Having just finished Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, I would like to offer the following complaint. First, though, a spoiler alert, this rant talks about plot points that occur at the end of the novel. If you are in the midst of slogging through the text and like surprises, do not read ahead.
In movies there is a stereotypical pattern whereby characters of color usually get killed off early, and sidekicks of color often die so that the white hero can win the day. The shorthand version is, “Why does the black guy always have to die?” I have the same question in a literary sense regarding Franzen’s novel and the character Lalitha.
Why does she have to die? More accurately, why does he write a plot whereby the character of color, East Indian in this case, must die so the flawed white couple at the center of the book can get together. In some ways Lalitha is the one character in the book who is competent, balanced and free of neuroses, and she is the one who dies. She provides the main male character moments of joy not provided by his wife, but then she dies suddenly and after a time he and wife come together again recognizing their flaws but facing the oblivion of eventual death together. Basically, Lalitha is a plot device, a personification of perfection whose existence must be fleeting. But why make her East Indian?
My theory is that Franzen needed a character who was different, who was the other, who could be set apart from all the white Midwestern characters in the book so he employed a stereotypical figure of the sexually alluring Asian female. For example, Franzen often describes Lalitha as having “lustrous black hair” unlike the Minnesotans in the book. More importantly, Franzen constantly refers to her as “dark skinned.” When Richard first sees her in the book “she was dark-skinned and completely round and slender.” When Lalitha sallies forth to negotiate with rural West Virginians she is “an unaccompanied dark-skinned woman. When she dies it may because a hostile West Virginian “saw a dark-skinned woman driving a compact Korean-made rental car.” Even at the end of the novel when Walter and Patty drive off leaving behind a memorial to Lalitha, she is not mentioned by name. Instead Franzen describes a plaque with, “a picture of the pretty young dark-skinned woman after whom the preserve is named.”
Lalitha is constantly dark skinned. She is also constantly sexually available to Walter as Richard notes when first seeing her. ”There were eighteen words of body language with which women signified availability and submission, and Lalitha was using a good twelve of them at once on Walter.” Those words “availability and submission” unfortunately evoke stereotypical images of Asian women as sexual, predatory beings seducing white men with their Oriental charms.
I generally think Franzen is a smart writer who knows what he is doing. So why does he create this dark-skinned, seductive Asian beauty who then must be killed off so the white couple can come together? If he is being ironic and trying to undermine the cliche, I think he fails. The tropes are too obvious and except for the fact Lalitha cannot cook Indian food (or any food for that matter), he hews too close to the stereotype playbook.