"The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen: Character Analysis

Hausarbeit, 2008
17 Seiten, Note: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Gary’ s problems

3. Chip’s responsibilities

4. Denise’s experiences

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When I finished reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen I wanted to know if there is a general theme or problem that connects the Lambert’s siblings. The title of book itself has a negative connotation and makes it clear from the start that somebody already did something wrong. By reading the title, one can already anticipate that there is something wrong. However, it is not as Joseph Epstein suggested that the characters in the novel are because of their problems at various times on some sort of ‘correction’ pill (Epstein, 2002). The corrections or problems that the characters are trying to solve by using medical treatment come with their own lives and experiences. However, the title indirectly presupposes that the ‘hills’ that needs to be overcome in their lives cannot be flattened by taking corrections. Furthermore, the fictional place where the Lambert’s house is situated, St. Jude – saint of hopeless cases- gives further evidence that the characters do not succeed with their plans. Yet, besides these references that are detrimental for the tension of the narrative, the question that needs to be settled and on which the whole tension of the novel is based on; what did the characters wrong and why did they fail? The characters must have faced some problems or obstacles that needed to be overcome. Certainly, as the title already indicates, they failed or did something wrong even though their problems might have been different.

Therefore, I would like to examine if there are connections between the reasons of their failures and the mistakes they have done. Although it has been seven years since The Corrections has been published and three years, it has been included in the Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels, not much has been written about it yet. Thus, I mainly used the novel itself for my researches, since most of the secondary literature I found, tried to see The Corrections as a ‘Novel of Globalisation’ that indirectly conveys market regulations (James Annesley, 2006) or as a narrative that portrays Midwestern stereotypes (Poole, 2008). I don’t want to look at The Corrections from a certain angle in order to understand it; I want to look in the novel to find the connections of the Lambert’s siblings problems.

2. Gary’ s problems

His impulse on his birthday [...] was to weep. From certain pop-psychology books on Caroline’s nightstand, however, he’d learned to recognize the Warning Signs of clinical depression, and one of these Warning Signs, the authorities all agreed, was a proclivity to inappropriate weeping. (Franzen, 2002, 148)

When reading these lines of the third chapter it is for reader apparent enough that Gary suffers under severe depressions. However, throughout the first couple of paragraphs of the third chapter Gary’s thinking appears reliable. The story is presented by a figural narrator. It is the first time in the novel that Gary’s thoughts are focalised and thus there is a tendency to trust them. Accounts such as “Gary had been worrying a lot about his mental health, but on that particular afternoon, [...] the weather in his brain was warm and bright as the weather in Philadelphia.” (145) or even “He was not the least bit clinically depressed.” (146) do not appear suspicious. Nevertheless, the evidence for his depression hardens. He faces problems like insomnia “He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks.” (210) or anhedonia “He’d read the dictionary entry for ANHEDONIA with a shiver of recognition, a kind of malignant yes yes...” (172) that are typical symptoms of clinical depression. More evidences can be found in the fact that he is looking for lame excuses like “[t]hat it was almost night“ (163) to drown his depressions with alcohol. Furthermore, his wife addresses him directly and asks him if he realizes that he is mentally depressed (191/192). Yet the reason for his suffering remains a mystery for the reader. Gary as the oldest of the Lamberts’ siblings, who works successfully as a banker, and as father of three sons and husband of a beautiful wife has actually no reason at all to be depressed. The title of the chapter itself, The More He Thought About it, the Angrier He Got can be regarded as a hint. Gary is obviously facing a problem; he himself does not know where it comes from. And like the title already suggest, the more he tries to look for the root of his problem, the angrier, the more desperate, and the more depressed he gets.

Throughout the narrative, the text gives no black and white answer to the question why Gary is so unsettled and depressed. At first, it seems that Gary is paranoid. His “suspicion that Caroline, consciously or not, had tried to exile him from the house by putting the darkroom in the garage was another key index of paranoia” (148). Furthermore, he suspects that “Caroline and his two older sons were mocking him” (146). Consequently, he desperately clutches on his youngest son Jonah in order to “secure a tactical ally for his team” (169). Gary’s paranoia is like his depression more a repercussion than the actual reason for his problem. It is unlikely to happen that someone gets paranoid without any given reason. Therefore, Gary’s paranoia cannot be regarded as his actual problem for his depression but moreover as consequence of something, that bothers him on a deeper level.

A possible solution to Gary’s problem that might be considered as his core-problem can be found in his relationship to Caroline. When Gary speaks of “[h]is resentment of his wife, Caroline, was moderate and well contained” (145) it is apparent that he dislikes her. Yet, there is no clear answer, where his resentment comes from. It is certainly not because of her appearance or her origin, since Gary is still “excited by her effortless good looks and by her Quaker bloodlines” (149). Furthermore, Caroline appears to be caring for her children as well as for Gary. The book titles that Gary finds on her nightstand such as “Feeling Great (Ashley Tralpis, M. P., Ph. D.)” (172) or “Middle Ground: How to Spare Your Child the Adolescence YOU Had (Caren Tamkin, Ph. D., 1998)” show that she wants to help her husband. Caroline knows that there is something wrong with Gary. “’Gary you are depressed’ she said, ‘and I want you back. I’m tired of living with a depressed man.’” (192). That he is suspecting Caroline that she and his older sons are conspiring against him and mocking him leads us back to his paranoia. The connection between his paranoia and his resentment for his wife can be found in his fear of losing his position as the head of the family. As a matter of fact, Gary fears to admit that he is having a problem and suspects that if he would admit it, he would lose his right for his own opinion. “He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument” (168). Gary’s fear may explain his paranoia and depression but where does it come from? It seems that he does not or cannot really trust his wife Caroline. Apparently, little bounds him to his wife; nevertheless, his understanding of fidelity goes beyond what can be considered as a stickler for the rules. Gary’s feels less attracted by Caroline’s understanding and caring character but more by “adhering to principle” (233). He is “in love with fidelity” (233). Therefore, Gary does not fear to trust his wife but he fears that by trusting her he would automatically cheat on someone else. The last sentence of the third chapter tells us who this person in question is. “[H]is mother’s news could therefore not be good, Gary believed that she was calling because she knew that he’d betrayed on her (249)”.

Consequently, Gary’s paranoia, depression and his fear to trust his wife come from the fact that he does not want to be disloyal to his mother. It seems that Gary has a black or white perception of trust. Either he trusts his wife Caroline or his mother Enid but he cannot be loyal to both of them. The fact that he changes his side from his mother to his wife at the end of the third chapter does not make him a round character. He has just the opposite position to his mother and wife than at the beginning of the narrative. Therefore, he just changes the person on whom he is dependent from and who is responsible for him. In the last chapter, he intentionally considers himself as the bad child since he trusts Caroline and not Enid anymore.

Everything in St. Jude strove to put him in the wrong. But in the months since he’d surrendered to Caroline [...] he’d reconciled himself to being the villain in St. Jude. When you know in advance that your mother would consider you the villain no matter what you did, you lost your incentive to play by her rules. (513)

Yet, there is no given reason to trust them both but it seems that by trusting Caroline his resentment he had first against her is now directed against his mother.

Nevertheless, for the reader it appears illogical that Gary finally starts to trust his wife after 20 years of marriage, but somehow stops to trust his mother. What has moved him to change finally the sides and why is it not possible for him to live trustfully to both of them? An answer for this question can be found at the end of the third chapter. Gary’s relationship to his mother in a nutshell, is build up on her high expectations he is in pursue to accomplish. It appears likely that he resigns after such a long time and believes to accomplish at least Caroline’s expectations. More convincingly though, is that Gary himself feels cheated on. Nearly at the end of the third chapter, Gary does not dare to tell it her mother but at least thinks: “Of your three children, my life looks by far the most like yours! I have what you taught me to want! And now that I have it, you disapprove of it!” (230). That explains why he totally turns against Enid because he sees that in spite of his effort he is not her favourite child. Gary who wanted to live his life as closest as possible to his parent’s expectations finally finds out that all his effort to be the favourite child was in vain.

Nevertheless, he did not only fail to fulfil his parent’s expectations; he failed to fulfil his own expectations as well. Gary’s wishes that “his whole family, even Chip, would eventually settle in Philadelphia” (228) show how much he wished to be the centre of the family. Therefore, with regard to Gary’s yearning to be the centre the family, it is even more apparent how deeply he must have been disappointed by Enid. However, his own expectation was not only to do it better than his siblings and be the centre of the family but also not to become like his parents. Unfortunately, while self-meditating Gary concludes that his “forty hours at the bank had become the only hours he could count on enjoying in a week” (203). Furthermore, he realizes that “spending long hours at the office to escape unhappiness at home was exactly the trap his father had fallen into” (203). Gary who “set up his whole life as a correction of his father’s life” (189) finally becomes conscious of having the same problems his father had. Besides, “he and Caroline had long agreed that Alfred was clinically depressed, and clinical depression was known to have genetic bases and to be substantially heritable” (189). Regarding the fact, that he wanted to have a different life to his father’s one; it becomes apparent that he cannot resign to Caroline and tell her about his depressions.

Finally, this argument leads back to his paranoia and depression. Therefore, it seems that after all no argument could adequately explain Gary’s problem. An issue however, that is fundamentally root of all the given arguments, is that Gary is incapable to take responsibility. First, he is incapable to take responsibility for his own health. When Gary asks Caroline what she wants from him, she says “’I need you to take responsibility for your mental health.’” (213). Both know that he inherited his father’s susceptibility for depressions but by denying to admit it, he also refuses to take responsibility of his own health. The many books on Caroline’s nightstand proof that she wants to help her husband with his problem. In a way, she takes the responsibility of his health. Secondly, he failed to take responsibility for his wife and children. Partly he feels isolated by his wife and his two older sons. Then he shows up at Christmas without his family and tells Denise that “[t]hings are more complicated when you have multiple responsibilities” (517). He left his wife and children at home and his responsibility for them as husband and father to care for them on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, Gary decides to come on Christmas to St. Jude because of his responsibility of his parents.

“Alfred seemed forever on the verge of derailing [...] the old iron horse was careering toward a crash, and Gary could hardly stand to look. Because who else, if not Gary, was going to take responsibility? Enid was hysterical and moralizing, Denise lived in a fantasyland, and Chip hadn’t been to St. Jude in three years. Who else but Gary was going to say: This train should not be running on these tracks?” (181)

He as the oldest son is the only one who supposedly knows what to do and able to take responsibility of his whole family. However, it turns out that he even fails to take responsibility of them. In the last scene, he walks “out of the house with Alfred on the floor and Enid’s Christmas breakfast in ruins” (577). His younger brother Chip finally recognizes why Gary cannot take any responsibilities. Gary does not miss his last chance to take responsibility because he is incapable of; Chip can see “behind the cold front of Gary’s wordless departure: his brother was afraid” (577).

All in all, Gary’s life seem to resemble the way Franzen described how life in a nowadays culture is supposed to be:

We live in a reductively binary culture: you’re either healthy or you’re sick, you either function or you don’t. And if that flattening of the field of possibilities is precisely what’s depressing you, you’re inclined to resist participating in the flattening by calling yourself depressed. (Franzen, HTBA, 72)

Therefore, Gary as a member of contemporary culture has no other choice than to be a flat character. He is either paranoid or he is not; he is either depressed or not; he is either trustful to his wife or his mother; he is either responsible or not, but he cannot be both.

3. Chip’s insecurities

Chip whose story is mainly told in the second paragraph The Failure makes a living by proofreading and has a completely different life as Gary:

Except for his Manhattan apartment and his handsome girlfriend, Julia Vrais, almost nothing to persuade himself to persuade himself that he was a functioning male adult, no accomplishments to compare with those of his brother, Gary who was a banker and a father of three, or of his sister Denise, who at the age of thirty-two was the executive chef at a new high-end restaurant in Philadelphia. (19)


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"The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen: Character Analysis
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Anonym, 2008, "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen: Character Analysis, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/167112


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