Freedom and Agency

I’m glad to see that Jonathan Frazen’s Freedom continues to generate serious discussion about the role of literature in American culture. Most of the conversations I’ve seen focus on issues of characterization and genre. Everyone agrees that Freedom is a realist novel, even a Realist one. (That’s if you want to make a distinction, which I think is useful, between the intent to depict reality and Realism as a historical genre situated, in American literary history, between Romanticism and Naturalism, or between 1850 and 1890.) Opinions differ more strongly about the quality of the characters. Readers such as David Brooks and B.R. Myers complain that the characters are too small, too petty and empty to warrant our attention. Others allow that while there’s no Pierre or Prince Andrei roaming through Franzen’s pages, they’re not appearing in contemporary American life, either.

Personally, I don’t have any issues with novel on these grounds. I don’t have much patience for people who complain about unlikable or petty characters. The history of Realism is the story of steadily shrinking characters. This is why Naturalism came along: to inject some larger importance and motivation to characters trying to cope with the modern world. If you want a good reference point for the crisis of ninteenth-century Realism, just take a look at the noble yet curiously passive hero of William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). The novel is stuffed with observational details–curiously absent in Freedom, by the way–yet Howells’ characters have, if anything, less control over their circumstances than Franzen’s. The only entity with real agency is money itself.

So far, however, what I haven’t seen is an extended consideration of Franzen’s title. I thought David Brooks was going to address it today. After all, freedom has become such an ideologically-loaded issue right now that I was certain Brooks would pick up on it.  Is freedom a definable set of qualities? Or is it the absence of restraints and nothing more? Is it ontologically empty? Is it a metaphor for a range of (largely hysterical) grievances?

In a consideration of Franzen’s novel, perhaps a better way to approach this question is to change the term “freedom” to “agency,” meaning the power to act in accordance with conscious intent to a set of material circumstances.  In the case of Freedom, those circumstances would be life in the Eastern and Mid-Western American middle classes during the George W. Bush administration.

The question of agency makes us look at external circumstances rather than internal beliefs. The question of agency centers around these two questions: What are the range of choices available to a person? Why did a person choose one option and not another? These are essentially ethical questions, and as such they concern the possibility of individual freedom.

Take, for instance, Richard Katz as a character. He’s a rock musician and, therefore, the character least confined by bourgeois convention. But is that still true? Could rock stardom be just another set of conventions every bit as restrictive as bourgeois existence? Here’s another question: could Patty and Walter, the married couple, be freer because their conventions are more out in the open, more recognizable as conventions and there forefore more readily flouted or not?

As soon as I finish Freedom (I’m nearly done), I’d like to take these questions. The post may not be my next one, but it will appear soon.

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