In Praise of the Realistic Hope of Jonathan Franzen’s Endings
Jessie Gaynor on Leaving Room for the Possibility of Something Better
I’m almost sure I got my job at Lit Hub because, in my first interview, I offered my hottest Jonathan Franzen take: his books are very fun to read. In the three years since I blew the minds of no fewer than two (okay, exactly two) Lit Hub editors with this stunningly articulated revelation, I’ve figured out something else about Franzen’s novels. In addition to being spectacular page-turners, they are, at their cores, hopeful.
If you’ve read Franzen’s 2019 essay on the climate apocalypse, you’ll know that he’s not one for reckless expressions of hope—unrealistic hope, as he calls it.
If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about [climate change]. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
With the distance of two years, the essay feels much kinder than I recall people giving it credit for at the time. But then, this is my general sense of Franzen as a writer: he is realistically hopeful. He writes deeply flawed characters and smashes them against the walls and the floors and each other like a kid battering Barbie dolls, and then he grants them kind resolutions.
In his novels (which are, it bears repeating, fun as hell to read), Franzen humbles his characters to an outlandish degree. Consider The Corrections’ Chip in the last page of the novel, walking across the Lithuanian border into Poland on Christmas Eve, divested of his leather pants and arguably ill-gotten cash by the country’s corrupt police, and minus his best friend. It’s in that moment that Franzen allows Chip the grace—the realistic hope—of a moment of creative revelation.
He was straining to hear whether any of the homicidal farm dogs in the surrounding darkness might be unleashed, he had his arms outstretched, he was feeling more than a little ridiculous, when he remembered Gitanas’s remark: tragedy rewritten as a farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he’d written a thriller when he should have written a farce.
Oh, and he makes it home for family Christmas—his mother’s fondest, most obsessive wish.
Freedom, too, ends in a place of hope, this one hewing even more closely to a textbook Happy Ending. In its final pages, the novel’s central couple, Patty and Walter, are reunited. This follows, of course, Biblical betrayal and years of deep unhappiness on both sides, as well as a self-humbling; Patty prostrates herself at Walter’s doorstep (by this point she has also found peace with her unpleasant, unfortunate family and repaired her relationship her her daughter), giving herself mild hypothermia in the process. The book’s epilogue sees Walter and Patty happily together, at a neighbor’s Christmas party. (Wait, does Jonathan Franzen just love Christmas?)
Purity ends with perhaps the most pragmatic note of hope. After the titular Purity (Pip) has reunited with her mother (whose mental illness, it must be said, does not benefit from Franzen’s lightest touch), she brings her parents together for the first time since her physiologically dubious conception. As Pip sits in the car outside her mother’s house, listening to her parents “shouting at each other viciously,” she grips her good-hearted boyfriend’s hand and considers her emotional future.
It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe she might.
These endings aren’t pyrotechnic in their joy. They’re the result of a certain acceptance, with an allowance for genuine change. At the risk of making a grand statement, they seem to me like the perfect endings for this moment in time.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the possibility of something better.