuine desire to mortify them, they simply can’t – like dogs returning to their vomit, they are condemned to repeating the same mistake, even while they acknowledge their damning effects on themselves and their relationship with each other and their children.  In her autobiography, Patty repeatedly acknowledges Walter’s manifest superiority to Richard Katz, his aloof, hipster-than-thou best friend – his selflessness, his courage, his kindness, his unconditional and absolute love of herself.   But so great is her need for a competitive environment that she cannot refrain from pursuing Richard – his shrewd manner and aloofness present a challenge to tempting to ignore.  While Walter recognizes that there’s a significant problem in his marriage, he cannot help but view confrontation as synonymous with abuse, aggression, and domination – the very traits he abhorred in his father.  Since he cannot address the difficulty on his terms, and won’t attempt to on his wife’s, he retreats into his conservation work (again, into nature) and concentrates his energies on preserving his refuge, rather than repairing his relationship.

If the sociological statistics are a correct, then this is a very faithful portrayal of most contemporary American marriages – husbands and wives find themselves not just visited by their own sins, but hounded by those of their fathers, condemned to repeating their mistakes and suffering for wounds of others’ infliction.  Their frustration and disappointment are aggravated by the promises of saccharine self-help books and motivational speakers who readily offer Band-Aids for their cuts, but cannot provide a cure for the compulsive desire to cut.  The spouses that are fortunate enough to be able to recognize and own their problems are still powerless to find a solution – they cannot fix their problems because their being and way of being has been formed and developed by them.

Even though the story ends happily, with Walter and Patty reuniting after a six-year separation, it’s an uneasy happiness.  Although they’ve both been reconciled with their remaining family members, we don’t see any scene of reconciliation between Walter and Patty themselves.  Patty simply shows up at their summer home, and Walter simply lets her back in – there’re no apologies, no explanations, not even an attempt at an explicit resolve to do something differently.  One is tempted to close the book with the cynical expectation that it won’t be long before the whole cycle repeats itself again.

While it’s not a particularly uplifting read, Freedom is a faithful, well-written illustration of the sort of lives we as Christians have been called out of – the tragedy and agony of a life characterized by an endless repetition of sin and suffering for sin.  Although Walter and Patty pursue freedom, they’re hindered in their pursuit by their limited understanding of what true freedom is and what it’s for – they appear to view it as the absence of restraint; a casting off of the shackles that have bound them (i.e., the abuse and rejection of their parents, their pathological need for affirmation).  What they fail to realize (what they cannot realize) is that true freedom brings with it the power to act – to act wisely and well; to use one’s gifts, talents and resources for what is good and true.  Such is their (and our) sinful estate that we cannot attain this freedom in our own power – it can only be found in Christ.  Because he gave all of himself – his life, his being, his will – freely, we may take comfort in the fact that (unlike Walter and Patty) we are not condemned to these actions.  We may find ourselves looking for ultimate affirmation in our spouse, a sense of worth in our vocation, and liberation from the pain and trauma of our past, but we may rest in the knowledge that Christ has risen victorious for us, thereby freeing us from the devastating cycle of our sin.  It is in him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that we are granted the freedom that not only breaks our bonds, but gives us the will and desire to use that freedom to bind ourselves both to himself and one another in love.




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