During the Reign of the Queen of Persia Analysis

Joan Chase

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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.

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 entire section is 1871 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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)...

(The entire section is 791 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.