Free is a Complicated Word, or, The Idea Coincidence

July 22, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 2 7 min read

Sonya Chung’s first novel, Long for This World, will be released by Scribner in March 2010. She is currently at work on a second novel, Sebastian & Frederick. You can learn more about Sonya and her work at

Here’s how it happens: an idea, or a question, or a theme begins to take shape in your mind. There is a tipping point, when it moves from background to foreground. Then: you see it everywhere. You are wearing Idea-X-colored glasses, everything speaks to this idea; it is a prism through which All Can Be Considered and Understood.

Lydia Kiesling noted a related phenomenon in her essay here at The Millions, “The Reading Coincidence.”

Throughout my life as a reader I have noticed this thing happening over and over; a book I read after finishing a seemingly unrelated book turns out to be linked to the previous book in some way… Every book you read in a short period of time mentions one of the other books you just read, or a movie you saw last week, or even, like, a dream someone told you against your will? Doesn’t it? And isn’t it weird?… What is it called? Is there, perhaps, a pertinent volume of Remembrance of Things Past to which I should address myself?

It is weird. And I don’t know either to whom or what we should “address ourselves” in order to understand. But following is the anatomy of my Idea Coincidence around the notion of free:

June 11My blog response to Dan Baum’s twitter-essay about being fired from the New Yorker. I ponder the tensions between institutional sanction and intellectual-creative freedom.

June 19 – A friend refers me to D.H. Lawrence’sThe Spirit of Place” from his Studies in Classic American Literature. “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.”

cover June 25-27 – I read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, inherits New England farm land in the early years of the American slave trade. He and his English wife Rebekka, are orphaned (literally and emotionally, respectively), free from family ties; and they reject church-community ties, forging instead a life of untethered self-determination. “They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed… Those [church] women seemed flat to [Rebekka], convinced they were innocent and therefore free.”

Then, a week of being haunted by Rebekka’s fate: Jacob dies of smallpox, she contracts the same; her isolation engulfs her (her children have also died). Their makeshift family – a Native American bondswoman, two cast-off slave girls, two indentured servants, and a blacksmith (a free black man) – begins to come apart:

They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess

On death’s door, in feverish lucidity, Rebekka asks, “Were the Anabaptists right?… [Was] her stubborn self-sufficiency outright blasphemy?… She had only to stop thinking and believe.” She recovers, then joins the church; her deal with God. The indentured servant Scully observes: “Mistress passed her days with the joy of a clock. She was a penitent, pure and simple. Which to him meant that underneath her piety was something cold if not cruel.” Was Rebekka, the only technically free woman in the novel, ever truly free?

July 2 – In an effort to shake off some of Morrison’s (and Rebekka’s) haunting presence, a light movie rental, Waitress, by Adrienne Shelley. Protagonist Jenna Hunterson, played by Keri Russell, wants to break free of her tyrannical, dim, pathologically love-hungry husband Earl, but finds herself unhappily pregnant with his baby. In the end, she finds her freedom in the mother-child bond.

July 5 – I read Adam Zagajewski’s heady essay, “Toil and Flame,” on Polish painter Jozef Czapski. For Czapski, freedom was a way of seeing, an inner disposition. “Seeing must be governed by one principle alone, the principle of ‘inner freedom'” – which, according to Zagajewski, is rooted in Keats’s negative capability, and a dynamic “not-knowing” that is essentially religious – “very strong faith and very strong doubt alongside a complete inability to stay fixed in one single, stable metaphysical conviction.”

cover July 9Publishers Weekly article on the hoopla around Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Upon its release, angry readers accused Anderson of claiming that everything online should be free. Says Anderson: “… the book is not about how everything should be free, but about how the economics of free are developing in the increasingly digital world… I knew that the word ‘free’ was a misunderstood, confusing word, and it has triggered fear and longing in equal amounts. I’m now dealing with the consequences of just how complicated the word is.”

July 14Bezalel Stern’s guest post at The Millions on Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Stern: “Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people.”

What does it all mean? The fulcrum for me is Morrison’s Rebekka. She is “free” – a white woman, living outside of religious institutionalism, unobligated to crown or lineage or patriarchy; free from the dictates of group or creed. Tied only to one person, one man, her kind (and equally untethered) husband Jacob. She has arrived at this station through a series of choices – in each case making a calculated determination to trade in the devil she knows for the devil she doesn’t:

“…her father got notice of a man looking for a strong wife rather than a dowry… her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest… marriage to an unknown husband in a far-off land had distinct advantages… America. Whatever the danger, how could it possibly be worse?

Religion, as Rebekka experienced it from her mother, was a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred. Her parents treated each other and their children with glazed indifference and saved their fire for religious matters… It was when [the Anabaptists] refused to baptize her first-born, her exquisite daughter, that Rebekka turned away. Weak as her faith was, there was no excuse for not protecting the soul of an infant from eternal perdition.

But then here is Lawrence, cautioning against a dangerous kind of “masterless-ness,” a specifically American version of freedom defined in negative terms, and by flight:

Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?… They came largely to get away… That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been… Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be…

Zagajewski/Czapski bring Morrison and Lawrence together for me: Rebekka possessed some strain of Czapski’s inner freedom, a dynamic not-knowing; her “weak faith” was her faith – faith and doubt together. Partnered to Jacob, she was able to sustain a living doubtful faith, her own version of what Lawrence terms a “deep, inward voice of religious belief” to which an individual must be “obedient” in order to be truly free. One of my favorite moments in the novel is this exchange between Rebekka and the Native American servant Lina, Rebekka’s closest confidante:

R: I don’t think God knows who we are. I think he would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think he knows about us… He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on His mind.

L: What is He doing then, if not watching over us?

R: Lord knows.

The strength of Rebekka’s doubt-faith only fails her after Jacob dies; her essential solitariness, and the demons of her cut-off past, are no longer counterbalanced by her flesh-and-blood life of goodness and freedom with the man on whom she bet everything. Morrison paints her as a tragic figure – strong enough for a free, uninstitutionalized life only as long as a man anchors her world; in his absence, the thin-threaded ties that have bound her to her motley household of strays fray and unravel abruptly.

Morrison’s socio-historical context is specific; but the implications may echo into the present universal. Where does our freedom, our “masterless-ness,” leave us in the end? For modern, ambitious urban-dwellers, for instance, who’ve fled constraining or otherwise unfamilial families, the tenuousness of patchwork community and makeshift family simmers uneasily beneath busy lives of creativity and/or career. Will these new and sometimes unconventional threads hold? Perhaps independence is indeed about “making connections,” as Ford’s Frank Bascombe comes to realize (according to Bezalel Stern); but the nature and context of those connections matters. Not all of them will endure. And true freedom seems to be a condition that reaches for both depth and permanence.

Is it the parent-child connection that is, in the end, The Profound and Enduring Bond which engenders a true inner freedom? Both Morrison and Adrienne Shelley posit motherhood as a miraculous road to freedom – as if childlessness is a woman’s specific version of Lawrence’s masterless-ness. The slave girl Sorrow in A Mercy gives birth to a child and then renames herself:

She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee. “I am your mother,” she said. “My name is Complete.

Waitress’s Jenna Hunterson also looks into her newborn daughter’s eyes and is instantly endowed with clarity, courage, a moral center. No longer desperate to flee, she finds liberation right where she is, in the identity of mother. (Hmm… Maybe this is a “Mom Book” question.)

“Free” is a complicated word indeed, Chris Anderson. And while at first the commercial use of the word may not seem relevant, it does raise relevant questions: free equals something for nothing, in the parlance of commerce. At no cost. But it seems clear that true freedom does indeed come at cost. The uproar over Anderson’s book reveals a fear that the cost of “free” would be borne disproportionately by media organizations, artists, content providers. For Dan Baum, the cost of creative freedom was a burned (or at least singed) bridge with a powerful cultural-media institution, as well as the financial stability that I would guess “freed” him in many ways. Fellow freelancers out there may feel the cost of your freedom from institutional-employment daily: isolation, financial worry, wide swings in self-esteem (my attitude toward my freelancer’s freedom has been known to shift by the hour, depending on what does or does not arrive in my email box).

In the end, I address myself to you, thoughtful reader. “I would rather start a conversation about free, even in wildly misinformed, polarized, noisy ways, if it gets people thinking,” Anderson said about his book.

Perhaps to start we can embrace our dynamic not-knowing – all that we might be fleeing and whatever doubt-faith undergirds our present freedom. We can wonder if we are on God’s mind, if self-sufficiency is really a virtue; if we should have children (or not) or live closer to (or further from) our biological families; if we should keep freelancing or take a real job; what free means and what it really costs. Suspended between drudgery and flame is what Jozef Czapski called his work, implying perhaps that only in the liminal state can we fully experience the process of freedom – living out choices and circumstances, forging and casting off various ties that bind – all of which ultimately teaches us what it means to be free.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. Wow! Yes! Good writing. I am happier daily to be reading The Millions!
    May I suggest an addition to this musing: Joni Mitchell's For Free from the Ladies of the Canyon album.

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