45 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


The Corrections is a 2001 novel by Jonathan Franzen that won the National Book Award. Franzen is the author of several essay collections and novels, including the novels Freedom, Purity, and Crossroads. He has received many awards for his work, including the Whiting Award in 1988 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996.

The main action of the novel takes place during the turn of the 21st century, a time of great financial prosperity in the United States. The “corrections” of the novel’s title refer to the anticipated corrections of the boom market, which turn out to be less dramatic than expected. These corrections also refer to the various ways in which the Lambert children try to improve on their own upbringing.

This guide references the 2001 HarperCollins edition of the text.

Plot Summary

The Corrections centers on the Lamberts, a dysfunctional Midwestern family. Alfred, a retired engineer, is the family patriarch and has developed Parkinson’s and dementia. Enid is Alfred’s homemaker wife, and the couple have three children: Gary, Chip, and Denise. Each of these children has rejected their Midwestern upbringing in different ways. Gary, the oldest child, has become an affluent Philadelphia banker and a father of three himself; his materialism and parental permissiveness is a rebuke to his father’s financial and emotional stinginess. Chip, the middle child, is a failed academic and aging bohemian who is struggling to make a living in New York City. Denise, the youngest, is a successful Philadelphia chef who is confused about her sexuality and unable to sustain a relationship.

Alfred, who has a chemistry lab in his basement, has produced a patent that the Axon Corporation is eager to buy from him. They have offered him $5,000, a price that Alfred accepts but that Enid and Gary both find suspiciously low. Enid tells Alfred that she has sent Alfred’s letter of agreement back to the Axon Corporation, but in fact she has stowed it away while she consults with Gary. Gary researches the Axon Corporation and discovers that they are financing the Corecktall treatment, an experimental new brain therapy in which Alfred’s patent plays a part. Seeing an opportunity both to care for and to “correct” his father, Gary buys several shares in the Axon Corporation and also enlists Denise to sign Alfred up as a trial patient for Corecktall therapy.

Enid, in denial about the extent of Alfred’s frailty, believes that his problems spring only from depression and a reluctance to do his exercises. She takes Alfred on a cruise, during which Alfred’s condition deteriorates. Their trip is cut short when Alfred falls from the boat’s high deck into the ocean, a fall he survives. At the same time, Chip has left behind a floundering life in New York City for a dubious business venture in Vilnius, Lithuania. He has joined forces with Gitanas Misevičius, the country’s former deputy prime minister, who is now engaged in defrauding American investors. Denise has opened a fancy new restaurant in Philadelphia but is distracted by her affair with Robin Passafaro, the wife of her financial backer. Gary is engaged in an underground war with his wife and two older sons, none of whom want to visit Enid and Alfred for Christmas at their home in St. Jude, Missouri.

These present-day scenes are interspersed with scenes from Enid and Alfred’s courtship and early marriage. We learn that Enid and Alfred have often had a difficult marriage and that Alfred has always been a distant husband and father. Both Enid and Alfred survived upbringings of Midwestern privation, which have, however, formed them in different ways: Enid is resilient and adventurous, financially and otherwise, while Alfred is thriftier and more cautious. We also learn about Denise’s affair, as a teenager, with Don Armour, a middle-aged clerical worker at her father’s railroad company. This affair will have consequences that Denise discovers only as a grown woman: Don Armour is responsible for her father’s retirement from the company, having confronted Alfred with evidence of the affair.

Enid is consumed with hosting all her children and grandchildren in St. Jude for Christmas, a goal that she very nearly achieves. Gary arrives, but without his wife or children, having lost his underground battle with them. Denise arrives as well, having been fired from her high-profile restaurant job once her affair with Robin Passafaro comes to light. Chip arrives, most dramatically, on the day after Christmas. His job in Lithuania has collapsed along with the country as a whole, beset by looting, violence, and a contested presidential election. All the children find their father in a precarious emotional and physical state, having lost his will to live after the cruise-ship accident. They must navigate both his and Enid’s aging.

It is ultimately Chip, Alfred’s favorite child, who convinces Alfred to go to a nursing home. Here Chip meets, falls in love with, and eventually marries Alison Schulman, Alfred’s doctor at the nursing home. He moves to Chicago to be with her and transforms from an absent and irresponsible son to a thoughtful caretaker. Denise takes a new restaurant job in Brooklyn and hosts Enid there for a long weekend, a visit Enid enjoys. While Gary changes the least of her children, Enid finds herself more tolerant of his quirks. She becomes venturesome and more open-minded in general in the absence of her disapproving husband; when Alfred eventually dies at the nursing home, she has a sense of hopefulness as well as sadness.

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