During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

by Joan Chase
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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the 1984 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award, an award given annually to recognize a distinguished first novel. In her debut, author Joan Chase has constructed a complex and innovative narrative. Her subject matter is traditional—a family saga of sorts—but her angle of vision is not. This is a challenging and rewarding novel that demands from its readers an imaginative act of synthesis, pulling together its disparate parts into a meaningful whole.

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Each of the novel’s five parts is named for a character or pair of characters; from one point of view, the parts can be seen as separate, self-contained stories. Each has its own sense of time; notable are part 1, “Celia,” which is in chronological order, and part 4, “Elinor,” in which persons awaiting Elinor’s arrival by train reminisce about her last visit to the farm. If they were to be read separately, these two sections might not be considered as pieces of the same novel, but, in the final pages of part 5, “Gram,” it becomes clear that During the Reign of the Queen of Persia has a story line—if not a plot—and that only a reading of the entire novel can tie the story line together.

Tradition divides most works of fiction into two classes—those told in the first person and those told in the third person. Use of the first person was commonplace in the eighteenth century, when prejudice against fiction made it necessary to disguise novels as memoirs. The first-person narrative also has the advantage of immediacy, conveying the feeling of an eyewitness account. The third person allows the author to assume omniscience and to let the reader know things which would have to be kept hidden in a first-person account. Rarely can a third-person novel be disguised—even for effect—as a memoir.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia fits into neither of the traditional classes. There is no narrating “I,” as in a first-person novel, but most of the novel is told as recollection by characters in it. The recollections are attributed to a collective—“we”—but who are “we”? At most, four persons are “we”: the four granddaughters who are the third generation of permanent residents on the Krauss farm during the period of approximately five years between the death of Jacob “Grandad” Krauss and the farm’s sale.

The first generation on the farm is represented by Lil Bradley Krauss, usually called “Gram” in the narrative, called “the Queen of Persia” by her son-in-law. The actual owner of the farm, having bought it with an inheritance from an uncle, Gram acts like a queen. The death of her husband, Jacob Krauss—the bane of her youth, later an efficient farm manager—removes an alternative focus of loyalty.

The second generation of permanent residents are Gram’s daughter, Libby, known as “Aunt Libby,” and her husband, Dan Snyder, called “Uncle Dan.” Other daughters and sons-in-law of Lil and Jacob, however, often arrive to disturb the serenity of Gram’s reign. The third generation—“we”—are four girls, born less than two years apart: Celia and Jennifer, the daughters of Libby and Dan; and Anne and Katie, the daughters of Libby’s sister, Grace, and of Grace’s husband, Neil.

It is from the perspective of these four that life on the Krauss farm is seen—not always, however, from the perspective of all four. There are episodes about tricks which “we”—meaning two or three of the girls—play on one of them. Some episodes begin with “we” meaning three or four girls and end with one of them separate from—and antagonistic to—the others, who remain “we.” In part 1, “Celia,” “we” includes the oldest granddaughter at the beginning, but she gradually becomes distinct from the other three. Celia, the first to become an adolescent, is a high school beauty popular with boys and an object of curiosity and espionage of the other three girls. In other parts, however, “we” frequently includes Celia. In some aspects of her life, Celia remains part of the foursome until she marries and leaves the Krauss farm. In other aspects, she is distinct from the other three girls and their world.

Futhermore, the absence of an “I” is not the only distinction between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and ordinary first-person novels. Some sequences of the narrative are told as if from the perspective of an omniscient author. Sequences of family history—the lives of Gram, Grandad, and their daughters before the granddaughters’ births—contain facts which could hardly have been part of the family history and gossip available to the granddaughters; so do some accounts of events within the granddaughters’ lifetimes to which the girls were not witnesses. In the taxonomy which divides first-person from third-person fiction, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia defies classification. The author has managed to give herself the advantages of both kinds of storytelling.

Logically, the story cannot be. It does not read like a memoir, but it contains too many reminiscences of those actually on the scene to be an omniscient account. Nevertheless, this logically impossible story works. It works because storytelling is not necessarily an exercise involving logic, and it works because the reader wants it to work. The ambiguous, shifting nature of the group from whose perspective the story is told, their knowledge of what they ought not to know, invites the reader to take an active role in making sense out of these characters’ lives. Chase is adept at briefly introducing characters, leaving tantalizing hints about their pasts. The hints demand answers, and the reader must work through the whole story in order to find them.

Part 1, “Celia,” describes a superficially stable rural existence, beneath the surface of which are conflicts not readily resolved. The focus of this section is the increasing separation of Celia, the oldest girl, from what has been a foursome. This process intensifies rivalries. The nearness of the girls’ ages makes Celia’s efforts to appear grown-up seem trivial, but the narrative makes it plain that neither these efforts nor other occasions of conflict seem trivial to those involved. Celia is the first of the foursome clearly to graduate into the adolescent world and then into adulthood, even though she is not much older than the other three. The arbitrary nature of the distinctions between childhood and adulthood is indicated, and the bickering of the older generation is made more clearly childish.

Part 1 introduces the family, although it keeps the two older generations in the background, to be described in depth later. Uncle Dan calls Gram “the Queen of Persia” (because of her imperiousness and her collection of Persian rugs). The use of this sobriquet in the title gives the impression that the novel is about a period of time when Gram can be said to reign, but part 1 is, in a sense, about Celia’s reign. Celia is described as regal, and the other three granddaughters hold her in a kind of awe. So do the boys who court her, and so, to a degree, do her parents, considering themselves fortunate to have a popular daughter. The quality of her reign, however, is clearly tarnished by her need to let boys take liberties with her. Her reign almost ends in disaster with the revelation that her well-regarded fiancé has made another woman pregnant. Face is saved by marriage to a man who is almost as well regarded as was the first man before the scandal.

Parts 2, 3, and 4 describe events leading up to the time of Celia’s reign. Part 2 tells of Gram’s marriage to Grandad. A drunkard and a financial failure, Grandad—like many men in similar circumstances—acts out his frustrations by beating his wife, but his story takes an unusual turn when the wife whom he punishes for his failure makes him a success. She inherits a fortune and buys a farm for him to run; he runs it and ceases to beat her. There is a bizarre irony in this success story, underlining the irony of Gram’s misfortune in being punished for what she could not prevent.

Part 3, “Neil and Grace,” is about the parents of Anne and Katie, two of the foursome called “we.” Although not supposed to be permanent residents of the Krauss farm, Neil and Grace return frequently because of their unhappy marriage—which resembles somewhat the unhappy marriage of Gram and Grandad in its earlier years. Finally, stricken with cancer, Grace returns again to the farm for care from her extended family, bringing along Anne and Katie to join the granddaughters already there, Celia and Jenny.

In Part 4, “Elinor,” Grandad dies. Grace’s illness causes the members of the extended family to descend on the farm and allows Aunt Elinor, a Christian Scientist, to minister to their spiritual needs. Gram’s weakness in the face of Elinor’s comforting doctrine resembles that of many monarchs; the religion of the people often dilutes their loyalty to their monarch.

Part 5, “Gram,” begins with Grace’s death and Elinor’s departure. This section covers approximately the same time span as that depicted in part 1. Celia’s reign as the glamorous member of the third generation is a kind of challenge to Gram. Moreover, Gram is virtually forced to take custody of Grace’s daughters: Gram is a queen who can be imposed on. Indeed, although Elinor is gone, her power remains. The two younger generations continue, despite Gram’s disapproval, to practice Christian Science—though apparently not with deep conviction. Gram reigns; it is not certain that she rules.

Although exact dates are not given, various references indicate that the bulk of the narrative is set in the 1950’s, a period marked by the decline of the family farm and family values. In the fate of the Krauss farm, the reader can see this decline in microcosm. Grandad has sold the dairy herd in anticipation of his own death. The barn, a reminder of the farm’s past glory, burns down, and Gram ends her reign by selling the farm to a developer who intends to use it for a residential subdivision. Meanwhile, Aunt Rachel, a daughter of Gram and Grandad, violates traditional family values by planning a marriage while her former husband is still alive. At the very end, the once regal Celia attempts suicide; the miseries of the two older generations had never pushed them to that extreme.

Nevertheless, the novel is not at all nostalgic about farm or family life. The price paid, particularly by women, in sustaining a family is made clear. Gram is abused by Grandad until she buys him success. Rachel is abused by her first husband, and her fiancé is unlikely to be better. Grace is ill-treated by Neil. Even the outwardly successful marriage of Uncle Dan and Aunt Libby is marred by mutual sniping and by Libby’s apparent resentment of her last two—unsuccessful—pregnancies, which she has endured because of Dan’s desire for a son.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is a powerful first novel, introducing an ambitious new voice in American fiction.

Form and Content

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In interviews, Joan Chase has explained that During the Reign of the Queen of Persia began as a long short story told with a third-person point of view. The initial story became the first-person completed work, a story told in five sections by different narrators: “Celia,” “Grandad,” “Grace and Neil,” “Aunt Elinor,” and “Gram.” Each section reveals another layer of truth in the central event of the novel, Grace’s dying of cancer. Lil Bradley Krauss, known as Gram, presides over a family of five daughters—May, Grace, Elinor, Rachel, and Libby—and four granddaughters.

“Celia” establishes Libby’s daughter Celia as the heir of Grace: Celia inherits her mother’s sexual attractiveness and a pattern of struggle against her mother to expand the social limits placed on courtship. The “Grandad” segment, like the “Celia” segment, opens with a description of setting, one reminiscent of fairy tales. This second section of the novel recounts the courtship and marriage of Lil and Jacob Krauss. Competition for Lil, like competition in the courtships of her daughter and granddaughter, provides the impetus for Jacob to propose to her. This second segment is not solely a historical study of Gram’s marriage; it also advances the plot of Grace’s illness by detailing the day in which she travels to Cincinnati for tests. The crisis point brings together the two major plot actions of this segment: Grace’s test results lead Gram to sell some pasture land, land which matters to no one but Grandad.

The middle segment of the novel, captioned “Grace and Neil,” provides the history of their courtship and marriage, establishing a sense of inevitability in the progression toward death and reinforcing an overwhelmingly cynical view of marriage itself. The fourth segment of the novel, “Aunt Elinor,” begins at the train station where the cousins and Tom Buck (the fiancé of Rachel) pick up Elinor, who has arrived too late to see Grace before she died. This segment details Grace’s attempts to believe in Christian Science (and so in her sister Elinor) as her key to recovery. Elinor, well intentioned but certainly not saintly, reveals her nature in small and characteristic actions. For example, at a picnic she asks “that the orphan children be taken away where they wouldn’t disturb people while they were eating.” Grandad’s death is described, but the crisis of this segment is the death of Grace.

The final section of the novel, “Gram,” also begins in the train station with Elinor’s arrival, the voyage back to the house being the first step in the resolution of central issues within the narrative. The battle between Gram and Neil reaches its peak in the final section, Neil driving off in a familiar action, but their struggle is ultimately resolved by Gram’s compromise to allow Neil to keep the house that she financed. The barn, emblematic of Grandad’s life, burns to the ground, leading to the final encounter with a wild and shy “Queenie,” the pony that shares Gram’s nickname, and suggesting the destruction of Gram’s farm past. Gram’s formerly piecemeal sale of property ends with her selling the last of the land and the house for a commercial development, moving into a smaller house. The most important resolution in the final section of the book is the cousins’ acceptance of Grace’s death.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia centers on universal themes of duty and acceptance, often articulating these themes through female experience. The daily concerns of food, laundry, and cleaning the house occupy the women in this novel. Gram, for example, cooks every night before she goes out to her card games. Chase makes plain the fact that Gram is not concerned with whether the family wants what she is cooking; Gram sees her obligation completed as soon as she places the meal on the table. After Grace’s death, however, Gram, having sold the property, uncharacteristically turns off the stove and takes off her apron after starting to prepare supper. She goes to a nearby restaurant, a clear indication of her having relinquished her perceived obligation to cook. Another pattern of female experience is scrubbing away on hands and knees whatever has been thrown on the floor, typically the remains of some argument. Grace, Gram, and Elinor each scrub the results of anger off the floor of the farmhouse, a realistic detail of subordination within many households.

At the end of the novel, Celia and Grace’s daughter Anne exemplify the struggle between individuation and group membership, Anne having nearly killed herself trying to prove that she could “climb the farthest of anybody” and Celia returning to the family in Ohio to recover after attempting suicide.

Context

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The novel was printed after having been turned down by several publishers. Upon its release, Chase won several awards for fiction by a Midwestern writer, as well as an Ernest Hemingway Foundation award. Early recognition of Chase’s talent includes her contributing to an essay for The New York Times Book Review about writing second novels.

Chase writes from a child or adolescent’s perspective in this novel and in subsequent works. Her novel The Evening Wolves (1989) also makes use of the child’s point of view in relating the story. The female child’s perspective on adult relationships offers a significant subject for study in both of these novels. A short story collection, Bonneville Blue (1991), also contains stories told from the adolescent female narrator’s perspective, a pattern which suggests Chase’s place within the current of the modern novel.

Because her first novel is a study of a farm family, comparisons between Chase’s book and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) arise. The women in both books struggle with individuality and relationships within the economic constrictions of the Midwest and the family pathology of a demanding father. The farmland itself becomes almost a breathing presence in both novels as well, although Chase’s setting is the more lyrically presented. In fact, setting in Chase’s novel is one feature that tempers the despair inherent in the marriages of Grace, Celia, and Gram.

Chase’s novel also explores individuality itself within female experience. Anne and Celia, the two cousins who separate themselves from the group, both require hospitalization. A reader could argue that Chase portrays the dangers of individuation for a young woman. Very different from Jane Austen’s early nineteenth century young women, the women in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia are drawn to marriage because of a physical attraction to the young man at issue, not from any sense of being completed by becoming a partner to a man. Writing about a traditionally patriarchal setting, the Midwestern farm, Chase explores women’s struggles with becoming individuals within relationships with men and with women, certainly a contemporary women’s issue.

Bibliography

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Atwood, Margaret. Review of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. The New York Times Book Review 88 (June 12, 1983): 9. Atwood notes that the novel is organized around recurring themes and that chronology does not drive the plot. She identifies memory as one theme and praises the vivid description and well-written dialogue.

Booth, Rosemary. “The Presence of Grace.” Commonweal 110 (July 15, 1983): 405-406. In this review, Booth notes the feminine perspective through which the novel is told and describes the male role as well as the aunt’s role in the nieces’/daughters’ growing up. Booth also discusses the graceful prose, providing passages that prove her point about style. As the title of her view indicates, Booth asserts that the primary role belongs to Grace.

Cosgrave, Mary Silva. Review of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. The Horn Book Magazine 59 (August, 1983): 478-479. Written to acquaint high school readers with adult books of interest, the review aptly summarizes the characters and their relationships. Cosgrave identifies Neil’s role of teacher to the girls and one who articulates the female personality of the family.

Library Journal. CVIII, June 15, 1983, p. 1273.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 2, 1983, p. 8.

Nation. CCXXXVII, September 3, 1983, p. 187.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, April 22, 1983, p. 86.

Schumer, Fran R. “Midwestern Matriarch.” The Nation 237 (September 3, 1983): 187. Schumer notes Chase’s graceful first-person-plural point of view in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. She compares the cousins/sisters to Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929). Schumer praises the beauty of Chase’s book, despite its grim portrayals.

Time. CXXII, July 18, 1983, p. 66.

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