Monday, October 18, 2010

Patty Berglund, Just Another Bored Housewife?: A Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

"Is it raining, my love?" "Yes, my love. And I am bored to death with it. Bored to death with this place, bored to death with my life, bored to death with my self." "What was that, my love?"."Nothing...of consequence. Nothing."

These words were spoken by Lady Dedlock and Sir Leceister in the 2005 BBC film series of Bleak House. Lady Dedlock is married to Sir Leceister, a very conservative baronet, much older than herself. She lives in the lap of luxury with everything taken care of for her, but seemingly her life is far from perfect.

"Lady Dedlock is always the same exhausted deity, surrounded by worshippers, and terribly liable to be bored to death, even while presiding at her own shrine." Bleak House, pg. 170.

We learn to find out, as the novel progresses that there is a reason for this boredom. It is not boredom per se, but more like an inert anxiety over a secret kept from everyone, something that happened before her marriage, something that could destroy "her shrine" and cause everything to fall apart around her. I don't wish to reveal the secret for those who have not read Bleak House (and it really is not relevant to this review), but suffice it to say that boredom is only a symptom, not the heart of the problem. If you have experienced this feeling of "inert anxiety", you know what I am speaking of: a feeling of being frozen, unable to move or take action, almost like one is tied up in a tight knot.

We see another example of "the bored housewife" in the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, but we see a different sort of woman, a kind of villainous victim, or victimized villain, however you wish to see it
"But she was full of hungers, rage, and hate. That gown with its straight folds concealed a heart in turmoil, and those reticent lips did not tell of its torments. She was in love with Leon, and she desired solitude in order to be able more conveniently to delight in her image of him...The exasperating thing to her was that Charles had not the air of suspecting her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed a witless insult; and his sense of security a further ingratitude. For whose sake was she being virtuous? Wasn't it for him, the obstacle of all felicity, the cause of all misery, and in a way, the sharp-pronged buckle of the strap that was lashed about her?" pg. 94-95, Madame Bovary.

Emma Bovary is part of a long tradition in literature of woman who have been taken away at a young age in order to be married to someone of whom only her family approves. These men are usually too old, too boring, too abusive, lacking affection and/or a sense of equality, or too neglectful to live up to the fantasies of love in a young girl's heart. As Emma ponders, "And Emma wondered just what it meant, in real life, by the words felicity, passion, and intoxication, which had seemed to her so beautiful in books." (pg. 30) As we usually see in this case, Emma jumps out of the frying pan into the fire. Leon is just another man who is only willing to categorize her, only this time as the married mistress to be kept in private, out of the public eye. She starts to buy many pretty things in order to impress him and win him over so that he takes her away from her unhappy marriage. Sadly, she merely realizes that she cannot escape her gender, and becomes a lesser sort of person by trying. Emma steals from and is unfaithful to her hard-working husband. Her whole life becomes a lie, and she is split into two in order to keep the lie going.

My theory is that Jonathan Franzen is giving us a modern day Emma Bovary in the guise of Patty Berglund, in his new novel Freedom. Seemingly, in our very modern, contemporary society, you would think that a woman could never be compared to Emma Bovary. Our American marriages are no longer arranged, except for some first generation immigrants who are still keeping up traditions. Woman are free now, both sexually and financially, and are considered equal in society. As Frantzen begins his own commentary on what it means to have freedom in America today, he bases his story on a central character named Patty who lives a life just as entangled and just as self-destructive as Emma Bovary herself. Patty has the ability to make her own choices, marry, or not marry, whom she chooses. We see the other characters as satellites circling around Patty having a kind of gravitational pull on her choices and her actions. And choices she makes, as we will soon see.

The story begins with an outsider's view of the Berglunds. "There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds" seems to be the mantra of the beginning chapters of the novel. The Berglunds were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill, a neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. when they first moved there after marriage, it was run down and unsafe, but they stayed the course, raising two children, Joey and Jessica, and fixing up their dilapidated Victorian, bought for a song. The biggest complaint from the neighbors was that Walter was too nice and that Patty was too smug and needed a full time job to keep her occupied. She never spoke bad of anyone. If anyone tried to gossip about the "not quite right" goings on of her neighbor Carol Monaghan, her response always was that is was just "weird". Patty doted too much on her son, and not enough on her daughter. She placed too much emphasis on her house and the small world of her little family. Her extended family was never mentioned. There was never a visit from out of town guests (her husband's family is from Minnesota), so little was known of Patty's past.

The reader does learn of it when reading Patty's Autobiography "Mistakes were Made", however. We get an up close and personal glimpse into Patty's past. Her mother was a very liberal career politician, and her father a successful attorney who spends many nights working on pro bono cases. Her parents like to keep up appearances, which is quite ironic given their liberal views. Her father admits that within the pro bono cases, everyone involved is pretty much a liar. So, her family is all about looking good in the public eye with no thought to what goes on in private. The reader learns she also has a dirty old man for a grandpa (see gives us a visual of him bouncing Patty on his thigh for pleasure). He is a very wealthy man with an ancestral mansion who sees it as a right to be eccentric as long as he looks good in the public eye. He is also notoriously tight-fisted, and while Patty's siblings loved to rebel against this by making impossible demands, Patty decides to just ignore it all by just caring only for sports, something in which her family have absolutely no interest and completely ignore Patty from then on. Well, until of course she was raped by Ethan Post, son of the high society "Posts" who were very influential for Patty's parents. So, of course, they swept the rape completely under the rug, even though Patty seemed completely devastated to anyone who got close enough to look, which her parents completely didn't. Between her dirty old man grandfather, the rape that was completely ignored, her ineffective father, is it any wonder she would choose athletic prowess over something more traditionally feminine? Sports were her escape from being the powerless woman. And it worked for awhile, until she hurt her leg. Then along comes Walter to save her from herself, and thus begins her 20+ year journey to discover a place where she can be free.

It's interesting to note that the two men in her life, Walter and Richard, are like soul mates. It's actually alluded to in the novel. Put them together and you would get a perfect man, or Joey, Patty's son (I will discuss this a little further along). Walter is one side of the spectrum: a lifelong tee-totaler, he always sees women as "victims" of society, the forever defender of those unfortunate beings among us. Richard is the other side. While he respects Patty as a woman and as a sexual, powerful being, he still is drawn into throwing her aside after a period of time. Richard has the inability to keep women for any period of time. The only person he keeps around is Walter, whom he is forever in competition against. Richard is the true artist, the creator, the reactionist against the status quo, but as Richard says so himself, being an artist, he is only advancing the progress of consumerism along. Walter blindly does the same while trying to save a species of bird. The difference being Richard realizes what his work has done, Walter merely does whatever he has to do to get to the desired result.

At the "very young in our day" age of twenty-three, Patty marries Walter. She leaves her family in New York to join Walter and his family in Minnesota. Her main goal in life at this point was to have babies, which is one thing Patty was good at. Patty seems to choose Walter because he is at the "nice" end of the male spectrum. He will never abuse her and always be respectful, and he understands the things she has been through. Patty needs an escape from what she knows: her past, her family, her life before Walter. Like a pioneer discovering a new country, she creates her own world in the old Victorian in St. Paul. Her house was her domain in which she can play out her own utopia: raise a son who was different from all the other stereotypical men out there, raise a daughter who will be a woman no matter what she does, so don't put much effort into it. Her utopia was a perfect little bird cage keeping her family safe and away from the apathetic public eye, until, of course, the little bird cage started to fall apart. Joey moves out to live with Connie, the quiet, unassuming girl next door. His sexual drive leads him to leave, in Patty's eyes. She felt she failed him by not separating him from the inevitability of male sexual desire and the defiling of women.

Patty moves up to Nameless Lake, and lets the Ramsey Hill house remain empty, the garden go to seed. She tries to create another place of refuge, but this time with Richard. Walter had disappointed her over the years, always seeing her as "the victim" and working long hours for the Nature Conservancy, never spending a minute with Patty as equals. Patty starts drinking, they move to a townhouse in Washington D.C., she is unfaithful to Walter with Richard (although Walter was just about to be unfaithful to Patty with his new first generation Indian assistant Lalitha). The townhouse is no longer Patty's world: it is Lalitha and Walter's (Lalitha lives upstairs). Nameless Lake is no longer the perfect utopia because Richard called off the affair due to his feeling disloyal to Walter. Walter finds out about the affair through Richard giving him Patty's autobiography. Walter breaks it off with Patty and is unforgiving. In fact, how could he ever forgive "poor Patty" who suddenly becomes this powerful "adulteress Patty"? Such a betrayal! He then continues where he left off and begins his own affair with Lalitha, who ironically is Indian, and in her own culture would probably be married off in the "traditional way", unlike Patty.

Through all this breaking off and chaos, Patty in the mean time is finally beginning to find herself. She gets a job as a receptionist at the local gym, starts to buy new clothes, cuts her hair, and looks like the beautiful Patty that she used to be. Patty does not do this to impress any man, though. Unlike Emma Bovary, she improves herself for herself, more for a message to Walter that she is strong. When Walter throws her out, she lives with Richard but only for as long as he'll have her. Walter in the mean time moves to Nameless Lake and becomes an eccentric psycho. His girlfriend Lalitha is dead. He worries about the birds being killed by neighborhood cats, resulting in his sending one cat to the animal shelter.

While Patty has become strong, and Walter has become psycho, they both realize that they love each other after all. Through all the chaos, destruction, betrayal, departures, they come back together again. Walter renames Nameless Lake after Lalitha and turns it into a bird sanctuary. This is where the birdcage references come in for me. Patty doesn't need her birdcage anymore. She is ready to live in the world. Walter and Patty leave Nameless Lake to the birds and the spirit of Lalitha, two symbols: the first, unspoiled America and its real natives and the second, the possibilities and idealism of the America dream.

Walter's grandfather originally came from Sweden to America. I cannot find the quotations right now, but Frantzen writes that it was more a defect in genetics that originally led Europeans to travel to America. A whole country was founded on a genetic defect: the gene responsible for getting along with others. People that came here could not get along with the people of their own country, so they came here to create a place where they could get along. It seems as though this is exactly the same thing that Patty tried to do. She couldn't seem to get along in this world as a woman due to her upbringing and neglect by her parents, so she had to create a new world inside the home to house a place where she could feel free. Eventually, the real world encroached on Patty's world. Her son Joey let the world in. He was the only male character in the novel who could play the game of capitalism while keeping his own sense of self in check. What Patty did not realize is that she created a near-perfect son, so it was O.K. to let him out into the world. He would survive because she equipped him with what he needed.

I found it interesting that, in the end, Patty finds work as a teacher's aide. To me, working with children is symbolic of a role in the building of the future. Patty is taking a role in change by molding children. People say the Frantzen is a misogynist in writing this novel. I disagree. He is a realist and an optimist. He gives us the reality of the problem of women and men in society, but ends the novel with a sense of hope.

No, Patty Berglund wasn't bored. She was her own version of pioneer, in our crazy, fast-paced, modern world. Patty foresaw a need for change and exerted her own power in her own way to try to achieve this change, if only for herself. To me, Patty is the Emma Bovary that should have been.

5+ stars


Avid Reader said...

This is a fascinating review. I love your comparisons of Patty and Emma. I've just finished Madame Bovary and my thoughts of Emma are similar to yours.

TheWingchairTraveller said...

Thank you, Avid Reader. Have you read freedom yet? I hope I didn't spoil anything for you ...

Anonymous said...

I read Freedom in two sittings and was left feeling confused and angry and kind of infatuated with Patty. Reading your interpretation, and preferring for the sake of my sanity, dismiss my take as a hastily fashioned view informed by a blurred stare at the pages (cuz reading 500pages in two sittings is really disorientating). But thank you for demonstrating another take on Patty and the tragedy that I saw it as. Thanks for the elucidation.

TheWingchairTraveller said...

Thank you for your input. I truly believe that Frantzen, while being a realist and trying to highlight certain societal problems of our day, is also an optimist at heart. Anything I have read about him or heard him speak or write has convinced me of this. Sometimes, with his writing, it is necessary to let it sit and ruminate for a while before an understanding of his work takes hold. Hope it does for you.

Anonymous said...

Good review, thank you. I don't agree with everything but hey, that's your take and it's interesting, though the novel does not boil down to Patty alone, but to freedom really and the fundamental question: who is free? We see loads of people trying to achieve freedom and very few succeed.
The reference you mention in the article (about defect genes etc.) is on page 558 (paperback edition), just at the beginning of the chapter called The Fiend of Washington.

TheWingchairTraveller said...

Thank you for your input, and for citing the passage about genetics (I've been looking for it for awhile). I think my review focuses on Patty because she is whom I identify with the most in the novel. I think the beauty of this novel is that there are so many various interpretations of it. It's strength lies in its exposure of the problems of our contemporary society, not so much the solution to those problems.