How To Be Alone By Jonathan Franzen

The Erosion of Civil Life and Private Dignity in the Essay Collection How To Be Alone By Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is one of the most entertaining novelists and essay writers of our times. Though he began his literary work in the early 1990s with novels such as The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, the book that was most critically acclaimed was The Corrections. This collection of essays published in 2001 made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and earned him the National Book Award among other prizes. The essays are a reflection of the disputed issues about the life of Americans. He argues that America seems anchored into dreams and not reality. He points out that the country has experienced many changes in culture and in governance.

The main theme of the essays in the collection is the erosion of civil life and private dignity. Some of the subjects that the essays address are the sex industry, multiculturalism, and a cross-examination of life in a first city. Many of the essays also express his dissatisfaction on every issue that he sets his eyes on, from the functioning of the postal service in Chicago to the loss of public space (Adams, 2002). In the essay Books in Bed, Franzen tries to clarify how the natives’ initial concerns about love have been replaced by sex guidebooks. In the essay How to be Alone, the writer investigates whether it is possible to preserve one’s personality and involvement in a culture where privacy no longer exists. Some of his essays are also an expression of despair viewed by many readers as an attempt to free him from the seclusion that is accorded to writers (, 2013).

Many of Franzen’s essays in How to be Alone did not involve fictional characters. Many of the characters are alive and had an effect on his life in one way or another. In the essay My Father’s Brain, Franzen is able to bring out a reflection on personality, memory and family issues through a portrait of his father, who struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. The essay Why Bother criticizes the elites who have largely contributed in eroding the preserved culture of reading books and have brought about the dependency on television and cyber culture. He mourns about what seems to be novel commoditization and wonders if there is a bright future for novelists (Stewart, 2002).

Franzen combines a number of writing styles in his work. He uses a narrative style when he tells the story of his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, which is an essay based on real events. He also uses a narrative style in describing the mystery behind the Lambert family in The Corrections. He uses imagery, humor, irony and suspense to convey a message of forgiveness and reconciliation through the struggles that the Lambert family goes through. Franzen also uses an expository writing style in describing the hopelessness faced by the Americans who are living a life unmoored from reality. The style is also seen in his introspections on hopelessness in a world that no longer adheres to writers (Adams, 2002). The author also uses critique to question the operations of society and the government. The critiques have largely contributed in changing the way the government addresses the issue of rights and personal dignity. His work has helped to impact a positive outlook on literature by the public. His essays also provide great lessons on virtues such as love, equality, forgiveness and the conservation of culture (Frank, 2005).

The novelist has managed to express the erosion that has taken place over time in social, environmental and political issues. The original love in the family has been replaced by infidelity. There is little left for public space and rights are easily violated. This is what Franzen terms as the erosion of civil life and private dignity.


Adams, T. (2002, November 10). The Guardian. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from

Frank, M. (2005). How to Be an Intellectual in the Age of TV : The Lessons of Gore Vidal. Durham: Duke University Press. (2013). Retrieved May 4, 2013, from How to be Alone Quotes:

Stewart, K. (2002). How to Be Alone. Spring , 278.