Shame and The Corrections
A prefatory note before beginning: Those unfamiliar with both the story of the Fall as depicted in Genesis 3 and the allegorical figure of Aslan from the popular series The Chronicles of Narnia would do well to make at least a cursory Google search of both before reading the following brief commentary.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, one of the best works of fiction in the last thirty years, winner of both the National Book Award and Literary Critics Circle Award, is preoccupied with several recurring themes (the family and eroding beliefs, technology and changing culture, physical and mental loss, displacement, et cetera), which manifest themselves in myriad cleverly disguised forms throughout. One of these themes, one of the principle themes, I would argue, with which the work is concerned is shame. It seems appropriate then, before beginning our analysis proper, to define shame: ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.’ This feeling, which besets each member of the Lambert family, and is addressed differently by each (Chip by embracing his identity as a shameful man, Gary by saying the shame he feels is the result of the doings of others and thus beyond his control, Enid by reliance on mood altering pharmaceuticals, Alfred by denying shame by holding stubbornly to notions of how things are but which they obviously, to the reader, are not, and Denise by maintaining an outwardly respectable façade of being anything but shameful) this feeling of shame is of particular interest when viewed in conjunction with the ideas of the Fall of man in the garden of Eden and Aslan, the metaphorical Jesus of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
A pharmaceutical drug appears throughout The Corrections but under different names, so that it isn’t until near the end of the novel that we understand the little pills that have repeatedly popped up are all one and the same, and we understand this by virtue of a late description of the pill as being stamped with the likeness of a lion. First making an appearance as ‘Mexican A’, the pills enable Chip Lambert to have shame-free sex with an undergraduate student in one of his classes. Once he comes down from his weekend long binge on the drug (and the illicit sexual relationship that will cause him to lose his professorship) Chip is overwhelmed by shame. The same is the case for Enid, his mother, who when the arduously maintained illusory picture of her perfect familial world is defeated turns to the drug which offers blissful relief from the feeling of failure, expressed as shame.
Here I would like to pivot, the point about a drug suppressing the feeling of shame having been sufficiently made, I think, and because the drug being called Aslan offers us perfect segue to the Aslan of Lewis’ Chronicles, which also makes an appearance.
The many layered and superbly complexly intertwined plot of The Corrections can be generally said to focus on Enid’s attempt to bring all three of her disparately flung children home for one last Christmas in their childhood home in St. Jude. Gary, the oldest of the three Lambert children, has three children of his own, the youngest of whom is named Jonah. Jonah is the only one who will agree to make the trip to St. Jude over Christmas to see his grandparents, the choice whether or not to go having been left up each child individually at the insistence of their mother, Caroline. To Gary’s eldest two children their grandmother, Enid, is blindly, embarrassingly, anachronistic, placing value in superficial holiday traditions that seem utterly silly and meaningless to them. At the start of the novel Jonah is excitedly reading Chronicles, loves the character of Aslan, and is thrilled when presented with a computer game allowing him to play along with the plot. By novel’s end, however, Jonah has lost interest in Chronicles, following in his two older siblings’ footsteps, obsessing over a computer game called ‘The God Project II’, a world building game giving the power of total omnipotence to the player.
Jonah’s initial love for Chronicles, particularly Aslan, the fictional representation of the one who redeems man from his Fallen state, combined with the Leonite emblazoned pills of the same name which temporarily suppress the shame of Enid and Chip, offer, what I think, is an eminently supportable reading of shame in The Corrections: the failure to observe, or ability to ignore, traditional moral obligations causes shame among those who recognize these obligations, if only tacitly, as part of their identity can only be given relief from this post-Fall feeling in one of three principle ways: by virtue of denial, arduously maintaining a fragile illusion (as is the case of Enid, the perfection of her family and life, with Gary, who resides in the comfort that nothing is his fault, and with Jonah, the importance of family traditions), pharmaceutical anti-depressants (which, however, require daily dosage, are fraught with danger on the come-down if one runs out, and carry a social stigma besides), but most successfully of all shame is fought back by technological escapism, as epitomized by the aptly named game ‘The God Project II’.