What if Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters had been bright young graduates of Bowdoin or Colgate or Dartmouth, with protective parents, impressive résumés, and no pressure to wed for anything save love? What if Theodore Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths had been an ambitious young investment banker, with no need to marry money (or murder his mistress!) to secure his place in the sun? What if Anna Karenina had simply divorced her husband when she tired of him? What if Mr. Rochester had dumped his deranged wife and married the au pair, consigning the first Mrs. Rochester to the care of a generous welfare state instead of his attic?And yet the sprawling, tangled, tragic, comic, trivial and inspiring canvas of experience which make up intergenerational family life across a swath of time seem like the one thing which, even in our own time, should be completely fascinating. Franzen's book does not sound like one I want to read, and yet just reading the description of his failure makes me very much want to read someone who has succeeded at the project. I wish I thought I knew how (and had the time) to write such a thing.
They might have been no happier. Consider the musings of Patty Berglund, a privileged, prosperous, and liberated daughter of today’s liberal gentry, whose marital difficulties supply much of what drama there is in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom:
Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.No happier, indeed, but possibly less interesting than a Lizzie Bennet or a Rochester, no? A bit more self-indulgent, irritating, and entitled? And thus a little bit harder for a reader to care about, in the absence of the external obstacles and pressures—class and wealth, cultural convention and social stigma, to say nothing of religious and ethical taboos—that generate most of the conflict, and most of the sympathy, in the novels of an Austen or a Brontë, a George Eliot or an Anthony Trollope?