On Beauty: Franzen’s Shallow Male Problem

I had many problems with Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. The book had me hooked and turning pages from the first. There’s plenty of intrigue–a murder; the mystery of the title character’s parentage; unfolding backstories that link assorted melodramatic subplots, far-flung over geography and time. But to a large degree I was racing through it in search of some comment that might show the author to have a less shallow, more mature and nuanced perspective on women than his male characters exhibit. The absence of that was one of my biggest disappointments. In an essay at Salon, Lyz Lenz echoes and perfectly crystallizes one of my issues with Franzen’s depictions of women:

Pip, the main character, is often described as “pretty” and herself describes other women in terms of their beauty. Pretty faces, pretty fingers, beautiful women and beautiful weeping clog the pages of the book. After page 70, I began counting every time I saw the words “beauty,” “beautiful” and “pretty.” By page 412 I had reached 50 and all of them related to women. The problem with calling a woman beautiful is that it is not a description. Beauty is a judgment. With the exception of Anabel, none of the female characters in the book are allowed to move beyond this judgment. In the over 500 pages, Pip, Annagret and the rotating cast of ancillary women are never allowed more than their shades of beauty…

…the women of the novel lay flat on the page, subject to the whims of the male gaze that created them.

This is also a misstep Franzen has made off the page — he once famously declared that Edith Wharton’s greatest disadvantage was that she wasn’t pretty. Franzen, it seems, can’t see women beyond the binary of beautiful or not. It would seem to be both a personal problem and a writing problem. As Dickens and Wolfe learned, every kind of person should be allowed to be fully actualized on the page. Holding female characters under the thumb of narrative judgment denies them humanity. And this is a contrast to the thesis of “Purity,” which argues rather that the modern, digtal world of Facebook, Twitter and web journalism is alienating — bodies, though confounding, are the conduit to redemption. Yet, by not allowing female bodies to be truly seen, Franzen undercuts his own thesis. It is not the Internet that is the alienating force in his novel, but a writer who can see a dog better than his own protagonist.

Read the story