In Ordinary Love and Good Will (1989), a collection of two novellas, Jane Smiley presents portraits of men who look very different to their wives than they do to the world at large. Each man is admired by the world for his success, as a physician or as a farmer, but his wife knows him as an egomaniac whose family members, like his pets and all his other possessions, are, to his mind, parts of his own body. In A Thousand Acres, Smiley presents another such portrait in a long, rich novel that reverberates at a mythic level in its connections with William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605). At the center is the complexity of relationships between Larry Cook and his three daughters, Ginny (Virginia), Rose, and Caroline.
A Thousand Acres follows the Lear story not slavishly, but obviously enough to provoke thought. The most successful farmer in his northwest Iowa county, Larry suddenly and inexplicably decides to give his farm to his daughters and retire. Caroline, a lawyer who plans to marry soon, objects, and for her opposition is summarily cut out of the partnership. Though Ginny and Rose have raised Caroline after their mother’s early death, the younger sister becomes alienated from them. This opening parallels Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom between Regan and Goneril after Cordelia offends him and he banishes her. A few other events keep before the reader that this story is to be seen in relation to Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Larry comes to regret his decision as he sees his sons-in-law following their farming interests rather than continuing precisely as he had farmed. This leads to erratic behavior, a drunk-driving arrest, and his daughters’ clumsy attempts to moderate his behavior, eventuating in a crisis in which he calls his daughters “whores” and wanders off into a thunderstorm at night. Larry seems a broken man after this incident, gaining the community’s pity. His friend, Harold, takes him in and uses the plan of a reconciliation at a church supper to humiliate the sisters and drive off his younger son, Jess, punishing him for the shame of his years of absence while avoiding the draft in Canada. Later, Harold is blinded in a farm accident caused in part by Pete, Rose’s husband. These events roughly parallel events associated with Gloucester and his sons, Edmund and Edgar.
Ginny is attracted to Jess, who brings a fresh and sympathetic outlook to her closed life. They make love once, but not long afterwards, Jess becomes Rose’s lover. When Rose tells Pete, he kills himself, perhaps unintentionally. When Ginny learns of this relationship, she determines to kill Rose, though they have been the closest of sisters and, at this point, even share their knowledge of the dark secret of their childhood. Ginny gives Rose home-canned, poisoned sausage that she believes only Rose will eat. With these parallels to the rivalry between Goneril and Regan over Edmund, most of the main connections to the Lear story have been presented.
The dark secret is that Larry has forced incest on both Ginny and Rose, after their mother’s death, when they were teenagers. When he calls them “whores” on the night of the storm, the only sure knowledge he has that would make the label fit is that he himself has used them sexually. Ginny has blocked the memories, but Rose remembers vividly, believing that one of the reasons she did not resist was to protect their little sister, Caroline. This revelation explains much of Rose’s behavior, for example, her eagerness to send Caroline to college so she can escape this environment and her decision to send her two daughters to boarding school so there will be little chance of their grandfather’s getting at them.
Smiley prepares for the startling revelation of this secret in part by making Ginny the narrator. Because Ginny does not remember her trauma, she looks upon the events before the night of the storm with a kind of incomprehension, unable to understand why her father does what he does and unable to understand Rose’s bitterness toward him. One effect of Ginny’s narration is the reader’s strange sense of seeing the Lear story from a “villain’s” point of view. In the first half of the novel, where the Lear parallels are most obvious, Ginny is also most naïve. The reader sees the Lear story unfolding, knowing that Ginny occupies the place of an ungrateful daughter who robs her father of love, consideration, and dignity when he makes himself dependent upon her. Yet, as Ginny tells the story, the reader cannot easily judge her. She is clearly a moral person. Her infidelity with Jess occurs once and is understandable, given the new tensions in her life and the sympathy he seems to offer. She does not expel her father from her house, shutting him out in a storm; he has a comfortable house of his own. Because he is not, in fact, dependent on them, his attack on his daughters seems unwarranted, arising from forces and passions that at the time Ginny simply cannot understand. His flight into the stormy night is willful, a rejection of offers of shelter on what he sees as his daughters’ terms.
Once the secret is out, and once Ginny herself begins to remember the terror and disgust of sex with her father, the story departs decisively from the Lear plot, if not from one interesting way of understanding it.
Larry comes to represent the point of view of the conquerors of the land, of the history of this thousand acres. From one point of view, the history is heroic. Pioneers come to a marshland and through herculean labor drain and make it fertile, bending it to their will. The power to do this, to excel, to enlarge one’s holdings and one’s influence—this power forms a masculine point of view, in which it is expected that women will accept that this is the way things are, the way they are supposed to be. After Larry and Caroline lose the judicial hearing in which they attempt to regain possession of the farm, Rose and Jess marry, while Ginny and Ty split. When they meet for the last time to arrange their divorce, Ginny tells Ty:
You see this grand history, but I see blows. I see...
(The entire section is 2517 words.)