Freedom – what does it mean to you?

This month I have been reading Freedom, the new book from Jonathan Franzen.

I haven’t read anything by Franzen before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and if I’m honest I was rather daunted by sheer chunkiness of it. 570 pages to be exact.

I do love reading, I really do. So much so that in 2008 I made a resolution to read 100 books in the year, and managed 104. But, at the moment I just don’t seem to have the time – I read four pages in bed, fall asleep, then have to go back two the next night to remind myself what happened. I thought Freedom was going to take me years…

It didn’t though. I knuckled down, picked up the pace, and was soon engrossed in the intricate, complex lives of the Berglunds, a fairly typical American family, heavily influenced by their upbringings, their relationships and their sometimes rather confused moral beliefs.

The description on Amazon calls it “an epic of contemporary love and marriage…capturing the temptations and burdens of too much liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire.”

Well quite. You can see why I was a bit daunted can’t you?

I really enjoyed it though. It made me think. It made me think about exactly what freedom means nowadays. Freedom is seen by many as the ultimate goal – we want to be free from having to work, free from worrying about money, free to choose our partners, our dreams – but is it really that simple?

Franzen’s characters may have freedom in some senses, but they are simultaneously constrained by their pasts, their families and their apparent inability to choose when and with whom they fall in love. And it’s the same for us isn’t it? We might think we have choices, but how much choice do we really have about the people we grow into and the bonds we form? I’m sure I can’t be the only person to have fallen in love with the wrong man…

I’m interested in what freedom means to you – is it about the right to speak your mind, to travel, to meet new people? Is it about money or work? Or is it simply about that hour after the kids are in bed when you can choose what you watch on the TV?

We also have to ask ourselves just how much freedom we actually want. Take the internet – it is all about freedom of communication, yet often it can feel overwhelming, stifling – a classic case of Too Much Information.

A fulfilling and interesting live is supposed to be about choice, but is choice always a Good Thing? It made me wonder… Could we, as human beings – as a society and as individuals – really handle being completely free?



  1. maryfclark
    23 August, 2010 / 7:49 pm

    I think you are right– most of us don’t want absolute freedom. We want freedom within certain boundaries…and what and where those boundaries are differ from person to person. I think that the more choices we make, the more limited we are, in some way– our options are reduced every time we choose an option. I am looking forward to reading Frantzen’s book– thanks for review that contained no plot spoilers.

    • 24 August, 2010 / 12:48 pm

      You’re right, I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but everytime we make a choice we are closing other avenues. Maybe that’s why it always takes me so long to decide what to eat in restaurants – if I choose one dish, I know that’s a dozen others I can’t eat!

  2. 23 August, 2010 / 8:14 pm

    What an interesting post, freedom for me is def relative, my desire to be ‘in relationship’ curtails my freedom, and I am happy with that :)

    • 24 August, 2010 / 12:50 pm

      Perhaps having the security of a relationship gives you more of a sense of freedom in the other things you do – a bit like the parent/child relationship – the child’s dependence on the parent gives them a secure base from which to explore the rest of the world.

  3. 24 August, 2010 / 7:36 am

    I have a mortgage, a permanent job, a husband & a baby. 3 years ago I was travelling and working around the world. It was fantastic to have that freedom to be myself with no one to answer to and no compramise. However given the choice of that freedom again I would stay exactly where I am.

    • 24 August, 2010 / 12:52 pm

      That’s a great example – I’m sure plenty of people would feel the same. I read another interesting book a while ago called The Unit. That one was also about freedom, in a very physical sense of being able to travel freely and having control over your own body. It really challenged my idea of what freedom is, and the kind of freedom we should value – it made me realise that it isn’t always about just being able to move freely from one place to another.

  4. 24 August, 2010 / 1:02 pm

    I think there is only one freedom worth talking about and that is freedom of thought. Everything stems from that because if we don’t believe we have freedom of thought (and most people fundamentally don’t think that and it usually manifests in not dreaming, being paralyzed by fear and self-limiting beliefs etc) then your life cannot be free.

    If you have any doubts about the power of freedom of thought check out Frankl’s “Mans Search For Meaning”

    This is the most serious comment I’ve ever left on a blog so I’m off to be flippant elsewhere now.

    • 24 August, 2010 / 5:41 pm

      I have read that book actually. I’ve read quite a lot of similar books about people in concentration camps, or work camps – I find them really inspirational – the idea that you take away pretty much every freedom we take for granted, and people manage to stay sane and maintain their personalities and their values.

      I also really love Down and Out in Paris and London, which is similar I guess – a story about what it means to be human and how we are defined by our basic needs.

      • 25 August, 2010 / 7:39 pm

        Down and Out is a great book. I had a mental 3 years or so where I went through all Orwells stuff. Loved it.

        • 3 September, 2010 / 6:54 am

          LOVE Orwell – think I have most of his books and essays. I am just about to get Bee to read 1984.

  5. 24 August, 2010 / 4:44 pm

    I think this is a really interesting discussion. The book ‘Paradox of Choice’ (which I’ve not actually read) looks at the idea that more choice makes us less happy because we become frozen by the complexity of decisions, even down to which jam to buy. I find, as a vegetarian, that it is much less angst-provoking for me to choose a meal in a restaurant than my meat-eating friends who have far more choice.

    I’ve recently read Foley’s ‘The Age of Absurdity’ and Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams’ both of which suggest, in different ways, that absolute freedom is destructive because it negates responsibility. The very fact that we operate within a context outside of ourselves means that we impact on other sentient and non-sentient things and therefore issues of whose/what’s freedom arise.

    Freedom of thought is an interesting one. I think in reality it is incredibly difficult to have real freedom of thought if we take into account all the things that influence our mind as we grow up.

  6. 26 August, 2010 / 9:34 am

    You know I have a mortgage, debts, partner and child. I used to be able to do what I wanted when I wanted but I wouldn’t change back to that at all. I had the freedom and no one I was responsible for but you know what I was lonely when I had that, now I am confined to certain things, but my life is forfilled with others and lots of love. I prefer the second and would always opt for that! xx

    • 3 September, 2010 / 6:53 am

      You’re so right – I reckon freedom does quite often equal loneliness. It might mean you have no one to be responsible for, but that often means no one responsible for you either.

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