"Forever Fearful of a Crash": Family Vis-a-Vis Materialism in Jonathan Franzen's the Corrections

Article excerpt

Jonathan Franzen's National Book Award winning novel, The Corrections (London: Fourth Estate, 2001) meditates on his characteristic concern, namely, an America devastated by the commercialization of human bonds and familial ties. In James Annesley's view, this novel focuses on the repercussions attendant on "the shift in the American economic fortunes at the end of the twentieth century affected by market corrections" which is foregrounded in the title of the novel itself ("Market Corrections: Jonathan Franzen and the Novel of Globalization." Journal of Modern Literature. 29.2 [2006]: 111). Stridently satirical, Franzen's novel explores a naturalistic world of self-seeking individuals that is obsessed with money. Situating his narrative in the Clinton-Bush era of globalized consumerism, Franzen's parable of the Lambert family is enmeshed into a narrative that addresses a range of issues including the power wielded by giant pharmaceuticals such as the "Axon Corporation" (193), the influence of international brands, "Global Warming" (503), mass migrations, spread of globalized economy and "free market" (505) in post-Soviet countries like Lithuania, international media and the internet boom. The Corrections sustains a critique of the massive American consumer society in registering how it irreversibly depletes human values often testified to in the alienation of individuals.

The Corrections underscores the pernicious effects of consumerism that perverts work ethics, familial values, individual psychology and even sexuality. The conservative Midwestern town, St. Jude, where the septuagenarian Lamberts Alfred and Enid reside, becomes the moral centre of the novel, as they rally to reunite their broken family for a final Christmas get-together. The Lamberts signify a legacy of cherished family values and Protestant work ethics that increasingly finds itself a misfit in the market- driven contemporary America.

The irony surfaces forcefully when Chip, the second son of the Lamberts, is dismissed from service in the college on his father's birthday. Intriguingly, Alfred returns his son's wishes by his exhortation that "A great worker is almost impossible to fire" (99). Alfred at seventy-nine still prides himself as the skillful metallurgist and engineer of Midland Pacific Railroad where his subordinates always used to address him as "sir" (78). His constant preoccupations with metallurgical innovations in his basement bespeak the masculine Yankee spirit of self-reliance. The indomitable Alfred remains the archetypal patriarch to the end. Even after suffering the fatal fall during the final luxury cruise he reflects, "All I hurt when I fell was my dignity" (500). His refusal to accept his physical and mental debility owing to Parkinson's attests to the poignant failure of his ideals under the imperatives of contemporary globalization.

Like Alfred, Enid too espouses strong family values. A busybody and a domineering housewife, Enid with her proverbial optimism forever works to regulate the lives of her family members often leaving them incensed. At home she plays the "guerrilla" (6) spying on her husband. Her dreams of a successful career for Chip do not rise above a fantasy; pathetically enough for her, Chip lies about his job at the prestigious "Wall Street Journal" (22) when for all practical purposes he is unemployed. Similarly, her hopes of a successful married life for Denise turn to dust when the marriage itself breaks up. For all her optimism, Enid remains strangely a victim of the modern market culture. Her deep faith in the curative properties of the Corecktall process for her husband's dementia is shattered learning that the Axon Corporation's sole aim is "to help the rich get richer" (225). The insecurity of the old in a frenzied materialistic world is starkly evidenced in Enid's nightly errands of managing "paid bills, balanced checkbooks, Medicare co-payment records ... " (6). Yearning to see her loved ones united as a happy family, she finds herself distraught confronted with the fact that familial values are constantly beleaguered by the competitive forces of the market. …