The Corrections, at its fundamental level, serves up a dish of reality harshly truthful and bitingly accurate. Franzen’s depiction of the Lamberts, each in his or her own grossly human element, is convicting at best, condemning at worst.
No sympathetic characters present themselves at the beginning of the novel. As we are introduced to the Lamberts—Alfred, Enid, Gary, Chip, and Denise—we learn only the baser parts of their characters, their flaws, their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their failures. We learn that Alfred was less than a perfect father; Enid is a shrill, judgmental, and meddling mother; Gary is a depressed father and husband with a chip on his shoulder; Chip is the chip on Gary’s shoulder, the brother to whom Gary can’t measure up even though Chip himself is a less-than-perfect intellectual has-been whose life has no direction; and Denise is a sexually confused girl of privilege whose choices are made only in consideration of how shocking they might be to her family, if her family ever found them out.
Of course, there are secondary characters. No novel would be complete without them, but these characters exist merely to amplify the discontent that seems all but genetic in the Lambert family unit, acting either as foils or reinforcements for their faulty personalities.
Franzen’s prose is unique in that it is both clear and poetic. He has a way of weaving story elements together here that, by the end, leaves his readers with a sense of completion and fulfillment, a sense that even if the story was, at times, too real, we still got the whole of it. The Corrections doesn’t just tell a story; it explains how the Lamberts arrived at their present circumstances without the reader realizing what’s happening. It explains, through Alfred’s degeneration, that there is an age at which we will eventually realize that it is too late for corrections.
Terminal Notes: By the end of the novel, each of the Lamberts has become a sympathetic character. We may not like them, but we understand them, which seems to be the book’s overarching. Sure, there are issues of class, sexuality, marriage, and ethics. The Corrections is nothing if not burgeoning with thematic material, and readers will find plenty of book club discussion fodder.