Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A Thousand Acres is not only a modern-day retelling of the King Lear story, it is a rethinking of the story as well. Each of the major characters in the novel corresponds to a character from the play, often sharing the same first letter of their names: Ginny/Goneril, Rose/Regan, Larry/Lear, Caroline/Cordelia. Jane Smiley’s purpose, however, is to reexamine the dynamics of the play’s relationships and work against the reader’s expectations in her portrayal of the novel’s characters.
In its portrait of an aging king who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and soon finds himself displaced and ill-treated by the elder two after he has cast out their sister for her honesty, King Lear demonstrates clearly that its sympathies lie with Lear and his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Smiley, however, refuses to accept the play at face value. She has remarked, “I never bought the conventional interpretation that Goneril and Regan were completely evil,” adding that Shakespeare’s version “is not the whole story.” In her retelling of the story, Larry Cook has been as ruthless and controlling in his treatment of his daughters as he is in his acquisition of land; in his eyes, both are his property.
In the case of Ginny and Rose, this extends to incest, an act that has more to do with power than with sexual desire. Its effect on the two sisters has shaped their adult lives and is the underlying factor...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
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Central to A Thousand Acres is the theme that the transfer of power from one generation to the next is fraught with tension, the older persons regretting the loss of power, the younger chaffing for responsibility. The consequences of the transfer are that buried secrets can resurface and that established relationships may collapse. Smiley uses an Iowa farm family to develop her King Lear-like situation.
Ginny Cook Smith, the point of view character, has led a seemingly placid life into her mid-thirties, the only significant disappointments being the death of her mother while she was a teenager and five miscarriages during her marriage. Otherwise, she expects to lead the routine life of a farmer's wife for the remainder of her days. The events following her father's decision to transfer ownership and management of the farm to Ginny, her sister Rose, and their husbands force her to examine her relationship with her parents, her siblings, and her spouse. Her father's decision to disinherit his third and youngest daughter Caroline, a lawyer, is the first sign that all will not go well.
As Laurence Cook's behavior becomes more erratic and vitriolic following the transfer, Ginny realizes that she has not understood him and his motives. As she tries to reconstruct her childhood and youth, she discovers that he has abused and thwarted her, especially after her mother died. Her sister Rose's revelation that their fathers domination...
(The entire section is 663 words.)