In Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Patty Berglund initially appears to be something close to the perfect wife and mother: charming and intelligent, with a model home and family. Over the first section of the novel, "Good Neighbors," Franzen reveals the extent to which this is a façade, and in the second section, "Mistakes Were Made," Patty herself takes over the narrative and tells her own story.
In college, when she met Walter, Patty was a troubled young woman whose life consisted largely of rebellion against her shallow, pretentious parents, and basketball, which provided her with a refuge and a structure. Her first experience of sex consisted of being raped at a party during high school, and she has since cultivated an urbane, distant manner to keep other people at bay.
Patty's relationship with Walter began after two disappointments. He had been patiently pursuing her for a year and she had shown no interest in him, preferring his more exciting roommate, a rock musician named Richard Katz. She only paid attention to Walter after failing to attract Katz and after an injury to her knee ended her dreams of a career in basketball.
Walter is a kind and generous man with many good qualities, but Patty's appreciation of him is always qualified by the reflection that for her, he was second-best. If her life had gone as she hoped, she would never have married him. This causes a resentment which burns slowly, but eventually leads her into heavy drinking, cynicism, and finally an affair with Katz. Ironically, she discovers that Katz rejected her when they were in college because he understood how much Walter cared for her, and was showing consideration for him.
When she first starts her narrative, "Mistakes Were Made," Patty's psychological theory is that settling for marriage to Walter has limited her life and made her bitter and frustrated. She has accepted a social position as a homemaker, secondary to Walter's career as a lawyer, and this has damaged her self esteem. She has no sense of purpose or meaning in her life. Over the course of the novel, Patty separates from Walter, and is reunited with him again. Meaningful work allows her to recapture her sense of agency, and actively choose to spend her life with Walter, rather than merely drifting into a relationship with him as she did the first time.
By the end of the novel, Patty is more secure both psychologically and socially, since she no longer regards her social position as dependent on her husband's and is accepted by their neighbors on her own terms. A reader evaluating the novel in terms of theological concepts might also say that she has experienced redemption through suffering, finding meaning in work and reflection, and forgiveness in her ability to forgive others. A recurring motif is Patty's reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which initially seems like an escape from her troubles. However, as her life becomes more purposeful, Patty's quest for meaning may be regarded as a reflection of Pierre Bezhukhov's spiritual progress, and, by extension, that of Tolstoy himself.