Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061




Jonathan Franzen's Freedom from Depression:

Traversing the Vicissitudes of Bad Faith

Like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake, old Swedish-gened depression was seeping up inside him: a feeling of not deserving a partner like Lalitha; of not being made for a life of freedom and outlaw heroics; of needing a more dully and enduringly discontented situation to struggle against and fashion an existence within.

(Jonathan Franzen, Freedom 497-8)

In his famous essay on the state of serious, literary fiction in the age of entertaining images "Why Bother?," originally published in Harper's in 1996 as "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels," Jonathan Franzen describes "the shift from depressive realism to tragic realism—from being immobilized by darkness to being sustained by it" (How to Be Alone 93). Tragic realism poses questions (left unanswered) to the unforgiving and overbearing world which accumulates human suffering; depressive realism falls prey to and ultimately accepts the conditions of existence. He concludes that while depression is a biologically induced state and the world cannot be wholly changed, depression's cure (implicitly the world's as well) involves a choice to change one's relationship with the world: ". . . the only thing that did need curing was my understanding of my place in it" (94). "Why Bother?" revises Jean-Paul Sartre's 1950 essay "Why Write?," which theorized literature as a sacred dialectic between an agential writer and an active reader that created and enacted the existential freedom of both, for the contemporary, postmodern era which has seen both literature and culture take flight from the burdens of freedom to the excesses of passive image consumption as well as the conquering entertainment that spreads spectacle and narcissism. (The Harper's essay should be taken as Franzen's dialogue with David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest about a film so spectacularly entertaining that it narcotizes its viewers.)


Sartre argues, "The bad novel aims to please by flattery, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith" (1348). This paper will first compare and contrast the existential theories of writing for Franzen (the difference between depressive realism and tragic realism) and Sartre (the dialectic between reader and writer as an act of faith). Next, it will consider the predominance of depression in Franzen's 2010 novel Freedom in relationship to existential freedom, specifically through the problem of bad faith. The novel posits four thematic motifs of freedom; and the paper will explore the good and bad vicissitudes of faith in each: 1) political and ideological: Walter Berglund and son Joey clash over the father's liberal ideals of social justice and the son's conservative values of individual, unregulated freedom; Joey's debilitating conflictedness over his Iraq subcontracting reveals that war profiteering, while legal, is an act of bad faith against soldiers who are just like him; 2) corporate and ecological: Walter Bergland establishes a bird conservancy which frees preserved West Virginia forests from strip mining, but he does so by getting into business with an energy business owner who is exploiting the reserve for public relations purposes in order to make other ecologically compromising deals; 3) emotional and psychological: Patty Bergland's facile marriage to Walter despite being actively attracted to his best friend causes her a profound depression after twenty years of marriage and self-deception, and with complete self-loathing she pushes her husband into the arms of another woman; 4) writerly and readerly: after separating because of her marriage-length act of bad faith to herself and eventual adultery with her husband's best friend, Patty rigorously examines her authentic desires in a journal and, as Franzen suggested in "Why Bother?," transforms her position in the world. Walter eventually reads Patty's journal and the dialectic between reader and writer reconciles the couple. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, by following the existential concepts of his essay "Why Bother?" and Sartre's "Why Write?," demonstrates how bad faith can annihilate the self with depression while good faith affords not only authentic self-regard but also an affirmative reconciliation with the world.


This abstract summarizes my presentation,"Jonathan Franzen's Freedom from Depression: Traversing Ideology and Bad Faith." Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Assoc. Tropicana Casino and Resort, Atlantic City, NJ. 8 Nov. 2013.