The Novels of Tension Between Freedom and Disaster

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Thomas Jones: The Bard, 1774

Different kinds of stories draw us into different worlds of feeling. That is the idea I am trying to get across with these four broad narrative categories I’ve proposed to map out. What brings novels together into this group or that is not, banally, the content, but the values driving the story. Or the distinctive conflict of values and consequent emotions that set the mood and determine the action.

After I wrote about novels characterized by their focus on belonging—the concern with being in or out of a certain community, worthy or unworthy of its membership—a reader suggested I should have included Mark Twain in my list, mentioning The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s true that Twain is wonderfully attuned to the communities he describes, their speech and customs. But what drives the plot of Huckleberry Finn is the desire for freedom, Huck’s desire, Jim’s desire. The suffocating shirt collar is rejected for the great outdoors. Liberty trumps belonging at every turn. Twain rubs this in with his account of the feud between the Grangerford and Shepherdson clans, two families obsessed by belonging and family identity to the exclusion of all other values. Huck’s instinct is to hightail it out of there.

But a free life is a precarious life, precarious as the river with its flotsam of corpses and criminals. A man striking for freedom might occasionally reflect he had been safer with his chains. Here is a source of inner conflict. Independent and free on their raft, Huck and Jim are entirely unprotected, from man or nature. At the end of the book, Huck realizes some accommodation must be made with community, for the security and opportunities it offers; but by that point, he has established an inner independence.

Another reader suggested John Updike as a writer of belonging. And when, in the second essay in the series, I talked about narratives driven by the tension between wanting to indulge one’s desires (often, sexual desires) and at the same time needing to think of oneself as morally good (a conflict between the urge to indulge and a sense of repulsion), again someone brought up Updike’s name: Why hadn’t I included the novelist, fascinated as he was with sexual infidelity?

Updike does write brilliantly of urban and suburban communities. His characters often find themselves in dilemmas related to their sex lives. But what threatens to thwart their urges is not a moral repulsion or self-disgust, of the variety one finds in Tolstoy, or Jelinek, or Coetzee, or Pavese; on the contrary, nobody strove to make sensuality more lush and alluring than Updike. It is a fear of practical consequences: destroying a marriage perhaps, or getting trapped in a relationship when one wanted only the romance. In one short story, Updike has a philandering protagonist recall that the best moments in an affair are those in which you close the door of your lover’s house behind you with a triumphant feeling that you got away with it.

In this regard, Updike’s work aligns itself with Twain’s. Liberty is the positive emotion, conflicted by a need for safety, in a world that is unspeakably attractive and dangerous. We look to fiction, Updike wrote, in an essay on book covers, “not only for stimulation, but for reassurance.”

Here is the force field of values and emotions that gives us our third category—a yearning to be free held in tension with an intense trepidation for the consequences. Some of our writers will line up on the side of caution: Thomas Hardy, Per Petterson, Lydia Davis, Peter Stamm—in their world, the risk is rarely worth it, so inevitable and disastrous are the consequences of breaking free. Storytelling perhaps becomes a vicarious substitute for adventure.

Others are recklessly bold: George Sand, Stendhal, D.H. Lawrence, Philip Roth—for them, not to risk is a betrayal of one’s potential. Others again seem nicely poised between the two: Alphonse de Lamartine, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Updike himself. I deliberately choose authors from different times and climes, but behind them all stands the monumental figure of Montaigne who wrote: “I am so sick for freedom, that if anyone should forbid me access to some corner of the Indies, I should live distinctly less comfortably.” And again, “the thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear,” because the fearful man has lost his freedom.

George Sand inhabited this dilemma acutely. Born Aurore Dupin to a poor woman of uncertain reputation and a “terribly spoiled” aristocrat, she spent a childhood lodged as an “apple of discord” between her rich paternal grandmother and lowly mother. Her father died in a horse-riding accident when she was four. Three other children born to the same couple had died very young. Life was precarious. “My two mothers… ripped my heart to shreds,” she later wrote. Eventually handed over to her grandmother in return for money, she resolved that all her life would be a struggle not to be an object of possession for others.


When her grandmother took to dressing her up in men’s clothes, to have her look more like the father who had died, Aurore realized how free boys were compared to girls. They could roam the countryside alone. Finding education “a prison” and threatening to run away to her mother in Paris, she was sent to a convent, where, after a period of unhappy rebellion, she discovered her writerly vocation. She grasped, she later explained, that choosing God as a source of security, rather than grandmothers and school tutors, allowed her to feel freer. Reconciling obedience and independence, she set out to impress the nuns by “composing charades, theatre sketches and morality plays.” “The convent had become my paradise on earth,” she wrote. There she had “absolute liberty within walls that I cherished.”

This is a condition to which the characters of her novels aspire—for the most part, in vain, swinging back and forth between giddy excitement and deep dejection. Depression is never far away. Brought home from the convent when her grandmother feared she was planning to become a nun, Aurore sank into “pathological hopelessness,” and, out riding in men’s clothes, aged seventeen, tried to kill herself by plunging her horse into the river. Character after character in her fifty-eight novels would make similar attempts, and always because the desire to live free seemed irretrievably thwarted by limitations of one kind or another: an imprisoning husband, social prejudice, fraternal jealousy.

Aurore wrote her first novel, Indiana, as a man—George Sand—using all the masculine inflections French requires, luxuriating in liberation from woman’s subject condition, the condition her heroine Indiana is trapped in. “Men,” her male narrator reflects, “especially lovers, are addicted to the innocent fatuity of preferring to protect weakness rather than to admire courage in womankind.”

Indiana has courage aplenty; the problem is learning how to use it wisely. The rash mistake that proves fatal is a constant trope in these novels. Life is so enticing that the inexperienced youngster moves heedlessly toward it. To escape a loveless home, Indiana rushes into a marriage with an older, authoritarian colonel (as the young Aurore Dupin rushed into marriage with a military man). A handsome young aristocrat promises to save her from this living death, but to become his lover would merely be another mistake.

Fortunately, Indiana is now attuned to danger, she senses that, though not evil (moral considerations are always attenuated in novels of this category), he is blindly acting out a role that society allows to a rich young man, that of the dashing philanderer. In two headily sensual, tantalisingly drawn-out scenes, she is constantly on the brink of giving herself sexually, but manages to hold back. Again, this is a frequent trope of this category: sex is immensely enticing but awesomely perilous.

Finally, Indiana realises that her inconspicuous cousin Ralph is the only one who really loves her. Unable to live together in a world that considers Indiana legally bound to someone else, the two enter into a suicide pact—only death can bring freedom—but then change their minds and withdraw to a remote island where they “loved each other in perfect security… despising public opinion.” In a letter to Flaubert, Sand would later insist: “No real friendship without ABSO­LUTE liberty.”

Something terrible is about to happen, but how wonderful if it didn’t. Or again: something wonderful is about to happen, but how terrible if it didn’t. Characters in these novels live in a constant state of anxiety and expectation, a mood immediately communicated to the reader who is to spend the pages of these apprehensive books forever on the edge of their chair.

Here is Hardy from early in Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

All these young souls were passengers in the Durbeyfield ship, entirely dependent on the judgement of the two Durbeyfield adults for their pleasures, their necessities, the health, even their existence. If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them—six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions…

Here is Lydia Davis opening her story “The Fears of Mrs Orlando”:

Mrs. Orlando’s world is a dark one. In her house she knows what is dangerous: the gas stove, the steep stairs, the slick bathtub, and several kinds of bad wiring.

Jhumpa Lahiri starting In Other Words:


I want to cross a small lake. It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities. I’m aware that the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water without any support.

The first paragraph of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses offers an image of small birds banging into the window of the narrator’s remote cabin home and falling dizzily into the evening snow. Warm inside, the aging Trond Sander observes, “I don’t know what they want that I have.” Proximity to a wayward nature, in which collisions and deaths are ever in the wind, is a constant in Petterson’s fiction. There is a great deal of weather in his stories and it is always bewitching and treacherous, like the woman who destroyed Sander’s life by seducing his father and leading him to abandon his son.

Fear is the most common emotion in Petterson’s work, courage the quality most prized. Practical competence with tools, animals, guns, and vehicles is much admired. Meticulous descriptions explain how to use a chainsaw so you won’t get hurt, how to prepare a home against the winter, how to stack logs on a sloping river bank, how to save a drowning man. Sander would have been a useful companion for Huck Finn. This is not the guilt-ridden control of one’s own questionable impulses, as with our writers obsessed with good and evil (Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Jelinek), but a precautionary control of the world, a wariness of one’s own inexperience. When the desire for freedom leads to some fatal transgression, one does not talk about guilt but about having made a mistake—Tess Durbeyfield’s mistake succumbing to Alec D’Urberville, for example. As writers, the authors in our category are competent builders, and the book itself is a vehicle for both exploring and containing danger.

Given this play of feelings, what the characters ask of one another is: Can I trust you, can you protect me? In both Out Stealing Horses and Petterson’s earlier novel To Siberia, a young person on the brink of adulthood loses the one relationship (father, brother) that made it possible to look at an inclement world with confidence and is crippled for life as a result. One of the fiercest conflicts in this kind of fiction comes when a character’s yearning for freedom is at odds with a felt duty to protect. In Roth’s Nemesis, Bucky, a gym teacher who organizes summer games outdoors for children during the polio outbreak of 1944, yearns to be free to join his rich girlfriend who has escaped the outbreak to go off to a camp in the country. But Bucky owes these young people his expert care. When he follows his instinct to be free, catastrophe results.

Conversely, in Roth’s Indignation, when the young hero Marcus heads for university during the Korean War, his protective Jewish father is suddenly and inexplicably afraid that any misbehavior on his son’s part—and at once, we know he means sexual misbehavior—will lead to the boy’s being expelled and thus exposed to the draft and inevitable death. Marcus is so infected by his father’s anxieties that, excited by a girl in the university library, he holds back from masturbating in the bathroom lest discovery should lead exactly to such a disaster. A frame is created in which the erotic drive is experienced as potentially calamitous. The same tension occurs in more comic fashion at the opening to Sabbath’s Theater, when the hero’s long-time mistress presents him with the ultimatum “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” Total freedom must be surrendered to exercise a duty toward a partner in transgression.

With all these authors, the imprisoning apprehension of the dangers lurking behind every action only heightens the yearning for a free, full life. “The tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences,” we hear in Indignation; “A brief glance in the wrong direction… could toss his existence over a cliff,” we are told in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “A Choice of Accommodations.” Perhaps this is why these authors are unbeatable for erotic intensity. Nobody hears the sirens sing so sweetly and ruinously. Hardy’s Tess:

She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake’s. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her…
Then those eyes flashed brightly through their filmy heaviness, before the remainder of her face was well awake. With an oddly compounded look of gladness, shyness and surprise, she exclaimed—
“O Mr. Clare! How you frightened me.”

When it all goes wrong, as it must, the characters are actually relieved that the intensity is over. Peter Stamm compares his protagonist in Seven Years to soldiers who go “freely to their graves to protect themselves from death.” When disaster strikes, he “felt a great feeling of calm and a kind of relief.” Hardy’s Tess yearns to be “grassed down and forgotten.” Eroticism is swiftly sublimated as the yearning individual allows him- or herself to be absorbed into impersonal nature. George Sand’s characters plunge into rivers or mountain gorges. Petterson’s trudge in the deep snow. Again, Thomas Hardy is the most luxuriant and extreme: when the world falls apart for Clym in The Return of the Native, he annihilates himself by taking the most menial of menial jobs, cutting gorse on Egdon Heath:

Strange amber-coloured butterflies… quivered in the breath of his lips, alighted upon his bowed back, and sported with the glittering point of his hook as he flourished it up and down. Tribes of emerald-green grasshoppers leaped over his feet… Huge flies, ignorant of larders and wire-netting, and quite in a savage state, buzzed about him without knowing that he was a man. In and out of the fern-dells snakes glided in their most brilliant blue and yellow guise, it being the season immediately following the shedding of their old skins, when their colours are brightest. Litters of young rabbits came out from their forms to sun themselves upon hillocks, the hot beams blazing through the delicate tissue of each thin-fleshed ear, and firing it to a blood-red transparency in which the veins could be seen. None of them feared him.

This abandonment of self offers a melancholy echo of what, for the more optimistic authors in this category, occurs when sex goes well. Anxious identity is excitingly surrendered. He was “smeared away into the beyond,” we hear of Paul in Sons and Lovers, when he and Miriam at last make love. He felt himself “melt[ing] out into the darkness,” it was a “reaching-out to death.”

A warning. Writers in this category may sometimes seem conventional and correct, but only out of caution. Hardy was scrupulously present in church, despite his agnosticism; George Sand was careful to stop her son marrying a girl who was illegitimate, despite her own determination to be free from convention. Alternatively, they may go out of the way to provoke—as with Lawrence, challenging all the received ideas of his time, or Roth flagrantly describing scenes of masturbation, and much else. But whether these writers were cautious or reckless in their own lives, the drift of their work is always against social constriction of whatever kind. For the sheer pleasure and danger of it, let’s wind up this category with a few words on one of its most strenuous and bizarre practitioners: Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal.  

Following his mother’s death when he was seven, Henri’s dull, royalist father enlisted a harridan aunt and a Jesuit tutor to bring up the boy. Henri loathed them both. Condemned to hiding his feelings and scheming behind their backs in “impotent hatred,” he began a habit of secrecy that would last a lifetime. Fortunately, there was a heroically independent great aunt who paid, secretly, for the private lessons in mathematics that enabled Henri to win a school prize and set off for Paris to study. Competence brought freedom.

In Paris, he joined Napoleon’s army and, in 1800, aged seventeen, set off for Italy, which immediately seemed the place for the free and full expression he had been yearning for. Just one evening watching Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage in the small town of Novara was enough to convert him for life. This sense of fatality, whether positive or negative, is typical of novels in this category. One look, one moment, is enough. Which is why life is so dangerous and exciting.

Henri’s thirst for freedom now bordered on the pathological. He must be free from his father and family, free from his own name, free from France and the French, free from irksome responsibilities, from money worries, from people and places that bored him, free, in particular, from the anxieties that have us seeking the approval of our peers, which is to say, from vanity, the great scourge, as he saw it, of modern society. “The more I go on,” he writes in 1812, “the more ambition disgusts me. It is simply putting one’s happiness in the hands of others.”    

Free to do what, though? To travel. To support outlawed ideas. To plagiarize. To lie. To be candid. Free to say dangerous things in polite conversation and watch the faces of the fainthearted grow pale. In particular, he yearned for the freedom to express whatever he felt. For another man’s wife for example. He didn’t accept that he should be ashamed of such things. He must be free to make love to whomever he wanted to, but also to move on when a partner’s attentions began to present themselves as a trap. He spoke excitedly of the freedom to slip a hand up a woman’s skirt, “where the ebony starts to shade the lily.” Stendhal would not have survived the MeToo era.

Were such passions compatible with freedom? Obviously not; to be in love was like being “overwhelmed by some superior force.” But at least it was a noble slavery, unlike dependence on other people for money and approval. This was one of the things Stendhal wanted to be free to write about. Though writing itself was “a silk prison,” a cocoon you spin, worm-like, around yourself—a refuge and a trap. No sooner do you begin a piece of writing than it becomes a job. “The imagination flies elsewhere, this book is thus interrupted.”

It should be no surprise, then, to find Stendhal writing his masterpiece, The Charterhouse of Parma, all 500 brilliant pages of it, at breakneck speed (only fifty-two days) as if afraid the book might lose interest for him. During that time he shut himself up in his room, like a prisoner enslaved to the passion of his story, a story that tells of a man so passionately in love that he is happy to remain imprisoned in a cell because its window affords a view of the courtyard where his beloved can be seen every day. No other book holds together so perfectly the exhilaration of choosing to  be free, and the horror of the consequent entrapment.

For the full series on literary categories, click here.

An earlier version of this essay misidentified John Updike as a New Englander; though he was a longtime resident of Massachusetts, he was a native Pennsylvanian. 

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