Purity by Jonathan Franzen, Reviewed

When a modern work builds itself overtly on a literary classic, it is usually a homage or some sort of retort, either revealing the modern applicability of the central tensions or filling in the spaces that the canon leaves blank.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, for example, adapts Pride and Prejudice to a modern setting, revealing similarly the trials of single-womanhood and the perils of romantic entanglements, and ultimately confirming Austen’s conclusion that the best patriarchy can offer women is an affectionate and materially beneficial match.

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea gives voice to the Victorian figure of the madwoman in the attic, telling the story of Mr Rochester’s first wife, a white Creole heiress called Antoinette Cosway, the unspoken other half of Jane Eyre.

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, is very pleased with its parallels with Great Expectations: the references are pointed up clumsily and ad nauseam. At first, I was not quite sure what the purpose of the parallels really was – certainly neither homage nor retort – and then I began to fear that I understood.

If the novel’s intentions are what I think they are, the implications are pretty ugly.


It seems crass to criticise a book purely on its politics, so I generally try to resist the temptation, but perhaps if a novel sets itself up as a modern Dickensian tale – a moral tale – then it is not only excusable, but the reader’s duty to read it on those terms.

Like Great Expectations, Purity is a mammoth of a book, self-serious, shamelessly sentimental and desperately playing to the pits. In ways, it is a rollicking read, full of intrigue, secrets, lies and sex scenes that are almost beguiling for their prudish rendition.

Franzen’s writing is often charmingly pithy and inoffensively humorous, the overbearing authorial voice, the ambitious reach, the thinly veiled earnestness all endearing in their own way. There are wonderful sentences: “around her ribs and waist were curves of the kind that wind carves in snowdrifts,” and a lovely description of Choco the dog, “his grin was silly, possibly in a sly way, suggesting awareness of his more general silliness as a dog.”

Then there are the shop-talking bits, in the form of snipes at the London Review of Books and so on, and the obnoxious self-referential bits, which only full quotes can do justice to:

“And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire?” says the failed novelist, “So many of my students are . . . So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.” [The weird punctuation is the author’s own.]


“Being a novelist, Charles had guessed and gleefully trumpeted pretty much every feeling she’d ever had about Tom.”

One can only wince and move on.

As for the Great Expectations theme, here is how it plays out: instead of an orphan boy, the protagonist, Pip, is a fatherless girl originally named Purity.

She has a student loan to pay off and gets entangled in all sorts of moral scrapes, sexual encounters, and edifying tribulations before her instinctive purity of conscience sees her through to financial stability and an approximation to the nuclear family.

Without giving the end away, it suffices to say that the final chapter is a truly nauseating blend of Hollywood-version minor do-goodery and cloying dialogue better placed in a teen romcom.

This is all made more (or maybe less?) sinister by the horrible suspicion that Purity is not supposed to be the female version of Great Expectations – but the American one.

Doing Freud Proud

Sandwiched in Pip’s narrative are the perspectives of two older men, Andreas and Tom, and Tom’s partner, Leila. Tom’s is the most readable. The story takes us to various parts of the US and South America, and to East Berlin both during and after the Wall.

To say that the characters are two-dimensional would be inaccurate, for great effort has been made to adhere to psychoanalytic principles, or, rather reductive and outdated versions of them. Tom’s “feminist marriage”, for example, involves soothing his wife’s penis envy by promising to sit down when he urinates. To read Purity, one would think that psychoanalytic theory has not developed at all in a hundred years.

Needless to say, this pans out rather badly for the female characters, who are shrill, spooky and literally hysterical creatures, pure and cunning, innocent and monstrous and so on – all except Pip, who leads the way to heteronormative psychic health.

Until halfway through – what with vocabulary like “projecting”, “pussy-centric”, “death-drive”, and heaps of Oedipal references – I thought that this might all be intentional: a tiresome, we-get-the-point parody of such ideas of the mind, though how that squares with Dickens is another conundrum.

But as the plot thickened, I was plagued by the mounting suspicion that this is not parody. The psychoanalytic explication is more likely an attempt to lend depth. The misappropriated fag ends of feminist discourse in which the women speak might not be an intentional comment on the sound-bite nature of pop politics at all, but a genuine attempt to write feminist characters.

The New World

Andreas is supposed to be charming and intellectually brilliant. This brilliance is rather unconvincing, revealing itself in a tendency to think in and quote passages from Hamlet well into his adult years.

He was born and raised in East Berlin by a Gertrude-/Clytemnestra-type mother, Katya, whom he has predictably murderous and incestuous thoughts about. An accidentally world-renowned figure of truth and integrity, he runs The Sunlight Project – a better-than-Wikileaks project aimed at using the Internet to uncover all the world’s dark truths.

Tom is the son of an immigrant mother and an American father. He is a journalist with integrity, who, for various personal and political reasons, wants nothing to do with Andreas.

Because he did not escape from Europe and become American like all the novel’s decent sorts did, Andreas is deeply corrupted, and – this seems to be the book’s central tenet – this corruption, is rooted, paradoxically, in a lack of compromise. He is besmirched precisely by the purity of his convictions – his extremism – which is itself founded in the dirty secrets buried in Europe’s soil.

Unlike the fresh start that America offers, the Europe of this book is inherently filthy. Somehow, even the European characters, who have lived there all their lives, are offended by the Old World’s inferior standards of hygiene.

Tom’s German mother yearned for fresh air, as she sat on a train that “stank of socialist underarm”, to leave a place “befouled with cheap tobacco smoke”, only to meet a nice clean American, who saves her.

And nothing changed. Years later, her poor son has a terrible time in East Berlin, when he brings his mother there to die and ends up sleeping in a bed whose “linen hadn’t been clean to begin with”, and has to accustom himself to “the squalor”.

There are dirty places in America too, but Pip soon cleans them up.

The Moral of the Tale

If we interpret the moral of Great Expectations to be that while there are more important things than class, wealth can be earned through good instinct and a will to self-improvement, then it becomes something akin to the American Dream.

The moral of Purity could be based on this reading. The not-quite-self-made America of the novel is morally superior to stinky old Europe with its complicated history and its baggage of extremist ideologies.

Through her experience of the real world, real work, and real history, Pip realises that one should not feel guilty about inherited wealth, and while money is not everything, a little bit helps. Her too-earnest, too-brittle mother is self-destructive, but Pip will manage to bring together the strands of her history, to make a New World:

“The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously . . . 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 that she might.”

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Elske Rahill: Elske Rahill’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies in Europe and the US. She is the author of the novel Between Dog and Wolf (Lilliput Press, 2013) and her short-story collection In White Ink is coming out this October (Lilliput Press/Head of Zeus).

Reader responses

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Cac O'Day
at 25 November 2015 at 11:57


I enjoyed this review. You rarely come across criticism like this of a ‘great’ contemporary writer, which isn’t gratuitously vindictive, but funny and well argued, so thanks.

Cac O’Day

at 3 December 2015 at 01:56

The whole article is based on a straw man. Come on, InQuirer, hold your writers to the same standards that any professor would hold an 18-year-old freshman to. Franzen has made it very clear in multiple interviews that he hasn’t read Great Expectations since he was a kid and that Purity is in only the most glancing ways invested in something Dickensian (as opposed to, say, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which is thoroughgoing in its entanglement with Great Expectations). Rahill seems like she got a memo at some point telling her that women and people of color are supposed to be dismissive of Franzen and so has written this pithy and shortsighted essay in line with the politically correct memes of the day. Shoddy and bigoted journalism indeed.

Annie Zannetti
at 4 May 2016 at 14:40

Very entertaining and informative review. Thank you!

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