Urbanism Typifying the Turn-of-the-Century American Way of Life in Franzen's "Strong Motion"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents


1 Plot Synopsis

2 Urbanism and post-modernism – defining our times
2.1 Defining Post-modernism
2.2 Urbanism during Post-modernism

3 Life in THe contemporary Boston AREA as outlined in the novel Strong Motion
3.1 Gentrification and Decentralization
3.2 Cognitariat, Paraclass and the Quaternary Sector
3.3 The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor
3.4 Fast Changes and Heterogeneity of Urban Population
3.5 The Significance of Cars



The present work is about urbanism and about how it is typifying the turn-of-the-century American way of life.

The first chapter of this term paper contains a plot synopsis on the novel Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen depicting the main characters. The second chapter is about Post-modernism. It describes what the term means in fact. A main feature of our post-modern times are cities or urban regions. In the second chapter you will find an interpretation of their meaning and importance in relation to Post-modernism. After this rather general insight in the present urban spirit of the age I will proceed by pointing out passages from the novel Strong Motion that document facts about urbanism and Post-modernism, about certain features of Boston, the Boston area and about the way people live in these places. The topics are going to be gentrification, the quaternary sector, the widening gap between rich and poor, fast occurring changes, heterogeneity and cars. The conclusion will give an outlook on what we may have to expect in the future from urban regions in a globalized world.

1 Plot Synopsis

Louis Holland is one of the protagonists of Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen published in 1992. He is rather an anti-hero than a hero with many weaknesses of character.

Louis’s step-grandmother Rita Kernaghan is killed during an earthquake, later the reader learns that it might have been murder. Whatever the circumstances are, Mrs.Holland, his mother, inherits a considerable fortune in the form of shares of the Sweeting-Aldren group. There are fights over the money and emotions are surging while Melanie Holland, seems to be unfair giving Eileen, her daughter and Louis’s sister, the preference lending her money without considering the needs and feelings of her son Louis.

Louis gets to know the seismologist Renée Seitchek, who finds out that the Sweeting-Aldren group is causing the repeatedly occurring earthquakes in the Boston area. They become a love couple but just after they have decided to do further investigation, they split up because Louis is not sure about who he actually wants to have as a girl friend – there is another one, a young, beautiful girl in the running.

Renée continues to investigate on her own, and Mrs. Holland is asking her for advice concerning her Sweeting-Aldren shares. She wants to know whether the group is indeed causing the earthquakes. In this case it would be best to sell the shares as soon as possible. Again there is upheaval around money. Negotiations follow on how much Renée would get paid by Melanie for the provided information.

After Sweeting-Aldren gets wind of the fact that Renée is about to prove that the group is involved in illegal actions regarding its refuse disposal, she almost gets shot when returning home after having had an abortion. After the split with Louis she has decided to abort.

There are also a number of side scenes in the novel for instance sibling rivalry between Louis and Eileen, Louis’s job situation or Renée’s affair with Howard Chun after she has separated from Louis.

Eventually, Louis gets to know the background of the whole fraud Sweeting-Aldren and certain characters in key positions are guilty of by talking among others to his father as well as to his sister and to his sister’s boyfriend. In the process, old conflicts arise anew. But in the end Renée gets well after a considerable time spent in hospital and Louis and she get together again.

2 Urbanism and post-modernism – defining our times

2.1 Defining Post-modernism

The novel Strong Motion takes place in our present postmodern times, and for this reason it should be made clear first what post-modernism means. When the term postmodern was first applied to architecture it was related to a certain coding that contained a slow-changing popular tradition with its clichés and rooted in family life and in a “fast changing society, with its new functional tasks, new materials, new technologies and ideologies and rapidly-changing fashions” (Ellin 108). This definition is already giving a good idea of what our times are like. However, post-modernism consists of three phases while “[the] first use of the phrase was unsystematic and often referred to a new period when the modern lost its direction”. The second period was about “pluralism, decentring, and counter-cultures”, and the third is the one we are apparently a part of right now. It deals with the analysis of “the negative post-modern condition and the various positive post-modern movements” (Jencks 15). Among these is to be mentioned the framework “critical cultural or humanistic geography” that defines the human geography of the cities (Minca 39). Minca also says, that it is often difficult to separate the modern from the postmodern but that on the other hand this is maybe not even necessary because of their co-presence in the urban scene.

The “globalization discourse” has even been described as […] the successor to the debates on modernity and post-modernity”. The reason for this development is the fact that global events have such a high impact on the happenings in the cities at present and, because “the interplay between the global and the local” has lead to “at least partial globalization of every urban region on earth” (40). Time and space have been compressed, the consciousness of the world has been intensified, and “globalization has vastly expanded the scale and scope of urban life” according to Minca.

2.2 Urbanism during Post-modernism

How can these globalized urban regions be characterized more precisely? The Modernists’ approach had been to renew everything completely. The post-modern approach differs from this strategy. “Contextual city rebuilding” is the new slogan since the mid-eighties (Jencks 39). During the past 30 years a “ significant postmetropolitan transition” has taken place. It was called “a selective deconstruction and still ongoing reconstitution”. This trend describes the emergence of “postmodern urbanism” (Minca 38).

One trend that was occurring was the “transfer of basic functions from a central city” to a “decentralized ‘urban field’. What is important in this context is the fact that “once-significant urban emblems have been deformed, submerged, erased, or dislocated […] (Sharpe 14, 15).

Another development that was and is taking place is gentrification. For instance

[in] the early 1980s the proliferation of urban, high-skill service industries and the spread of gentrification, from Boston's Back Bay to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, sustained the hope of an urban renaissance. (34)

This is a progress, according to Sharpe, even if the “impact of these developments upon the city's economic and residential base has not been as strong as anticipated” and the declines in manufacturing went on.” Gentrification – to give a definition - is “simultaneously a physical, economic, social and cultural phenomenon” and it involves

the invasion of middle-income groups of previously working-class neighbourhoods or multi-occupied ‘twilight areas’ and the replacement or displacement of many of the original occupants. (Friedrichs 14)

Frequently, highly deteriorated housing stock is renovated and upgraded in this way (14). The new owners of course have to pay for this enhancement, and the higher prices are also what drives the original occupants out of the neighbourhood.

This more convenient neighbourhood could be the new home of a member of the “cognitariat”, the new “paraclass”, as Jencks has defined a certain group of people that are inhabitants of urban regions. In this way we are coming to speak about the people of the post-modern world living in urban regions. Jencks has recognized that the number of those “who create and pass on information” has grown in a revolutionary way and, that this group that he names the cognitariat is larger than the former proletariat. He describes the members of this group as not being “neither working class nor really middle class”. He has created a new name for them: paraclass. Their professions are: “clerks, secretaries, insurance people, stockbrokers, teachers, managers, governmental bureaucrats, lawyers, writers, bankers, technicians, programmers, accountants and ad-men”. The significant fact in this context is, that the ones who are able to manipulate knowledge, have the final control in this situation (Jencks 51-53). This is indeed the thing that market analysts and experts are trying to do all the time, sometimes more sometimes less successful


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Urbanism Typifying the Turn-of-the-Century American Way of Life in Franzen's "Strong Motion"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (FTSK, Abteilung Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophonie )
Graduate Seminar American Cities: The Urban Experience in Literary Texts and Translations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
488 KB
urbanism, American, USA, American way of life, Franzen, Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, turn-of-the-century
Quote paper
Christiana Halsdorfer (Author), 2008, Urbanism Typifying the Turn-of-the-Century American Way of Life in Franzen's "Strong Motion", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/146951


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Urbanism Typifying the Turn-of-the-Century American Way of Life in Franzen's "Strong Motion"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free