Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues19-2“He stopped to lower his window a...

“He stopped to lower his window and say hello”: Jonathan Franzen, Neorealism and De-politicized Communitarianism

Aleksandra Zuzanna Leniarska


Referencing the term “Great American Novel,” the August 2010 cover of Time Magazine introduced Jonathan Franzen as “the Great American Novelist,” a change that draws attention to the persona of the author, as well as to his alleged ability to capture the American experience in the 21st century. Based on the analysis of Franzen’s novels, this article describes changes in mainstream American fiction under neoliberalism—the shift towards strong authorial presence, omniscient narrator, mimetism, middle-class family saga—that arguably constitute a post-postmodernist tendency, neorealism. In spite of Franzen’s extra-literary promise of political critique of neoliberalism and cultural critique of therapy discourse, his fiction in fact performs de-politization on narrative level. Happy endings exemplify a new model of success attained by characters who renounce their idealism—happiness based on small community, family, and abandonment of the hope for a structural change. This redefinition of success is presented as anti-establishment, and is combined with a style of writing that stresses verisimilitude and pretends neutrality, while applying strong narratorial authority. Those inconsistencies between the declarative and narrative levels can themselves be perceived as an intervention of neoliberalism in literature, as they cater to the demand for political discontent from Franzen’s liberal, intellectual readership, while affectively soothing it with de-politicized happy endings.

Top of page

Full text

1. Introduction

  • 1 “Great American Novelist,” a term used on the cover of the Time (Lev Grossman, Aug 23, 2010), descr (...)
  • 2 The term “neorealism” has been used by multiple critics in a number of versions—“plastic realism” b (...)

1Jonathan Franzen is not only considered one of the most prominent contemporary American writers and essayists, but he has also assumed the position of an influential public intellectual. During the thirty years since his fiction debut, his public reputation has transformed from that of a promising young author to that of a Great American Novelist1 and a moral authority. At the same time, his fiction pivoted from postmodern experimentalism in the 1980s and 1990s toward mimetic representation of middle-class family experience, expressed in realist aesthetics in the 2000s and beyond, which many critics have called “neorealism.”2 This article examines the causes and consequences of those simultaneous literary and extra-literary shifts, exemplified by Jonathan Franzen, but manifest in the last ten to fifteen years among other accomplished writers such as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, or Celeste Ng. Their critical as well as commercial appeal grew alongside their commitment to neorealism.

  • 3 Many scholars have noted a co-occurrence between the surge in neoliberal policies (often appearing (...)
  • 4 “Perchance to Dream,” also known as “the Harper’s Essay,” is a long cry against the commercializati (...)

2Drawing on political writings on neoliberalism by Wendy Brown (2015, 2019) and David Harvey (2005), the work of Chantal Mouffe (2013), Ross Beveridge and David Featherstone (2021), among others, on post-, anti- and apolitical tendencies as part of the neoliberal condition,3 as well as critical discussions of its connection with therapy culture and affect by Eva Illouz (2008), Rachel Greenwald Smith (2015), and Roger Foster (2016), I analyze Franzen’s fiction in the light of theories of neoliberalism’s intervention into mainstream literature. I argue that there exists the Franzen formula—the gendered ways in which characters of The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010), Purity (2015) and Crossroads (2021) fall into the traps of egocentric individualism (expressed either by masculine economic and/or social success, or feminine overinvestment in therapy), thus causing a personal and familial crisis, to finally realize that only a return to selfless communitarianism based on family and neighborhood can solve the problems neoliberal ideological and social changes have caused. Despite Franzen’s outspoken criticism of neoliberalism in his public speaking and writing,4 I argue that neorealism represented by his 21st-century novels works in neoliberalism’s favor: it provides political critique (much like its 19th-century predecessor did), while in fact supporting a deeply apolitical version of communitarianism which does not allow any significant change to be made under the pretense that all political activism is, in the end, egotistic. This double game – claiming to be political by proposing a deeply apolitical solution, I argue, is symptomatic of neoliberalism’s intervention in literature and culture in general.

  • 5 This ethos of rediscovering local communities and identities is mirrored in Franzen’s introduction (...)

3The following analysis demonstrates that although Franzen overtly declares discontent with the neoliberal logic of marketization and privatization both as a public intellectual and in the plots of his novels, indirectly he reinforces the deeply individualistic and apolitical tendencies that lie at the heart of the very phenomenon he criticizes. The narrative arcs of his neorealist novels punish politically engaged characters to ultimately offer them a new, supposedly non-normative, form of success, where tranquility is regarded as the highest value. In Franzen’s happy endings, there is less egotism, and more compromise; less social engagement, and more family; less big-scale society, and more small-scale community.5 The ethos Franzen presents as the solution to the toxic neoliberal condition is devoid of any potential for discontent and subversion, even though it is presented as somehow anti-establishment. Nodding at the well-educated readers with references to high theory and making fun of the “woke” social engagement, Franzen targets a specific social group—the college-educated, NYT-reading, white upper-middle class—promising to critique the socio-cultural neoliberal system. Ultimately, however, he offers them an ideal of an apolitical lifestyle as the only attainable model for middle-class happiness. Therefore, Franzen’s own economic and symbolic success can be seen as the effect of successfully selling discontent with neoliberalism, while simultaneously affectively soothing this very discontent.

4My article will describe this mechanism in four sections: first, in the section “Neorealist impossibilities,” I will describe the entanglements of neorealist literature with neoliberalism, and the limits of the form of the (neo)realist novel. Then, in the section entitled “Painful Success,” I will describe the mechanics of the plot schema, which I call the Franzen formula, and how it is realized in different novels by Franzen with regard to male characters, whose destructive egocentrism is caused by the (capitalist) unrealistic expectation to be successful. Then, in “Pitfalls of the Self,” I will reflect on how the same mechanism is applied to mostly female characters (with a notable exception), whose therapeutic zeal drives them away from their natural environment, the family. Finally, in the section “Sane narrator, insane characters,” I will show how the readers’ affects towards these characters are crafted by the omniscient narrator and what can be its ideological consequences.

2. Neorealist Impossibilities: How Neorealist Fiction Colludes with Neoliberalism

5A number of scholars have observed structural limits to the neorealist novel’s capacity to imagine subversion, especially in the context of environmentalism. In her 2014 study of Franzen’s Freedom (2010), Margaret Hunt Gram argues that Walter’s criticism of overpopulation is unsustainable mainly because of the realist novel form itself. Hunt Gram claims that the contrast between the anti-growth critique and the realist form is unreconcilable in two aspects. Firstly, as a figure of speech, as it takes the form of superfluous didactic speeches that disrupt the plot, and secondly, perhaps most importantly, anti-growth politics is structurally incompatible with “affective engines that drive narrative fiction in general and with the formal mechanisms available to literary realism in particular”—that of the promise of reproduction as the ultimate happy ending (Hunt Gram 296). Other critics have convincingly argued that the liberal subject characteristic of realist fiction inevitably causes this type of fiction to frame moral questions as matters of individual choice. In Franzen’s Purity (2015) Anabel, a radical feminist and vegetarian, is portrayed as hysterical, naïve and psychologically unstable, precisely because with this type of subjectivity, as Theophilus Savvas argues, “vegetarianism can only be conceived as ‘an individual moral adventure’; as a result, it becomes little more than a mask for problems of the self” (217).

  • 6 Title of Walter’s focalization in Freedom is “Nice Man’s Anger” (Franzen, Freedom 364).

6In Freedom, the “angry nice man,”6 Walter Berglund, quite openly admits his personal motivations for environmental activism. Before, he was happy to forget about his college investment in the anti-population-growth movement, work as a corporate lawyer, and feel fulfilled with his two kids and a happy marriage to Patty. The change comes when the family suffers a collapse and Walter decides to make his work more meaningful and head the morally ambiguous Cerulean Warbler Trust. He works there with his young and idealistic assistant, Lalitha, who, as opposed to his wife Patty and son Joey, admires Walter for his knowledge, motivation, and non-conformism. Shortly thereafter, by way of self-analysis presented by the third-person narrator who fills Walter’s confession with the bitter feeling of the superficiality of good intentions, Walter discovers that his environmental zeal comes from personal frustration and is fueled by Lalitha’s admiration:

The country that minutely followed every phony turn of American Idol while the world went up in flames seemed to Walter fully deserving of whatever nightmare future awaited it. He was aware, of course, that it was wrong to feel this way—if only because, for almost twenty years, in St Paul, he hadn’t. He was aware of the intimate connection between anger and depression, aware that it was mentally unhealthy to be so exclusively obsessed with apocalyptic scenarios, aware of how, in his case, the obsession was feeding on the frustration with his wife and disappointment with his son. Probably, if he’d been truly alone in his anger, he couldn’t have stood it. But Lalitha was with him every step of the way. She ratified his vision and shared his sense of urgency. (395-6)

7Walter’s new-found environmental commitment serves him, therefore, as a therapeutic, not political tool for the problems with the self, not the state of the world. Deep down, he commits to the Warbler Cerulean Trust not because it is morally right, but to regain some self-esteem and enjoy Lalitha’s straightforward admiration in place of never-ending marital complications with Patty.

8Worse even: Lalitha and Walter’s initiative is only partially about bird conservation—in reality, it is designed to combat overpopulation, seen by both characters as the root cause of other environmental problems, including cerulean warbler’s endangerment. Walter’s hypocrisy is only visible when he realizes that Lalitha’s intention to “tie her tubes” (389) terrifies him because he himself wants to have a baby with her, and when they become a couple, he admits to himself: “And still he couldn’t stop imagining making Lalitha big with child. It was the root of all their fucking, it was the meaning encoded in how beautiful he found her body” (619). Happy love, Walter seems to realize at that time, requires the fulfillment of procreative human nature (not unlike the nature of a realist novel, as Margaret Hunt Gram notes). The readers observe Walter reach the conclusion that, no matter how politically engaged he is in combatting the population growth, his rational, political goals will always fade in the light of personal desires penetrating his psyche: “Walter’s apparent fascination to the eighteen girls among them—dreadlocked or scalped, harrowingly pierced and/or tattooed, their collective fertility so intense he could almost smell it—made him blush constantly as he preached to them the evils of unchecked population growth” (620). Even Walter’s full awareness of his hypocrisy does not save him from this Franzenian truth: political ambition can only be a masquerade hiding personal unhappiness. Once this unhappiness is remediated, political action becomes obsolete, as the only suitable environment for a human is their family, not the society at large.

9Hence, in Franzen’s fiction, the abandonment of political commitment is presented as necessary for spiritual and mental stability. There is a recurring pattern of characters with political ambitions who are framed as psychologically flawed: Purity’s Anabel is hysterical, Freedom’s Walter is powerless, Crossroads’ Russ is hypocritical. Each of these characters is rewarded with personal happiness only when they give up their political goals. In Savvas’s analysis too, therefore, Franzen does not leave room for a meaningful rejection of neoliberal logic:

Since the logic of the novel—in the sense not only of how other characters respond to Anabel, but how the structure frames the reader’s response to her—suggests Anabel’s disconnection from reality, with the corollary implication being that she ought to accept the [corporate, multi-millionaire] world of her father and McCaskill, it is difficult to see how there can be any resistance to the rest of this clearly pejorative image of the States. The novel, in other words, accepts this world, as Anabel is persuaded to, and in so doing becomes complicit in it. (218)

10This always-already-thereness of neoliberalism is what is often observed by scholars who describe it as not only as a political and economic philosophy, but as an ideology that spreads into the world of values, morals, and feelings. Wendy Brown, in her Undoing the Demos. Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015), characterizes neoliberalism as a “widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality” that “transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic” (10). The meaning of “the economic” here is larger than just “monetary” or “financial”: “today’s homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive positioning and with enhancing its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all of its endeavors and venues” (10). David Harvey, following Gramsci’s definition of ‘common sense,’ claims that neoliberalism’s success since the 1970s is rooted in “how [it] penetrated ‘common-sense’ understandings. The effect in many parts of the world has increasingly been to see it as a necessary, even wholly ‘natural,’ way for social order to be regulated” (41). Therefore, the process of the transformation of the subject from society-oriented (homo politicus), to self-oriented (homo eoconomicus) is nearly impossible to undo—because it just sounds rational. Precisely this politicus-to-oeconomicus, society-to-self transformation is the core of Franzen’s storylines. In spite of Franzen’s anti-neoliberal declarations, it is the oeconomicus/self side that organizes the happy end. Walter was happier when he was just a corporate lawyer and his family was at peace. His Cerulean Warbler crusade is an ego trip resulting from marital discontent, which, in turn, is provoked by every family member’s unresolved, individual issues. But Walter will, in the end, find his calm once again, when he drops his political ambitions and takes care of his very own interests—his mental well-being and his family as a whole.

  • 7 A similar diagnosis is offered by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism.

11Rachel Greenwald Smith and Mitchum Huehls in Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture (1-20) draw a sketch of the chronology of neoliberalism’s way of invading different spheres of social life, including literature: it began as a set of economic policies (the late 1970s in the United States and Great Britain) external enough that they were still criticized by culture (Postmodernism) and gradually, by the 2000s it transformed itself into an economic logic of the self, unquestionable to the point where there is no outside to it, and therefore, no position to offer subversion.7 In my analysis, I focus on the perverse logic of neoliberalism which, per Brown, “stealthily,” or, per Huehls and Greenwald Smith, “ontologically,” enters Jonathan Franzen’s plots, in spite of his vocal declarations of disagreeing with it. Despite his narrator’s ridicule of characters who use market logic (Chip, Enid and Gary in Corrections, Joey in Freedom, Perry in Crossroads, and, to some point, Andreas in Purity) Franzen ultimately shows that his idea of a happy ending is a departure from Brown’s homo politicus and assertion of homo oeconomicus understood as preoccupied with the individual, not social, change. What brings the novels to serene happy endings is a tumultuous family crisis that leads to a reorientation in individualism—from an outward one that feeds off individual (political) ambition, to an inward one that draws on family as a source of individual fulfillment and thereby protects one’s own interest. Franzen’s narrator seems to suggest that characters may, as in Walter’s case, pretend that their personal ambitions serve a higher good (i.e. environmentalism), but such pretense is inevitably only an ego-adventure designed by a troubled psyche to conform to the toxic social norms of capitalism. Under capitalism, Franzen suggests, success is painful in the psychological sense that it makes the characters deal with their internalized hypocrisy shared by all the do-gooders.

3. Painful Success: Male Struggles with Capitalism

12The Corrections marks the beginning of Franzen’s neorealism, with a complicated focalization structure, third-person omniscient narrator, and stress on verisimilitude. The novel is composed of chapters narrated from the perspectives of different members of the Lambert family with the use of an omniscient heterodiegetic narrator, who, I will argue further on, plays a prominent and far from neutral role in shaping the affective relations between the characters and the readers.

13At the center of The Corrections stands Alfred Lambert—the head of a traditional Mid-Western family. He has three children: Chip, Denise and Gary, and is married to Enid, a down-to-earth woman with ambitions to move up the social ladder. The dramatic change in family dynamics occurs in several shifts: when the authoritarian Alfred needs to be taken care of, when Enid finally becomes the decision-maker and feels the overwhelming responsibility, and when Chip, Denise, and Gary have to take turns visiting their childhood home. In effect, the narratives about the past of each of these family members need to be rethought and remade, which, in turn, affects their present causing them to become less egocentric and more harmonized with their families.

14This structure, or the Franzen formula, will be repeated in all of the author’s later fiction—the decisive moment that drives each plot and causes the central characters’ transformations is a sudden change in interpersonal relations of power. The endpoint of each of his neorealist novels presents the new psychological norm for the family of characters, one based on the focus on this small community and the rejection of individual ambitions, especially (broadly understood) political ones. The contemporary action and the moment of that “small revolution” itself becomes more convoluted in his later fiction as the temporal structure of the novels becomes more complex. While in The Corrections (2001), analepsis serves mainly to show the psychological reasons behind the characters’ present actions, in Freedom (2010) Patty’s retrospective journal constitutes a third of the novel, and the focalizations of other family members include large passages of retrospection. In Purity (2015), the chapters set in the past make up 40% of the novel, while in Crossroads (2021) all chapters before and after the culmination use the novelistic “now” almost as an excuse to jump into long retrospections. The complicated temporal structure throughout the novels resolves into calm descriptions of a new quotidian for the novels’ endings, giving the reader an impression of a finished struggle, an end put to chaos, expressed linguistically by past simple tense, instead of the turmoil of past perfect.

15The tension in Franzen’s novels comes from the often tragi-comical struggle of (a usually male) character in juggling ambition (political, communitarian, artistic) with egocentric goals (sexual affair, money, recognition). The fissure between what is moral or ethical and the exigencies of capitalist reality, where men are expected to be successful in financial, political, and personal realms, leads to a crash and an anti-establishment reassessment of values. Chip in The Corrections, Walter and Joey in Freedom, Tom in Purity, and Russ and Perry in Crossroads are all victims of capitalism’s unrealistic expectations (of men). It is only after a shock—when the chaos of their lies, hypocrisies, and betrayals, aesthetically reinforced by changes in temporality, finally explodes—that they find that all they ever really needed was already in front of them. A return to family life after a tumult of social engagement is, in the Franzen formula, the ultimate happy ending.

16In the opening of The Corrections, the readers find Chip, the protagonist, in a multidimensional crisis. He has just lost his job at a university after an affair with a student, so he plans to invest time in a literary career instead, but, according to his publishers, he is much less brilliant than he would like to think. His family comes to visit him at the moment when he has spent all his money to impress a woman who is not interested in him. Thus, in order to buy dinner for the family and conceal his dramatic financial and professional situation, Chip decides to sell most of his books. On this occasion, the reader gains an insight into Chip’s ideological and political views represented by the books he owns: “But Jürgen Habermas didn’t have Julia’s long, cool, pear-tree limbs, Theodor Adorno didn’t have Julia’s grapy smell of lecherous pliability, Fred Jameson didn’t have Julia’s artful tongue” (106). Given how easily he gets rid of the books, they seem to merely be artifacts in his masquerade as an intellectual. His creative writing job at a liberal arts college, too, is rather an occasion to flirt with students than an honest profession stemming from intellectual curiosity. The reader also gets an opportunity to read parts of Chips’s fiction, which are seen as sexist by Chip himself:

now Julia Vrais, the chocolate-haired owner of that cool, blank, personal-assistant’s voice, was running away from him, and as he raced downstairs to intercept her…, all he could see or think of was a damning entry in his nearly photographic mental concordance of those 124 pages [of his précis]:
3: bee-stung lips, high round breasts, narrow hips and
3: over the cashmere sweater that snugly hugs her breasts
4: forward raptly, her perfect adolescent breasts eagerly
8: (eying her breasts)
9: (eying her breasts)
9: (his eyes drawn helplessly to her perfect breasts)
And there were probably even more! More than he could remember! And the only two readers who mattered now were women! It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because the ‘Academy Purple’ had too many breasts references and a draggy opening and if he could correct these few obvious problems…, there might be hope not only for his finances but also for his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breasts. (31-32, emphasis in original)

17The comic effect of this scene comes from the fact that Chip realizes that his fiction is sexist and wants to correct it, while reproducing the sexism in his focalization. From the description of Julia’s appearance invoking a stereotypical sexy secretary fantasy to explicitly expressing the desire to have sex with her, Chip is aware of the social conventions and lies to himself about following them. The same tendency is visible in the rest of the Lambert family: they all treat conventions instrumentally and self-consciously to achieve their goals. One of the meanings of “the corrections” in the title of the novel will consist in confronting this inner lie and conformism. The ultimate success and happy ending in the novel is the peace of mind, as opposed to the struggle for self-identification, described as almost self-obsession.

18 Motivations are different for the teenage genius Joey Berglund in Freedom—it is less about success and more about self-definition in opposition to his model liberal parents—the excessively loving Patty and the unbearably principled Walter. Joey’s ambition to show his independence by following the Republican values and becoming a millionaire before college graduation heralds a family catastrophe. Readers may see the signs of it since the beginning of the novel, where the Berglund family is described through the (unflattering) eyes of their neighbors, but it is not until Joey’s own focalization that we grasp his zeal to break the rules of the polite, suburban, left-leaning middle class represented by his parents. He combines immoral behaviors in his business life (he sells unusable truck parts to the US Army in Iraq right after the invasion) and in his personal life (he continues his high-school relationship with Connie mainly for sex, then he borrows her college fund money to invest in his truck parts business, all while being ashamed to introduce her to his new college friends and seeking romance with Jenna, a rich, shallow and beautiful girl from an influential Republican family) making him a truly repulsive character to follow—that is, until, similarly to Chip from The Corrections, he makes true amends and finally finds peace, maturity and self-understanding by reconnecting with his family.

19The effect of making Joey’s focalization almost unbearable and yet quite funny to read is achieved by showing how completely economic values took place of moral values in Joey’s reasoning and vocabulary. Reacting with reluctance to Connie’s declaration to follow Joey into the same college, he thinks: “He was beginning to see, as he didn’t in St. Paul, that things’ prices weren’t always visible at first glance: that the really big ballooning of the interest charges in his high school pleasures might still lie ahead of him” (Franzen, Freedom 295, emphasis mine). However, when Connie, or rather her college fund, becomes the solution to his financial problems and she decides to lend him fifty thousand dollars for his investment in the truck parts, his entrepreneurial and sexual excitement blend, and he decides to marry her on the spot:

The mere naming of the figure sexually excited him. It took him back to their earliest days as a couple on Barrier Street, in his first fall of high school. U2’s Achtung Baby, beloved to both of them but especially to Connie, had been the soundtrack to their mutual deflowering. The opening track, in which Bono avowed that he was ready for everything, ready for the push, had been their love song to each other and to capitalism. The song had made Joey ready to have sex, ready to step out of his childhood, ready to make some real money selling watches at Connie’s catholic school. He and she had begun to be partners in the fullest sense, he the entrepreneur and manufacturer, she his loyal mule and surprisingly gifted saleswoman. (517, emphasis in original)

20Franzen’s narrator makes the invasion of the economic into the immaterial spheres of life sound grotesque to the point of farcical. Therefore, also the turning point of Joey’s value trajectory is marked by exaggeration and comicality—Joey’s ambition to strengthen connections with a powerful Republican family by sleeping with the exotically shallow Jenna is ruined by his gastric problems caused by having accidentally swallowed his wedding ring. He then experiences a breakthrough (“He could see this person so clearly, it was like standing outside of himself. He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back” (543)), which makes him reflect upon the immorality of his business model, upon his love for Connie, and upon the root of his Republican revolt—his family relations: “It was his strict, principled father that a full accounting needed to be made. He’d been battling his all his life, and now the time had come to admit he was beaten” (556). This recognition of (individual) guilt is rewarded with re-admission to the small familial community, as well as a radical change of vocabulary surrounding Joey’s story—in his father’s focalization, he is now successful, but humble, rich, but generous, decisive, but sensitive to other people’s needs (“Joey, at their dinner together, with moving expenditure of humility and self-reproach…, his loyalty to her, his terrible remorse, and his general bravery (he was twenty years old!) were all to his credit” (592)).

21Crossroads demonstrates another painful success, where, while the egocentric drive is not towards money, but recognition, it still corrupts the morality of the character. Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, an example of Christian virtues for his community, a father of four, and a husband to Marion, is plotting how to spend time with a parishioner in whom he is romantically interested. The best occasion seems to be at a charity event in a poor African American district of Chicago, and his best chance of impressing her is with his long history of fighting for civil rights, working with a Navajo community in Arizona; in short, being an exemplary Christian. Russ, very vocal about his pacifist and egalitarian political beliefs turns out to be the most immoral character in the novel. It is he who, after the culminating humiliation of an affair, gives up his political engagement and individual needs (portrayed also as a vain need for recognition as an activist and a leader) to reconnect with the smallest community—his family and a secluded parish. Marion, Russ’ wife, upon learning of his betrayal, offers a solution to their marital crisis, and to Russ’ moral decay:

‘From now on, we’ll have to try to do better. That’s why I want us to pray together every day. I want us to change. I want us to be closer. I want us to experience the joy of God together.’
He gave a cry of pain.
‘I don’t deserve you!…. I don’t deserve joy!’
‘No one does. It’s a gift from God.’ (Crossroads 531)

22Marion later says Russ wants a “simpler life” (564) and to have “been so changed since the calamity, so chastened and humbled” (566). Russ’ political ideals, similarly to Chip’s artistic ones, Walter’s environmentalism (Freedom) and Tom’s journalistic ideals (Purity) are presented as an obsession with self-identity and with being recognized as successful by the society. The solution is always admitting your guilt, forgetting the large world (and your activism towards changing it), and re-focusing on the small one: your family.

4. Pitfalls of the Self: “Overtherapized” Characters and the Franzen Formula

23Franzen’s critique of the excessive preoccupation with the self is gendered—while male characters struggle from the internalization of the capitalist vision of success, female characters are often presented as victims of the therapeutic discourse. The motif of mood disorders is discovered in all neorealist novels by Franzen, and while the characters who struggle with mood disorders are predominantly women, there is one significant exception: Gary in The Corrections. The discourse around his perception of his own mental well-being is strikingly different, and it will be commented on later in this section.

24Franzen seems to be criticizing the tendency to portray all personal struggles as mental health issues, and uses the examples of Enid (The Corrections), Patty (Freedom) and Marion (Crossroads) to point to their egotism as reasons for familial downfall. However, the therapeutic seems to be problematic only when it revolves around individual (female) characters, while it turns out to be useful for Franzen’s narrator when it helps family reconciliation. Roger Foster claims that “therapeutic techniques and ideas and neoliberal discourses began to harmonize around the significance of certain key ideal, like autonomy, personal growth, self-reliance, and self-regulation” (83). In all the discussed novels, Franzen seems to share Foster’s (and Eva Illouz’s, among others) pessimism about the disastrous effects the therapeutic discourse has on the construction of subjectivity in 21st century. Patty and Marion’s investment in self-discovery through therapy, Gary’s ideals of neural self-management, and Enid’s faith in mood-optimizing medication are the culprits of familial crises to a similar degree as the unhealthy capitalist ambitions of the male characters. The common thread is the preoccupation with the self.

25An event closely connected to the central moment of The Corrections, when the confused Alfred jumps off the deck of luxurious cruiser, is his wife’s Enid’s visit to the cruiser’s private psychiatrist who is selling non-FDA approved medication on international waters: “If you’re asking what’s specific to ‘Cruiser’? Mainly that it switches your anxiety to the Off position. Turns that little dial right down to zero. Aslan ‘Basic’ won’t do that, because to function day to day a moderate anxiety level is desirable. I’m on ‘Basic’ now, for example, because I’m working” (370)—explains Doctor Hibbard to Enid. Using a comical mix of therapeutic and marketing language, the doctor (and the narrator alike, as will be discussed later) completely ignores the fact that Enid came to the psychiatrist with real struggles about taking care of a husband who suffers from dementia. He then adds: “A quarrel with your spouse, anxiety about the pet you’ve left behind, a perceived snub where none was intended: you can’t afford these bad feelings. Think of it this way. If Aslan prevents you from missing just one prepaid Pleasurelines activity due to your subclinical dysthymia, it has paid for itself” (368).

26Enid, described as stingy from the beginning of the novel, serves as a perfect ground for critique of the commodification of therapy and the ability to purchase mental well-being. The question about the price of a happy day on vacation and vocabulary connected with money all turn Enid’s real struggle into a hyperbolic comedy. Enid also personifies a recognized line of critique of neoliberalism where market interventions into immaterial spheres of life is shown in the most grotesque examples (Sandel). The reader is left with no doubt about Franzen’s own opinion about the possibility (and ethics) of buying a “personality optimizer” (318).

27A similar situation arises in the case of Gary, who, apart from suffering from depression, is also a victim of unrealistic expectations about financial and personal success under capitalism. He invests in the stock market under pressure to multiply the family’s savings, and in his case again, Franzen ridicules the commodification of mental well-being with the use of corporate and financial jargon transferred into a description of the state of psyche:

Although in general Gary applauded the modern trend toward individual self-management of retirement funds and long-distance calling plans and private-schooling options, he was less than thrilled to be given responsibility for his own personal brain chemistry.… But Gary was nothing if not conscientious. As he entered the darkroom, he estimated that his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i.e., serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs, that his Factor 2 and Factor 7 had rebounded from an early-morning slump related to the glass of Armagnac he’d drunk at bedtime.… Declines led advances in key indices of paranoia (e.g., his persistent suspicion that Caroline and his two older sons were mocking him), and his seasonally adjusted assessment of life’s futility and brevity was consistent with the overall robustness of his mental economy. He was not the least bit clinically depressed. (139-140)

28The line of critique is different in the case of Gary—while his mother is portrayed as someone who wants to be care-free and buy her way out of the emotional labor of solving her problems, Gary exemplifies the narrative of positivity in the corporate sense. A person who is feeling good, or at least knows how to manage their negative feelings, is an effective employee—self-help books seem to be telling Gary and the general American society—which makes psychological well-being a measurable asset. The common vocabulary between the stock market and neuro-factor status (“thirty-day highs,” “early-morning slump,” “overall robustness of his mental economy”) in Gary’s focalization quite explicitly ridicules the pursuit of mental effectiveness and is similar in its absurdity to Joey’s use of market vocabulary to describe his love life.

29Therapy is ridiculed from another angle in the case of Marion in Crossroads. Marion, another maternal figure, is a self-despising housewife who figured that the only way to deal with her misfortunes (cheating husband, drug-selling teenage son, lack of satisfaction of any kind) is to go to therapy—although she does consider it to be somehow against her Christian faith. Marion’s focalization shows that she never really believed in therapy’s success:

It was interesting how Sophie, who played the prosecutor when Marion defended Russ, turned around and argued for tolerance when Marion impugned him. She wondered if this was a subtle therapeutic strategy or just a way to keep her coming back every week with twenty dollars.… Sophie’s smile gave away to a more censorious expression. The timing of her therapeutic frowns was comically predictable. Marion felt infantilized by it. (134)

30Marion is aware of the therapeutic industry and is wary of “therapeutic tricks” Sophie, her therapist, might be playing on her to keep her coming. Sophie’s exaggerated and standardized reactions are mocked in Marion’s focalization. It is finally Marion’s mental revolution that brings the sudden change into the Hildebrandt family—during a session with Sophie, she comes in touch with her repressed past, which includes her father’s suicide, broken heart, abortion, kidnap, rape, and the toll of later hiding it from her husband for 20 years. None of these memories, however, is retold by Marion to her therapist. Her true past, uncensored and violent, is shared by the narrator, but Sophie remains comically unaware of the source of the “breakthrough” she kept promising her client.

31As a result, Marion drops the role of an overly nice reverend’s wife, and starts a civil war within her family, which is nothing but destructive. Similarly to the case of Patty in Freedom, Franzen’s characters follow Rita Felski’s premise that female confession is liberating, but here, catharsis is personal and individual, and the reader is led to be more worried about the well-being of the family than happy for the liberation. Only Russ’ confession about his affair, an event that influences the whole family life, as opposed to Marion’s quiet revolution, can bring them together and force them to make amends. For Marion too, the closure of destructive self-interest, understood as focusing on her past, making it the center of her present experience, ends in the same place as Russ’—at the moment of giving up their individual goals, and agreeing to “pray together every day…, be closer…, experience the joy of God together” (531).

5. Sane Narrator, Insane Characters: How Franzen Establishes What Is True

32Rachel Greenwald Smith in her book Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism argues against a tendency that could be compared to realistic mimetism or verisimilitude in emotions, combating what she calls the “affective hypothesis.” In Greenwald Smith’s argument, thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum claim that fiction can have political influence because readers empathize with the characters, and therefore novels at their best build a personal emotional connection between the characters and readers. Greenwald Smith argues, however, that this approach equates “fundamental literary meaning… with the production of recognizable emotional content” (10). and this two-way emotional connection is commodifiable because “personal feelings” are individualized and privatized. She opposes them to “impersonal feelings” which question the liberal, individual subjectivity at the center of neoliberalism. For the “impersonal feelings” to work, the connection between the emotional and the personal needs to be destabilized.

33Interestingly, in Franzen’s fiction the readers are expected to form an emotional connection not with the characters, but rather with the narrator. We are automatically placed on the narrator’s side without any way of escape: Gary seems ridiculous with his comical therapy language and the suspicion that his wife and kids are mocking him, Enid is petty and comically ashamed of her social class, and Chip can’t see how he reproduces sexism trying to avoid it at the same time. But the readers are comfortably seated with the narrator and can laugh with him at the characters who are oblivious of their own hilarity. There are, however, also characters who are given more autonomy of self-constitution and are left for the readers to empathize with, without the narrator’s intervention—a good example is the heart-breaking focalization of Alfred who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease:

‘For God’s sake, Chip,’ he said loudly, because he sensed that this might be his last chance to liberate himself before he lost all contact with that clarity and power and it was therefore crucial that Chip understand exactly what he wanted. ‘I’m asking you for your help! You’ve got to get me out of this! You have to put an end to it!’
Even red-eyed, even tear-streaked, Chip’s face was full of power and clarity. He was a son whom he could trust to understand him as he understood himself (The Corrections 560)

34What is worth noting here, therefore, is a very strong narratorial intervention into the affectual reading of the characters, which can be read in the light of Greenwald Smith’s thesis on the “production of emotional content” as a deliberate technique. The readers are forced by the narrator’s authority to emotionally distance themselves from characters that are morally dubious—Gary commodifies emotions by managing them as stock, Enid uses “mood optimizers,” Chip hypocritically breaks his own anti-sexist and anti-capitalist code of behavior which he adopted just because it was fashionable. These characters are also invited to redeem themselves from this market logic as a happy-end solution. Not all of them succeed—Enid’s focalization closes the novel, and the readers see she has not adopted any “corrections,” as she still lacks empathy towards her suffering husband, she is shown as judgmental and impatient: “Somehow Chip and Denise had the patience to sit and converse with [Alfred] about whatever demented scenario he inhabited, whatever train wreck or incarceration or luxury cruise, but Enid couldn’t tolerate the least error. If he mistook her for her mother, she corrected him angrily: ‘Al, it’s me, Enid, your wife of forty-eight years’” (567).

35An interesting case to analyze here is Patty’s (Freedom) autobiography entitled “MISTAKES WERE MADE. Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion)” (Freedom 35). It is written in the third person, but its narrator is homodiegetic—it is the “present-day” Patty narrating the life of the “past” Patty. Similarly to the logic of focalized narration, the reader is invited to sit with the older-narrating-Patty and brutally judge the younger-narrated-Patty. This is accomplished by innumerable auto-ironic remarks which underline the emotional distance between the two Patties, which is quite unusual for an autobiography. The following passages may serve as examples: “She was notably Larger than everybody else [in the family], also Less Unusual, also measurably Dumber. Not actually dumb but relatively dumber” (37); “Based on her inability to recall her state of consciousness in her first three years of college, the autobiographer suspects she simply didn’t have a state of consciousness” (61). If we consider Patty’s autobiography as a mode of confession, Rita Felski’s observations in the essay “On Confession” may help understand Patty’s reluctance to identify with her younger self: “Autobiography, then, develops out of the genre of the religious confession; there is a gradual shift from a form of self-analysis which seeks out sin and transgression in the context of adherence to a religious orthodoxy to an exploration of intimacy, emotion, self-understanding as aspects of the nascent bourgeois subjectivity” (87). Felski adds that late 20th-century confessional female writing usually ends with a conversion to feminism (87). Patty’s autobiography, written at her therapist’s suggestion, is an example of a work that aims at transforming a sinner into an outright member of a new bourgeois society, dominated by therapeutic discourse, individualism, and subjectivity. What is interesting here is that Patty’s autobiography ends with a failure, notably with the final sentence: “She walked into the house on 29th Street and saw, in a heartbeat, that she’d made yet another mistake” (235). Therefore, the original aim of autobiography is missed—instead of reaching self-understanding which is liberating, Patty is still committing the same mistakes and feels trapped in them. Therapy and a diary did not help; mistakes motivated by her egocentrism cannot be mended by further focus on the self. The discovery of a balanced self-understanding and intimacy does finally come, but not until the very end of the novel. It is not part of Patty’s autobiography—it is narrated, just like the first chapter of Freedom, by a collective third-person narrator, namely, the new neighbors.

36Somehow similarly to Patty’s diary (Freedom), when Chip (The Corrections) returns to the family, his transformation is also seen through other eyes than his own—the family’s happiness is not seen through individual’s eyes. After a morally problematic capitalist and anti-environmental venture in Latvia, Chip learned his lesson, and chose family life by supporting his parents in dealing with Al’s deteriorating health. It pays off—the narrator presents him now as the empathetic son who not only is moved to tears by his father’s confusion, but thanks to visiting him at the hospital he also finds the love of his life. Al’s neurologist becomes his wife and the mother of his children. According to Enid, petty as ever, “Alison Schulman was a kinky-haired and rather plain looking Jewish girl from Chicago” (The Corrections 565)—which contrasts with Chip’s earlier (and flawed, as the narrator and the structure suggest) romantic interests who are remarkably attractive. He also settles for a less prestigious job as high-school teacher, rejecting the capitalist success-driven logic ridiculed throughout the novel, in Chip’s case—teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college and trying to become a famous author. There is a sense of reward in how positively Chip’s character is depicted at the very end of the novel, as an individual: “all three of her kids were helping out. Chip in particular seemed almost miraculously transformed” (565) and as an agent of positive change in other characters, here visible in his mother’s opposition to a homophobic bridge partner: “Chip said an interesting thing to me once. He said with so many people hating ‘gays’ and disapproving of them, why would anyone ‘choose’ to be gay if they could help it? I thought that was a very interesting perspective” (565).

37Similar almost pastoral images conclude Freedom and Crossroads, where both marriages are saved by the way of self-amends and compromise, instead of egocentric ventures by any of the partners. Significantly, however, both Walter’s environmental activism and Russ’s charity work must be given up, just as much as their wives’ introspections. What made the couples and the novels’ endings happy was the small influence they personally had on the local communities around them: “It was clear to everyone… that Patty’s greatest warming influence was on Walter himself. Now, instead of speeding by his neighbors in his angry Prius, he stopped to lower his window and say hello” (Freedom 561).

6. Conclusions

38The neorealist turn towards realism, mimetism, and omniscience of the narrator and their role in guiding the readers through a complex temporal structure of the novel, is not only an aesthetic choice. The stylistic decisions—made by a number of popular writers active in the same decade—arguably stem from and validate the changes in social life influenced by neoliberalism. The stress on reality, plausibility, verisimilitude shifts the question the readers ask from “what does it mean?” to “is it true?” Therefore, authority in telling the story, the affective connection established between the reader and narrator above the heads of characters, are all powerful tools of authorial presence, arguably shaping the novel as a product that caters to a demand. One thing these novels do not do is leave the reader interpretative freedom—a fact that should give us pause, considering their thematic commitment to liberty. That Franzen is perceived as a Great American Novelist, and that his novels are deemed to describe the American middle-class experience should lead us to ask important political questions about the nature of subjectivity under neoliberalism and the political role of literature under the neoliberal regime.

39At the same time, Franzen’s neorealist plots seem to be contradicting this diagnosis – the narrator ridicules the obsession with the self, the entrepreneurial approach to mental well-being, capitalistic individualism and immoral business ventures. Individualism is found and criticized also in the political, environmental and artistic ambitions of the (male) characters. Their zeal to succeed invariably brings their families to the verge of collapse, to which there is a common solution: rediscovery of the self within the smallest community. While the narrator presents this narrative as an anti-establishment tranquility and an escape from the impossible plurality of choices under neoliberalism, this vision is inherently de-politicized (because it negates the possibility of structural change) and deeply conservative (because it postulates keeping the status quo intact). Franzen’s neorealist novels capitulate to his promise to deliver a political critique because their aesthetic form makes them the perfect product of the neoliberal age. With a clearly defined target group, these texts supply the desired authenticity and soothe political discontent.

Top of page


Beveridge, Ross, and David Featherstone. “Introduction: Anti-Politics, Austerity and Spaces of Politicisation.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, vol. 39, no. 3, 2021, pp. 437–450.

Boddy, Kasia. “Making It Long: Men, Women, and the Great American Novel Now.” Textual Practice, vol. 33, no. 2, 2018, pp. 318–337.

Brown, Wendy. In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. Columbia UP, 2019.

---. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books, 2015.

Felski, Rita. “On Confession.” Women, Autobiography, Theory. A Reader, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, U of Wisconsin P, 1998, pp. 83-95.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.

Foster, Roger. “The Therapeutic Spirit of Neoliberalism.” Political Theory, vol. 44, no. 1, 2016, pp. 82–105.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Carbon Capture.” The New Yorker, 30 March 2015. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.

---. Crossroads. Picador USA, 2022.

---. Freedom. Fourth Estate, 2010.

---. How to Be Alone. Fourth Estate, 2010.

---. Purity. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

---. The Corrections. Fourth Estate, 2010.

---. “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, 8 Sep. 2019. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.

Grossman, Lev. “Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist.” Time Magazine, 12 Aug. 2010.,9171,2010185,00.html. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford UP, 2005.

Hunt Gram, Margaret. “Freedom’s Limits: Jonathan Franzen, the Realist Novel, and the Problem of Growth.” American Literary History, vol. 26.2, 2014, pp. 295–316.

Illouz, Eva. Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. U of California P, 2008.

Mitchum Huehls, and Rachel Greenwald Smith. Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture. Johns Hopkins UP, 2017.

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. Verso, 2013.

Rachel Greenwald Smith. Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism. Cambridge UP, 2015.

Sandel, Michael J. What Money Can’t Buy. Penguin UK, 2012.

Savvas, Theophilus. “Vegetarianism in the Anthropocene: Richard Powers and Jonathan Franzen.” Textual Practice, vol. 33, no. 2, Aug. 2018, pp. 213–228.

Top of page


1 “Great American Novelist,” a term used on the cover of the Time (Lev Grossman, Aug 23, 2010), describing Jonathan Franzen and his new novel, Freedom. The cover caption reads: “He’s not the richest or the most popular. His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers, or live in the future. But in his new novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen shows us the way we live now.” Historically, another term was used, Great American Novel, or GAN, introduced after the Civil War by John William De Forest, and later used by journalists, reviewers and fellow writers to describe a novel that would capture “American identity,” “American essence.” GAN, as Kasia Boddy convincingly argues is a gendered and racialized term. She quotes authors Jennifer Weiner (“When a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance or a beach book”) and Pankaj Mishra (“Novels about suburban families are more likely to be greeted as microcosmic explorations of the human condition if they are by male writers; their female counterparts are rarely allowed to transcend the category of domestic fiction”) (318-37). The very reason why the GAN category is valuable, in my opinion, is because it is vague enough to be able to capture whatever is deemed to represent “America” at a given time. What is particularly interesting for me here, is the fact that on the Time cover the “greatness” is ascribed to the person, not the work, which arguably shows the renewed focus on the author’s figure.

2 The term “neorealism” has been used by multiple critics in a number of versions—“plastic realism” by Anis Shivani (“We Are All Neoliberals Now: The New Genre of Plastic Realism in American Fiction,” Huffington Post, 12 June 2015), “tragic realism” by Jonathan Franzen himself (“Why Bother” in How to Be Alone, previously published as “Perchance to Dream” in Harper’s Magazine in 1996), or simply “neorealism” by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (“A Family Full of Unhappiness, Hoping for Transcendence,” New York Times, 15 August 2010). Now the term is commonly used by academics, e.g. in American Literature in Transition 2000-2010, edited by Rachel Greenwald Smith (2017).

3 Many scholars have noted a co-occurrence between the surge in neoliberal policies (often appearing as a response to the economic crisis of 2007/8) and a distrust in traditionally understood politics, and, depending on their focus and point of departure, called these tendencies post-political, anti-political, or apolitical. Beveridge and Featherstone catalogue different uses of the term “anti-politics”—in political studies, they are usually related to reactions against austerity measures introduced post-2008 economic crisis, and they are seen as “associated [with] concepts like depoliticization, post-politics and post-democracy” (438). Mouffe argues for the return of the political, which has lost its what she calls “agonistic pluralism,” as opposed to the antagonistic, conflictual, and hegemonic order that we witness today. She too sees this return to the political as a countermeasure to the changes introduced by neoliberalism: “I also stress the urgency of elaborating a new vision that offers an alternative to the neoliberal policies that are at the origin of the current crisis” (Agonistics, “Introduction”). Finally, Brown, in her newest book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, makes an observation that “neoliberal rationality prepared the ground for the mobilization and legitimacy of ferocious antidemocratic forces” (7), which is a development of her earlier claim that “neoliberal reason, ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, culture, and a vast range of quotidian activity, is converting the distinctly political character, meaning, and operation of democracy’s constituent elements into economic ones” (Undoing the Demons 17). This list by no means exhausts the many utterances of the observation that neoliberalism is closely connected to broadly understood changes in the status of the political; it merely signals that these observations already exist in the debates in political studies, philosophy, sociology, as well as cultural and literary studies.

4 “Perchance to Dream,” also known as “the Harper’s Essay,” is a long cry against the commercialization of culture, the disappearance of political imagery and the individualisation of political problems, the globalization of local experience (“the drama of regional specificity succumbing to a commercial generality”; How to Be Alone 69). His newer essays, published in The New Yorker (many of them on climate catastrophe and environment, like “Carbon Capture” or “What if We Stopped Pretending?”)—seem coherent in claiming that large corporations and political leniency toward them are the main culprits of irreversible climate change.

5 This ethos of rediscovering local communities and identities is mirrored in Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone, where he is commenting on his path from “zealotry”: “I intend this book, in part, as record of a movement form an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance—even a celebration—of being a reader and a writer” (6).

6 Title of Walter’s focalization in Freedom is “Nice Man’s Anger” (Franzen, Freedom 364).

7 A similar diagnosis is offered by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Aleksandra Zuzanna Leniarska, “He stopped to lower his window and say hello”: Jonathan Franzen, Neorealism and De-politicized CommunitarianismEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL:

Top of page

About the author

Aleksandra Zuzanna Leniarska

Aleksandra Zuzanna Leniarska is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Warsaw's Doctoral School of Humanities, specializing in literature. She is also a Fulbright grantee, visiting Stanford University in 2021-22. Her expertise lies in U.S. literature and culture, with academic interests that include literary realism, contemporary fiction, and the theory of the novel. Her research combines close and distant reading, employing computational text analysis methods.

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search