Jane Smiley

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Melissa Pressley (review date 7 September 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

SOURCE: “A Stark Saga of an Icy Island Settlement in the Dark Ages,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 80, No. 196, September 7, 1988, p. 18.

[In the following review, Pressley offers reserved praise for Smiley's The Greenlanders.]

Few would consider the island of Greenland, with its extensive ice cover, an ideal locale for colonization. Its climate is far from temperate; little of its land is arable. Yet in 985 Eric the Red, doubly outlawed for murder, led an expedition of Norsemen and their families to Greenland for just such a purpose. They built houses and farms, traded with Europe, erected a cathedral, and flourished; and then ceased to flourish.

The Greenlanders is Jane Smiley's stark saga of this settlement in its declining decades. She chronicles the fortunes of three generations in one family and through them illustrates the colony's descent from order and plenty into chaos and lack.

Smiley begins her tale in 1352 with the birth of a son, Bunnar, to Asgeir Gunnarsson, a wealthy farmer. As he grows to manhood, Gunnar proves a disappointment to his father: He prefers weaving—women's work—to working with livestock or hunting, and prefers sleep above all. Asgeir's elder child, Margret, is a quiet girl who learns the art of trapping birds and small game from her Uncle Hauk, the colony's finest hunter. Through rivalry with his neighbor, Ketil Erlandsson, Asgeir loses one of his fields to Ketil. But still, all is well. A ship comes from Norway carrying a new bishop, and iron and wood to trade with the Greenlanders.

After Asgeir's death, Gunnar marries a girl from the other side of the settlement; she is wealthy and given to religious visions. Gunnar continues his father's vendetta against Ketil Erlandsson and thus loses the entire farm to Ketil as a blood payment for the murder of Ketil's sons. Gunnar, his wife, children, and livestock move in with his father-in-law.

Meanwhile, Margret has been banished to the far reaches of the colony for adultery. Trading ships come no longer; seal and reindeer grow scarce. Superstition replaces every vestige of organized religion. The unprepared community faces the onslaught of a New Ice Age that heralds waves of disease and starvation. The lawspeaker dies without transmitting his memorized knowledge of the law to an heir, and societal disintegration follows.

The author simulates the narrative voice of a storyteller in a nonliterate society. Thus, The Greenlanders reads as we would hear it were we listening to a teller of tales. There is little detailed description. But at the same time, Smiley adheres to the oral tradition of epics and sagas, repeating words and phrases and punctuating the whole with words such as “now,” which are not economical yet would keep up the flow of sound necessary to retain an audience's interest.

Smiley conveys the emotional starkness of the Greenlanders’ lives. Her voice is the voice of a people numbed by years of the monotony of survival, a people inured by hopelessness into tacit acceptance of the harshest of fates. She also captures that quintessential quality of the late medieval mind: fear.

When the Danish missionary, Hans Egede, landed in Greenland in 1721, he found nothing but archaeological remains—the Greenlanders with their culture and livestock had vanished. Though Smiley's threnodic novel may solve the mystery of the Greenlanders’ disappearance, her meticulous detailing of a society destroyed, within and without, by forces beyond its control may make you wish you'd never asked.


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Jane Smiley 1949-

(Full name Jane Graves Smiley) American novelist, short story and novella writer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Smiley's career through 1999. For further...

(This entire section contains 948 words.)

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information on her life and works, seeCLC, Volumes 53 and 76.

Smiley's fiction explores complex relationships among family members, friends, and lovers, while providing detailed character studies of her protagonists. Critics have commended Smiley's keen observations of daily routine and her use of sharp, revealing dialogue as effective tools that enable her to explicitly define her characters and their emotions. Her fiction also deals with larger, underlying themes such as loss and recovery.

Biographical Information

Smiley was born on September 26, 1949, in Los Angeles, California. She was raised by her mother, Frances, who was a journalist. Her parents divorced when she was one year old, after which she rarely saw her father, James, a soldier who suffered from mental illness after serving in World War II. Smiley has been married three times. Her first marriage occurred while she was very young and lasted only two years. Her second marriage produced two daughters but ended badly, prompting her to write the short fiction collection The Age of Grief (1987). The title novella examines the dissolution of a relationship and the grief that follows. Smiley is currently married to a scriptwriter, with whom she has a son. Smiley obtained her bachelor of arts degree from Vassar in 1971. She also received an M.A. in 1975, an M.F.A. in 1976, and a Ph.D. in 1978, all from the University of Iowa. She now teaches at Iowa State University. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics' Circle Award for A Thousand Acres (1991).

Major Works

In her first novels, Barn Blind (1980) and At Paradise Gate (1981), Smiley examined the powerful bonds that dominate the lives of two families. In Barn Blind, the Karlson children strive to match the unrealistic expectations of their demanding mother. At Paradise Gate centers on the tense relationships between the Robison daughters, who have gathered at the deathbed of their father as their mother prepares for her life alone. The Age of Grief is a collection of short fiction in which marriage and family emerge as central issues. The title novella examines a husband's self-doubt and his decision to avoid confrontation following the discovery of his wife's infidelity. In her historical novel The Greenlanders (1988), Smiley employed the intricacies of the medieval Nordic folktale to chronicle the spiritual and physical demise of Norse settlements in Greenland during the tenth century. Smiley conveyed her theme by gathering thoughts and experiences of different settlers and combining them into the unifying narrative voice of one Greenlander, Gunnar Asgeirsson. A Thousand Acres is Smiley's retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, set in the farmlands of Iowa. Lawrence Cook, who rules his family with an iron hand, has decided to divide the family farm among his three daughters. Ginny and Rose happily accept what they see as their rightful share, but Caroline, a Des Moines attorney, refuses and is cast out. Cook soon becomes mentally unstable, changes his mind, and sues Ginny and Rose, with Caroline eventually joining him. Smiley related the story from the perspective of Ginny, the Goneril figure, and included the added dimension of past sexual abuse to explain the daughters' attitudes toward their father. Moo (1995) is a satire of life at a typical Midwestern university during the 1989-90 academic year, which included such events as the fall of communism in Russia and the U.S. government's campaign of slashing funds for public education. The novel includes multiple characters and subplots pulled together through the main character, a pig named Earl Butz. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998) tells the story of Lidie Harkness, a tomboy in Quincy, Illinois, who marries Thomas Newton, a Unitarian abolitionist on his way to the Kansas Territory in 1856. The novel focuses on the personal story of the Newtons' budding love as well as the political struggle of the era (the issue of slavery had polarized the Territory at the time). When Thomas is killed, Lidie's political and personal concerns coalesce as she seeks to help a fleeing slave and avenge her husband's murder.

Critical Reception

Critics often note the variety of settings in Smiley's work, which range from ancient Greenland to Iowa farmland to the Kansas Territory in the 1800s. However, despite her varied locales, Smiley's work is often labeled as “domestic fiction” because of its familial settings and its focus on relationships. Suzanne MacLachlan described Smiley's style, saying, “Smiley writes as if she were sitting at the kitchen table telling a story to a friend. Her style is simple, yet she never misses a detail.” Though her fiction may be concerned with the domestic aspects of life, many critics note a definite political agenda behind it. Certain reviewers have accused Smiley of using her characters as mere representations of her political ideals; Susan Dodd referred to this as Smiley's “unabashed weakness for a soapbox.” Other critics have seen more subtlety in her presentation of political conflicts. Heller McAlpin stated, “She is as adept at capturing the subtle nuances of relationships as she is at chronicling complex political activity.” Reviewers have also been vocal about Smiley's talents as a fine comic writer. Moo, in particular, was singled out for its wit and humor, although others criticized the novel for its multitude of characters that were never fully developed. Author and reviewer Joyce Carol Oates concluded, “The prevailing subject of Jane Smiley's more characteristic and more finely honed work has been the brave confrontation of loss. … This is [her] true theme, which has evoked her considerable gifts in the past and which will surely evoke them again.”

Jane S. Bakerman (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Renovating the House of Fiction: Structural Diversity in Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys,” in Midamerica, Vol. 15, 1988, pp. 111–20.

[In the following essay, Bakerman draws comparisons between Smiley's Duplicate Keys and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, including the tension between the characters’ Midwestern values and city life in the East.]

As every student of American literature knows, Nick Carraway went home again, abandoning the perplexities of life among the very rich and forswearing the confusion of life in and on the fringes of New York City. Furthermore, every student of American literature agrees, despite Thomas Wolfe's dictum, that Nick Carraway made the right decision. And, every student of American literature realizes that in the process of sending Nick home, Scott Fitzgerald voiced some serious doubts about the American Dream.1

If a young person had, as advised gone West and enjoyed great success and happiness, could that young person's offspring eventually go East and make a successful life? Are Americans’ personal ethics and social ideals transportable or are they tied irrevocably to region? to social class? to education? Does property bestow propriety as readily as it bestows power? Do the rules of acceptability apply equally to the self-made man and to the inheritor of wealth? What is love? How can one attract his beloved? What promotes friendship—shared pasts, shared adventures, shared values, pragmatism, proximity, pity? The Great Gatsby is so firmly associated with these unresolved questions that it informs readers’ responses to other novels which share its setting or its themes.

Certainly Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys2 (1984), an extraordinarily rich crime novel, invites comparison with The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby,Keys reflects Americans’ continuing hope—and doubt—that personal ethics and values developed in the “bored, sprawling swollen towns beyond the Ohio” (Fitzgerald 177) can withstand the assaults mounted by Eastern, megalopolitan life. Like Gatsby, it is a delayed Bildungsroman. Like Gatsby, it examines the meaning of friendship and the meaning of love. As in The Great Gatsby, Smiley's novel depicts the dangerous adventures of Midwesterners living in the East. Like Jay Gatsby, Alice Ellis, the protagonist of Duplicate Keys, wholly misunderstands the true desires and motives of a beloved person who she has idealized. Because of these similarities, those who have read The Great Gatsby know before they are very many pages into Duplicate Keys that the price of Alice's misapprehensions will be very high.

Just as Duplicate Keys gains power by its thematic similarity to The Great Gatsby, so it also gains resonance from its relationships to several subgenres of the novel. Such relationships are not at all rare, of course; they are the very factors which help readers identify favorite types of fiction and which stimulate critics’ attention and analysis. Duplicate Keys’s distinction lies in the variety of associations upon which it draws and in the smooth sophistication with which they are interwoven with its gripping plot, quick pace, and crisp dialogue.

Like most good fiction, this novel addresses matters of enduring interest which particularly concern contemporary audiences. A female character's late maturation, subject of much recent critical attention, is the compelling variation of the education novel apparent in Alice Ellis's tardy, painful revision of her world view. Because learning to distinguish between true and false friends is a crucial step in any apprentice's education, the relationships between Alice, her best friend Susan Gabriel, and their small group of intimates serves Smiley's delayed Bildungsroman handily. It also, however, associates Duplicate Keys with other novels which examine the viability of close friendships between adult women. Thematically, then, readers understand Duplicate Keys as a separate, fully realized work even as they perceive its connection to several traditions.3

In Duplicate Keys, it is the crime story which generates the action, complications, and tension by providing the traditional initiation tests which education novel heroes must undergo. The initial crime (the murder of two of Alice Ellis’ close friends) and its consequences endanger Alice's life; to survive, she must tap hitherto unsuspected reserves of physical strength. Simultaneously, she must restructure her personal life and alter most of her attitudes toward others, emotional tasks which are as stressful as her physical exploits are exhausting. The accounts of these efforts are so absorbing that Alice's healthy maturation becomes the central, redemptive action, replacing the journey motif common to more conventional Bildungsromane.

In constructing this novel, Jane Smiley subordinates neither the crime story nor the Bildungsroman. Instead, she maintains a fruitful balance, altering some elements of each formula, adhering to other elements, so that Duplicate Keys satisfies readers’ expectations in some instances, redirects them in others. The result is a strong, individualistically structured novel which depends heavily upon detailed characterization (especially of the protagonist) and upon a satisfying degree of complexity which strengthen the story to the point that Duplicate Keys crosses the great divide between formulaic crime writing and “serious” fiction.

Smiley's adroit manipulations of structure succeed because they contribute usefully to the plot, require character-revealing action, and allow fundamental elements such as setting to enhance the narrative in a variety of ways. For instance, she capitalizes on urbanites’ endemic wariness, cleverly playing off the generalized dangers of New York City streets against the double murder which Alice discovers and reports to the police. Very much involved with this specific case—the victims were her friends; the suspects are her friends—Alice grows more and more fearful. Never a very self-confident person, she understands that the protection and trust supplied by her social circle have died with Denny Minehart and Craig Shellady. As she realizes that the smile of a friend conceals the snarl of the killer, Alice also, at long last, realizes how very vulnerable she—or almost any citizen—is to the random violence of the city.

Taking the broken circle as a major symbol, Smiley develops it by dramatizing Alice's changing attitudes toward specific, familiar locations. The murder takes place in Susan's home. The killer stalks Alice in her own flat. A drug-dealing friend hides out in her apartment. At work, she feels pursued and spied upon. Uneasiness, then outright fear and suspicion occupy her thoughts. Tension builds steadily as Alice realizes that neither the comfortable interiors in which she has conducted her life—her home, Susan's apartment, the New York Public Library—nor her ordinary, orderly round—of work, mild pleasures, strong friendships—offers any real security.

Early in the investigation, Detective Honey, the officer in charge of the case, foreshadows these changes by calling attention to the damage inflicted on Alice's social circle. He warns her that

a violent crime is the beginning of a train of events, and a sign that whatever balance a given social network has achieved is strained. The crime is a change, and the change is always sudden and profound, affecting every member of the network in unforeseen ways and often violently … Something else is always true. The parties to the violence, whether guilty or not, always assume that they know what is going on and can predict what will happen and can make their own judgments about what to do, when nine times out of ten, they don't, can't, and shouldn't.


In the days following the murder, events fulfill Honey's prediction. Nevertheless, Alice tries to close her mind to his warning. Readers, however, do not. They remember Honey's words as they remember the formulas for murder mysteries, and they feel the pervasiveness of the tension Honey predicted in every action and reaction which the formulaic narrative requires. The concept of the strained network or the broken circle, then, colors every incident in the plot.

Jane Smiley also uses the ruptured circle motif to develop the theme of friendship, an important subject of Duplicate Keys. As is so commonly the case in popular fiction, we meet the protagonist at the exact moment when she is ripe for her great adventure. Chronologically thirty years old, Alice Ellis is an adolescent emotionally. She imagines and desires total union with a lover or friend with whom to share endless confidences and conversations which will reflect and explore their mutual absorption. If she is ever to mature, it must be now before some destructive realignment of her friendships envelops her in permanent, yearning adolescence.

Alice considers herself to be richly endowed with friends. Like herself, her intimates were originally Midwesterners. She and Ray Reschley attended public school and college together. Alice's best college friend was Susan Gabriel, who fell in love with Denny Minehart. Denny and his foster brother, Craig Shellady, formed a band, Deep Six, whose bass player was Noah Mast. Rya Mast, Noah's wife, and Jim Ellis, Alice's ex-husband (the only defector in the crowd), completed the circle of ambitious youngsters who were bound together by friendship, love, music, hopefulness and memories. They were so close that when “‘Dinah's Eyes’ [the band's one good single] had brought Denny and Craig to New York … the rest of them had followed.” It simply seemed to them “the natural thing to do” (6).

Because Smiley limits herself to Alice's perceptions in telling her story, readers initially see the group as Alice believes them to be: self-sufficient, mutually supportive, rather insular, gifted, quite happy. However, readers soon recognize the Deep Six crowd as Smiley's version of the formulaic closed circle of suspects commonly found in “cozy” or English country-house mysteries. Those characters are generally united by love, hate, blood, self-interest and/or self-sacrifice, exactly as Alice's friends are united.

The powerful emotions which bind circle members to one another can breed trouble at least as readily as they foster happiness, and when, in country-house stories, it transpires that only circle members had access to the victim, the familiar, cantalizing situation is complete. No matter how often surviving circle members suggest that a homicidal itinerant happened along at the pertinent moment, neither reader nor investigator is much fooled; the killer is an intimate of both victim and survivors. That is a terrifying, potentially heartbreaking—and terrifically exciting—realization.

Clearly, then, the concept of a close associate turned killer allows for plenty of excitement, tension, and suspicion, and Smiley recognizes and thoroughly exploits those narrative energies. However, to explore Alice Ellis's late maturation fully, Smiley depicts Alice not only colliding sorrowfully or angrily with other Deep Six survivors but also, as has been noted, becoming much more aware of New York's dangerous, mean streets where at any given moment, anyone might become a killer, anyone might become a victim.

Yet, dangerous as they may be, Manhattan's mean streets are also streets of dreams where, many believe, the American Dream can best become reality. So pervasive are the incongruities of American’ perceptions of New York that one critic speaks of the ambivalence that “has become the trademark of the contemporary City.”4 For Smiley, who organizes Duplicate Keys around Alice's need to a separate a youngster's opinion, hope, and fancy from adult perceptions of reality, particularly toward herself and Susan, these widely held but seemingly contradictory attitudes enhance her larger setting. In New York City, where ambivalence is the defining feature, incorporating two seemingly incongruent formulas, country house and mean streets, seems almost natural—if the author is as skillful as Jane Smiley.

Smiley uses the novel's dominant symbol, the duplicate keys of the title, to integrate qualities of the mean streets crime novel with those elements of the country-house mystery which she has selected and deployed so carefully. Originally, there was one set of duplicate keys to the Alice's apartment; Susan had it. Alice had keys to the Minehart-Gabriel flat. So did Craig. So did Noah. So did Ray—and so did so many acquaintances and friends of friends that no one knew how many keys existed, let alone where they were. As Alice tells Detective Honey,

Once on the subway I overheard a guy with a suitcase say to someone else, “Richie knows a place where we can sleep. He's got a key.” I didn't know any Richie, but I can't say I was surprised when the guy on the subway turned up at Susan's apartment a day or so later, and let himself in. He wasn't a bad kid … but nobody knew him, and he did have a key


Reading such a passage, it's impossible not to remember Gatsby's huge, flashy parties which everyone attended though no one knew the host. The student of crime fiction is apt to go further, thinking also of lavish weekend house parties in the English countryside. The perpetual open house which makes Craig and Denny feel important and successful is the ultimate symbol of the duality at this novel's core: the Deep Six crowd are a closed circle; the transient key holders plunk mean streets’ dangers into the circle's midst. Even the dangers are twofold—an outsider might be a thief, a rapist, a murderer or the flow of outsiders might upset the balance of the friends’ relationship as, in fact, happens. The fabric of the Deep Sixers’ loving alliance has long been worn thin, but the pattern is so familiar that only the killer has noticed and reacted to the disintegration.

In order to mature successfully, Alice must accept the fact that her circle cannot—wholly or in part—be reassembled. Indeed, she must realize that it has been years since the circle actually functioned as she supposed. It becomes imperative that she understand that the relationships of various pairs within the group differ sharply from what she imagined them to be. And finally, perhaps the hardest realization she must come to is the knowledge that her dream of absolute union with another is a childish fancy far more suited to a self-absorbed adolescent than to a mature adult. If she masters these lessons in time, Alice will make proper choices. Meanwhile, she considers her options as she tries to understand the new realities confronting her.

Like Nick Carraway, Alice, who has been stunned by an attempt on her life and horrified by the cold, detached, unrepentant tone of the killer's confession, considers returning to the Midwest.

Going home wasn't necessarily a defeat. Thirty-year-olds settled near their parents every day, and viewed it as a matter of coming to their senses, bolstering up the disintegrating American family, or even out-growing all of those spurious resentments that had driven them away in the first place. If you could freely return to the geography of your parents, after embracing to your heart's content the most dangerous, exciting, and alien landscape imaginable, didn't you thereafter have everything? Weren't you then forever both small town and cosmopolitan, experienced, and yet reaping the abundant fruits of innocence?


Aware that her small family (her parents and both sets of grandparents) lead and enjoy good, active lives,

Alice had always liked them. They had not been battered by random events into numbness, as Alice felt in danger of being. Each of her forebears had a peculiar and fully branched inner life


In other words, Alice's parents and grandparents are true adults; they lead responsible, examined lives even as they live physically active lives—working, gardening, preserving, thinking, caring for one another. Tom and Daisy Buchanan never think; they gratify; they cheat; they sneak. Craig and Denny never think; they remember (and ritualistically describe and relive) their one old triumph; they dream and drift and pretend to fame, power, and influence they will never have. In the end, these perpetual children are deadly—Tom and Daisy are responsible for others’ deaths; Craig and Denny cooperate in their own victimization. At last, after the murder, Alice becomes aware of the pain Craig and Denny's self-absorption has inflicted on Susan; finally she allows herself to see Susan's lot as it really was rather than as she, Alice, imagined it to be. Understanding the Denny-Craig-Susan relationship enables Alice to make some wise choices about her own life. In the dynamics of Duplicate Keys’ structure, her choices close the action on a note of hope.

Few if any elements of the mean streets formula are more rigidly applied than the successful-but-futile ending, one of the most important differences from the country-house pattern. The writers and readers of formulaic cozy mysteries usually presuppose an orderly universe (represented by the country house itself). Once the miscreant is identified and removed, the evil will have been removed. The circle will be different, but order will prevail and the center will hold. The metropolis-jammed universe of the mean-streets novel has no center; on the mean streets, one can hardly sustain a belief in order, let alone presuppose its universality. In the mean-streets world, even the most optimistic reader is “left with that sense of something profoundly unsolved lying just behind the foreground solution of that peculiar crime.”5 In terms of structure, then, the cozy mystery generally attains full closure; the mean-streets plot almost never does so.

Duplicate Keys, which relies so heavily on the mean streets formula, nevertheless does achieve closure which seems realistic and believable. Moreover, as has been noted, the plot closes in a spirit of hope. Smiley achieves that believability because of an important element of the country-house mystery which she has developed carefully, consistently throughout Duplicate Keys. The device, the most common means of signaling a happy—or at the very least moderately contented—ending, is the love story subplot, staple of the country-house mystery and key symbol in many Bildungsromane.

Readers attend closely to Alice's courtship because Smiley develops it with the same devices she uses for amplification and emphasis throughout Duplicate Keys; she details Alice's emotional responses in and to specific, clearly defined spaces. Having observed that the larger setting, mean-streeted, dangerous New York City, invades one after another of Alice's familiar havens, it is reassuring for readers to notice that the city takes no toll of the places Alice associates with a new acquaintance, Henry Mullet.

In a rare display of independence, weak, clinging Alice willfully, intentionally conducts a separate, secret life, well apart from her Deep Six friends and from the murder investigation. In that life, she falls in love with Henry, whom she meets very early in the story, conducting her courtship as if it runs parallel to her ordinary, daily life now suddenly so chaotic and dangerous. As Smiley uses specific spaces and interiors to reveal the mean streets’ steady encroachment into Alice's closed circle, so she uses other specific settings—particularly Henry's apartment (from which Alice literally gains a different perspective on her own flat) and his workplace, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—to suggest security and support, should Alice only be wise enough to identify them correctly and to make the proper choice. The beauty, peace, and order of the Garden as achieved by Henry and his co-workers suggest that even though no ordinary person can hope to abide in Eden, she can find and appreciate Edenic havens created by right-thinking mortals.

On another tried-and-true but very useful symbolic level, Alice must choose between her past and her future. To choose intimacy with surviving members of the Deep Six group who might attempt to repair that relationship would suggest that Alice has not grown and changed much in the course of the action. To choose Susan specifically over Henry would indicate that Alice retains her fond and foolish adolescent notion of relationships without reserve, without privacy, without autonomy. By choosing Henry, Alice moves forward to embrace an imperfect but loyal, satisfying lover and an imperfect but intriguing, fulfilling union.

Smiley underscores Alice's choice by taking her protagonist, alone and uncertain of her welcome (she and Henry have quarreled), into Henry's bailiwick. Having recognized and accepted the fact that each person is alone, a separate unit, unable to merge wholly with anyone else (301), Alice is prepared to love another adult as the adult woman she has finally become. The last action of Duplicate Keys is Alice's undramatic but positive and loving response to Henry's easy, natural gesture of commitment and union. As they walk side by side, “his arm came around Alice's shoulders and he squeezed. Alice lifted her chin and kissed him lightly on the cheek” (307). The love story subplot climaxes quietly to indicate the successful completion of Alice's Bildungsroman and to signal that she can and will carry on with her life.

In Duplicate Keys, it's not proper for Alice to go home again. She has no unresolved quarrels with the home folks; she has out-grown the perpetual adolescence of Deep Six's commune-like buddy system. Now strong enough to accept the contemporary “suburban experience” (to which Henry is drawn), as “a mixed blessing, offering a flawed Utopia, a Garden of Eden with problems,”6 Alice shows every sign of being “forever both small town and cosmopolitan” (303), just as she had hoped she could be.

By redefining the phrase “cultivate your your garden,” Alice and Henry dismiss useless Edenic longings as they eschew easy, street-smart cynicism. Sobered but hopeful and confident, they opt for full adulthood, merging Midwestern and Manhattan values in a consciously selected suburban world where mature judgment and natural ability join to make many (but never all) fine things possible. They will, one might say, domesticate the American Dream.

It's an astonishingly simple and conventional resolution for such a complexly structured novel, and yet it's a conclusion which satisfies pop fiction's rage for order as it serves “high” fiction's commitment to hard truth. In the realistic world Jane Smiley depicts in Duplicate Keys, Midwesterners can indeed transport their ethical standards to the East. In one important sense, then, Alice Ellis enjoys more freedom than Nick Carraway; she need not go home again.


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner's, 1953). All further references are to this edition and are indicated in the text.

  2. Jane Smiley, Duplicate Keys (New York: Pocket Books, 1985). All further references are to this edition and are indicated in the text.

  3. Among the novels which combine crime story plots with the delayed Bildungsroman, Lois Gould's Sea-Change, Diane Johnson's The Shadow Knows, Beth Gutcheon's Still Missing, and Charlayne Harris’ A Secret Rage are particularly useful choices for comparison with Duplicate Keys. Each of these novels also offers a thoughtful examination of the ability or inability of friendship to withstand the pressures generated by the heroes’ late maturation.

  4. Robert A. Gates, The New York Vision; Interpretations of New York City in the American Novel (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), p. xiii.

  5. Erik Routley, The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story (London: Gollancz, 1972), p. 210.

  6. Gates, pp. 125–126.

Principal Works

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Barn Blind (novel) 1980

At Paradise Gate (novel) 1981

Duplicate Keys (novel) 1984

The Age of Grief (short stories) 1987

Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains (nonfiction) 1987

The Greenlanders (novel) 1988

Ordinary Love and Good Will (novellas) 1989

A Thousand Acres (novel) 1991

Moo (novel) 1995

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (novel) 1998

Horse Heaven (novel) 2000

Suzanne MacLachlan (review date 30 October 1989)

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SOURCE: “Kitchen-Table Tales of Desire and Will,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, No. 234, October 30, 1989, p. 13.

[In the following review, MacLachlan lauds Smiley's conversational style in the novellas of Ordinary Love and Good Will.]

Jane Smiley's two novellas, Ordinary Love and Good Will, are about loss and acceptance. Though the characters and settings seem, on the surface, vastly different, each story highlights the destructive nature of desire and will, specifically to control situations and people. In the end, Smiley's characters learn a potentially shattering lesson: that it is impossible to control another person's life and almost as difficult to willfully control one's own.

In Ordinary Love, a middle-aged mother describes coming to terms with her life as a single woman with five grown children, who were taken from her by an enraged husband 20 years earlier. His rage stemmed from an affair she had with a neighbor in an attempt to free herself from his oppressiveness.

For a year, the narrator lived in a daze. By attempting to pull away from her husband's unyielding grip, she had relinquished all control of her children and lost everything that was precious to her. Later, when her children are grown and living close by, she struggles between the desire to keep them dependent, making up for lost time when she wasn't allowed to be a mother, and the feeling that she must let go and allow her offspring the opportunity to make their own choices.

Good Will is the story of a self-made man, who, after returning from Vietnam, decides to live entirely off the land; everything he and his young family might need, he creates himself. He takes enormous pride in the fact that what he has made is not only material, but human, too. “When I look into my son's room, my pleasure is the knowledge that I have brought all of my being to bear here. …”

It is not coincidental that the husband and father in both of Smiley's stories are egotists. The narrator in Ordinary Love says of her husband's overbearing love: “His enthusiasm for family life was the passion, I see now, of a true egomaniac, whose wife and children and dogs are the limbs of his own body.” Even family dinners become an ordeal for his wife and children as he fervently questions them about their thoughts, ideas, and actions.

His wife starkly confronts the fact that however hard she may try to control her life in a rational way, the desire to control overwhelms her as well.

In Good Will, Bob Miller thinks he knows exactly what he wants for himself and his family. He loves his wife and son and life on the farm, but most of all, he loves the fact that he has made them what they are. His life is self-contained and he wants to complete this by taking his young son, Tommy, out of school and teaching him at home. “His schooling is my decision to make. … And as for taking the responsibility for what goes into his head, that ATTRACTS me.”

The only one who is not consulted in any of this is eight-year-old Tommy, who is finishing his last year of elementary school in town. When Tommy starts making trouble at school, harassing a black child by destroying her dolls and ripping her coat, his parents are concerned, but don't view the incidents as signs of deeper trouble. It is only when Miller sees the little girl's house on fire that he realizes his son is beyond his control.

When Tommy is accused of arson and placed in the hands of welfare workers, Miller realizes his dreams have vanished. He is ordered to leave the farm to secure “real” employment, or lose his son. He complies for the sake of his child. “But it seems to me that what they want of me is to make another whole bubble, the way I made a whole of my family, my farm, my time, a self,” his self-revelatory voice says with both irony and tragedy.

Smiley writes as if she were sitting at the kitchen table telling a story to a friend. Her style is simple, yet she never misses a detail. This may not be for everyone, but those who look forward to a good chat with a neighbor or a friend will find plenty to talk about.

Richard Eder (review date 10 November 1991)

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SOURCE: “Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following review, Eder complains that Smiley's A Thousand Acres, with its reversal of King Lear, does not work.]

A problem novel is a problem. If it is a detective story, say, or an exposure of conditions in the Chicago stockyards, we take it on its own single-minded level—solving the mystery or learning about the conditions. It needs to be lucidly and enthrallingly expounded; apart from that, we are simply grateful for whatever adornments of style or character may be thrown in.

When it is a full-fledged work of fiction, though, we feel two currents tug against each other. There is the whirlpool vortex—find the problem, explore it, elucidate it—and the freer, more complex, less foreseen tides that fiction sets going in its interplay of character, story, setting and the writer's voice.

Paradoxically, if Jane Smiley were a narrower and less gifted writer, her new novel might have worked better. The “problem” in A Thousand Acres is current and troubling: the disabling consequences of parental sexual abuse, and of the family denial that turns a knife thrust into a deadly infection. She sets it in a sprawling hybrid framework that is partly a rigorous psychological study, partly a deliberately lurid melodrama, and partly the subtle and affecting evocation of a family and a place. It cannot hold together.

The melodrama, employed with a touch of satire and to make a point, is a detailed reworking of King Lear. It is a reversal, in fact, Lear told from the point of view of Goneril and Regan, with Lear the terrible old man they accused him of being, and they themselves terribly damaged, and fighting to survive.

Lawrence Cook, a hard, tempestuous farmer, is a petty monarch. He works 1,000 acres of prime Iowa land, having built his holdings partly by inheritance, partly by driving energy, and partly by taking advantage of neighbors forced to sell out. His two oldest daughters, Ginny—the narrator—and Rose, and their husbands Pete and Ty, work and keep house on the Cook lands under their father's increasingly paranoid eye. Caroline, the youngest, has gone off to be a lawyer in Des Moines.

Suddenly, Lawrence announces he will retire and divide his property among his daughters. Rose and Ginny accept—Lawrence is cranky and failing, and their husbands are capable and deserve their chance—but Caroline demurs. In a rage, Lawrence casts her out.

Land and power gone, the old man turns erratic. He goes on foolish shopping sprees, he drinks heavily and smashes up his car. When Ginny and Rose insist he give up driving and get some exercise, he curses them and runs out, as it happens, into a fearful rainstorm. Before long, having sheltered with an old, equally paranoid neighbor and buddy, he is suing Ginny and Rose. He is joined in the suit by Caroline, who now returns to back up a father she never had much to do with, and whom she chooses to regard as wronged by greedy sisters.

Lear then, or rather, anti-Lear, down to having Lawrence's neighbor-buddy (Gloucester) blinded in an accident; making Ginny's easygoing husband, Ty (Albany), feel that she has been unnecessarily confrontational; and even having Ginny and Rose quarrel over a lover.

All this sits ludicrously upon the Iowa countryside, and Smiley is in no way a ludicrous writer. She is sending a signal, she is parodying her melodrama even as she uses it for a purpose. Ginny—a conscientious housekeeper—carefully grinds up river hemlock in her home-canned sausage and deposits it in Rose's larder. “I waited for Rose to die,” she tells us, “but the weather was warm for sauerkraut and sausage; that was a winter dish.”

The serious purpose behind this comic grisliness, of course, is to convey the wild dysfunction of abuse and concealment. Ginny has lived all her life placating, holding things together, denying her pain. For a long time, she can't even remember it. Rose, remembering every one of the 200 times that Lawrence came to her bed when she was a teen-ager, keeps silent, but she grows up to be irascible and disruptive.

What if, Smiley is asking; what if Lear were the abuser and what if his two oldest daughters were simply asserting themselves and trying to break free? The victim is blamed; the victim blames herself.

It is timely, ingenious, devastating, as a problem rigorously ventilated and as a parodic theatrical reversal used to dramatize it. But these machineries get out of control; they chew each other up. Particularly do they weaken the broader novel of character and place to which they are attached.

Smiley makes a living, breathing portrait of the Iowa landscape, so peaceable and orderly but maintained in brutal tension. In a few introductory pages, we get a bucolic picture of three neighboring farms as Ginny recalls them from her childhood. There was her family's, the Ericson place, where she and her sisters would go play, and the farm belonging to Harold Clark, Lawrence's buddy. Then she gives figures, and the peace turns baleful: Cook, 640 acres, no mortgage; Clark, 500 acres, no mortgage; Ericson, 370 acres, mortgage.

“Harold Clark and my father used to argue at our kitchen table about who should get the Ericson land when they finally lost their mortgage,” she writes. It is the secret behind the picture postcard; when she resumes the narrative, now grown up and married, her father has won the argument and the land. Of that rich landscape, drained from marsh and floating on its water table, she tells us: “The stationary fields are always flowing towards one farmer and away from another.”

It is Ginny's voice that relates the seemingly golden family life that the marsh will rise to flood. It is a devoted, troubled voice; a voice that clings to the positive, that resists confrontation for as long as it can. It is supple and witty, and it evokes the lives around her in all their tensions, troubles and pleasures. It is the voice, of course, of denial; yet it has created a complex fictional life. When it is turned to spinning the anti-Lear melodrama, to relating and taking part in the self-investigation and its violent consequences, it goes flat. It becomes more truthful—nothing is hidden—but less alive.

It is, again, the problem with problem fiction. In life, we may try to confront our pasts, to overcome our denials, to remove the shadows that impede us. But fiction is not therapy. It is partly the shadows that bring characters up into relief. Lighting them without flattening the characters is a complex process. Ginny is more interesting and individual when she is denying. Before the Cook family secrets are vented and their disastrous consequences endured, she is a person; afterwards, she is mainly a solution, though Smiley never suggests that it is a happy one.

Further Reading

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Allen, Brooke. “On Campus among the Sacred Cows.” Wall Street Journal 225, No. 61 (29 March 1995): A10.

Points out several faults in Smiley's Moo and asserts that the novel “is at best a pleasant read.”

Bernays, Anne. “Toward More Perfect Unions.” New York Times Book Review 92 (6 September 1987): 12.

Lauds the novella and stories in Smiley's The Age of Grief.

Dodd, Susan. “The Sorrows of Bleeding Kansas.” Washington Post Book World 28, No. 15 (12 April 1998): 5.

Dodd asserts that Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton has too much reflection and speech-making.

Eder, Richard. “Moo U.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 April 1995): 3, 8.

Discusses Smiley's use of satire in Moo.

Fuller, Edmund. Review of A Thousand Acres.Sewanee Review 101, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 50.

Compares the way two novelists, Smiley in A Thousand Acres and Mairi MacInnes in The Quondam Wives, rewrite Shakespeare's King Lear.

Fuller, Jack. “King Lear in the Middle West.” Chicago Tribune Books (3 November 1991): 1, 4.

Fuller praises Smiley's inventive use of King Lear in A Thousand Acres.

Kaveney, Roz. “Acceptable Behaviour.” Times Literary Supplement (18 March 1988): 302.

States that although Smiley's stories lack a “mythic force,” she shows herself to be “a writer of good sense and charm” in The Age of Grief.

Malcomson, Scott L. “The Color Line.” New Yorker 74, No. 7 (6 April 1998): 102-4.

Discusses the merits and faults of Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.

Malmgren, Carl D. “The Lie of the Land: Heartland Novels by Smiley and Kinsella.” Modern Fiction Studies 45, No. 2 (Summer 1999): 432-56.

Traces the similarities in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, focusing on the importance of the land to both novels.

Marsh, Kelly. “The Neo-Sensation Novel: A Contemporary Genre in the Victorian Tradition.” Philological Quarterly 74, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 99-123.

Discusses Smiley's A Thousand Acres, in addition to several other novels, and how they fit into the category of neo-sensation fiction.

Miner, Valerie. “Domestic Novels.” New York Times Book Review 86 (22 November 1981): 15.

Argues that the character of Anna holds together Smiley's At Paradise Gate.

Norman, Howard. “They Should Have Listened to the Skraelings.” New York Times Book Review 93 (15 May 1988): 11.

Asserts that the length of Smiley's The Greenlanders represents both the novel's best and worst feature.

Rubin, Merle. “Storytelling, the Second Oldest Profession.” Wall Street Journal 214, No. 105 (29 November 1989): A12.

Asserts that while competently executed, Smiley's Ordinary Love and Good Will fails to excite and engage.

Slicer, Deborah. “Toward an Ecofeminist Standpoint Theory: Bodies as Grounds.” In Ecofeminist Literature Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy, edited by Greta Gaard, pp. 48-73. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Uses Smiley's A Thousand Acres to support an ecofeminist standpoint that asserts women's special relationship with nature and the environment.

Sokolov, Raymond. “Them Too: A Family Affair.” Wall Street Journal 210, No. 49 (8 September 1987): 30.

Lauds the variety of stories within the genre of family relationships in Smiley's The Age of Grief.

Additional coverage of Smiley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 30, 50, and 74; DISCovering Authors 3.0; and DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors.

Rupert Christiansen (review date 10 October 1992)

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SOURCE: “Speaking Less than She Knowest,” in Spectator, Vol. 269, October 10, 1992, p. 38.

[In the following review, Christiansen asserts that Smiley's “A Thousand Acres has a moral weight, a technical accomplishment and a sheer eloquence that demands some special recognition.”]

Jane Smiley's latest novel has just been honoured with two of America's most prestigious literary prizes, and for once you feel the pundits may have got it right: A Thousand Acres has a moral weight, a technical accomplishment and a sheer eloquence that demands some special recognition. It is not comfortable to read. There are no modernist tricks, no quick gratifications. It has none of Updike's polished glibness and is unlaced with the sugar that sweetens Anne Tyler's fictional pills. Smiley's style is austere, her themes almost terrifyingly serious, yet so taut is the threading of narrative, character and scene that she never seems pretentious or portentous. Since her unforgettable novella The Age of Grief (1987), she has looked like an important novelist, and A Thousand Acres emphatically confirms the impression.

It is based, unmistakably, on King Lear. Lawrence Cook farms rich, inherited land in Iowa. Capriciously, he decides to split his estate between his three daughters. He is a widower, tough and emotionally inturned, who has followed hard rules and prospered because of it. ‘A man gets what he deserves by creating his own good luck', he says, but the novel shows something very different: how a man creates his own bad luck, one terrible mistake spreading and spiralling through ‘lives which seemed secure and good’.

A Zolaesque determinism underlies the plot. Ginny, the narrating Goneril-figure, is both literally and metaphorically poisoned by her inheritance. The nitrates in the water,

the molecules of topsoil and atrazine and paraquat and anhydrous ammonia and diesel fuel and plant dust

kill the babies in her womb, and in some sense drive her to a course of evil which, in retrospect, she ‘remembers but cannot imagine’. It may sound preposterously melodramatic, but the action is patiently controlled by a stringent logic which gives its every episode an irrefutable, rock-solid motivation.

The parallel to King Lear is handled without any self-conscious literary acrobatics or allusiveness. There is an Edmund figure, all charm and hidden calculation, and a blinded Gloucester. There is madness, an old man running pell-mell into a storm, sudden death and disappearance. There is a stern, unyielding goodness to balance the vileness. But the play resonates because life is like Shakespeare, because families do rip themselves to pieces and fathers do curse their hard-hearted daughters. The tragedy is the novel's own, not some clever imitation.

‘Larry! Listen to me! What happened to your farm? Who did you give it to? Think about it!’

Suddenly, Daddy shouted, ‘She's dead!’ He gripped the arms of his chair.

The judge said, ‘Who's dead, Mr Cook?’

‘My daughter.’ He sounded conversational, almost meek.

‘Which daughter? All your daughters are in the courtroom, sir.’

‘Caroline! Caroline's dead. Where is she? Have they buried her already? I think they stole the body. I think those sisters stole the body and buried her already.’

While he was saying this, Caroline was rushing to his side. She took his hands and put them on her shoulders, then she said. ‘Here I am, Daddy. I'm not dead at all.’

He said, ‘Somebody take her pulse.’

Rose let out a bark of laughter, which she quickly stifled. I was amazed, though. Amazed and horrified and excited, the way you always feel at a wreck.

This—from the climactic court scene in which the Cordelia of the story, Caroline, pitying her demented father, tries to win back the partitioned land from her hateful sisters—is exemplary of Smiley's lean, muscular and pellucid prose. It seems graced with the knowledge that events of such passion and violence are better served by laconic precision than by the fluted Baroque flourishes which Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe rendered aspects of the same emotional territory. The shadow of Cold Comfort Farm is miraculously kept at bay, even when the narrator is calmly stuffing hemlock into sausages with which she plans to poison her sister. Smiley has the art to make of such things shocking but vivid psychological reality; and what might have sunk into muddy bathos instead rises triumphantly over anything comparable I know of in contemporary American fiction.

Jane S. Bakerman (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “‘The Gleaming Obsidian Shard’: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres,” in Midamerica, Vol. 19, 1992, pp. 127–37.

[In the following essay, Bakerman discusses Smiley's vision of life in A Thousand Acres.]

The dustjacket of Jane Smiley's fine new novel, A Thousand Acres, features a beautiful Amish quilt done in red, tan, and black horizontal stripes, its main decoration the neat, disciplined patterns stitched into the plain fabrics.1 A color publicity still depicts Smiley standing before a vivid, multi-hued Iowa quilt of intricate design and construction.2 This quilt's exploitation of depth and its strong vertical and horizontal statements capture the viewer's attention initially. Closer examination, however, reveals that pinwheels also swirl across its surface.

In their varying ways, both quilts make wonderful symbols for A Thousand Acres. The Amish quilt suggests simplicity, beauty, and order, the fabled surface serenity of the agricultural society which is Smiley's topic. The Iowa quilt is much more overtly complex. Certainly, its pattern reveals order and design, but serenity is not the goal of its construction. This quilt depicts controlled tumult. Many colors, four separate directional patterns, and the construction of individual blocks vie for attention. It is only the great skill of the quilt-maker which brings a thrilling unity to the variety of her materials.

Reading A Thousand Acres is very like carefully examining a wonderful quilt, for Smiley has constructed her novel much as one designs good quilt patterns. She combines individual pieces—observations, incidents, memories, realizations—into blocks which steadily reveal more and more about the families she depicts. Connected into sections, these family blocks make acute comments about the American heartland, for Midwestern agriculture and attitudes are the subject here, emblematic of the agrarian American Dream as traditionally perceived. Indeed, Smiley creates “an exact and exhilarating sense of place” (Duffy 92) by evoking,

the unrelenting, insular world of farm life, the symbiotic relationships between a farmer and his land as well as those among other members of the rural community. She contrasts the stringencies of nature with those of human nature: the sting of sibling rivalry, the tensions of marriage, the psychological burdens of children, the passion of lovers.

(PW 44)

Ultimately, as the all-over pattern of the novel is finally revealed, the assembled sections make a commanding statement about American culture; indeed, it is “sheer Americanness that gives [A Thousand Acres] … its soul and roots” (Duffy 92). By probing the heart of the Heartland, Smiley challenges Americans to redeem their nation from its current problems. Central to those problems, she suggests, is the public assumption that if all looks well, all is well and the private determination that surface propriety and prosperity substitute adequately for familial health and personal integrity.

In fact, it's almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of “appearances,” of “surface,” to this novel because Smiley argues that communities rely upon surface images in order to function just as many assume that the peace and beauty of the agrarian American Dream are necessary to our national well-being. People are judged by the way they, their homes, and their farms look. In a period of extreme crisis, Ginny, the protagonist, is warned that “appearances are everything” (284), and she goes on to say,

I was so remarkably comfortable with the discipline of making a good appearance! It was like going back to school or church after a long absence. It had ritual and measure. Tasks proliferated … for the great open invisible eye of The Neighbors to judge and enjoy. … That Eye was always looking, day and night, even when there were no neighbors in sight.


This “self-induced illusion that everything would turn out fine, when we had all kinds of evidence that it wouldn't” (154) may fool the neighbors and delude oneself, but it is no substitute for redemptive, healthful action, and thus, Jane Smiley's vision of American life is discomforting. Moreover, Smiley is very open about the fact that A Thousand Acres is a message novel. In accepting the 1992 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, Smiley,

stressed that the book was a ‘complex argument against a certain kind of farming and land use, that is leading us towards an environmental disaster, the destruction of the lives of people and of the moral life of our country’. Iowa, she said, was ‘turning into El Salvador’.

(“17th NBCC Awards,” 10)

Furthermore, Time identifies Jane Smiley as “a believer in the radical agriculture movement,” who,

sees an inescapable link between the exploitation of land and that of women. …

‘Women, just like nature or the land, have been seen as something to be used,’ says Smiley. ‘Feminists insist that women have intrinsic value, just as environmentalists believe that nature has its own worth, independent of its use to man.’

(Duffy, 92)

Such open admission of the political themes of any novel is dangerous. At the very least, it could limit a book's popularity. Here, however, Smiley's “tightly controlled prose propels tension to nearly unbearable extremes” (PW 44), and she raises,

profound questions about human conduct and moral responsibility, especially about family relationships and the guilt and bitterness they can foster.

(PW 44)

Smiley, never one to avoid a challenge, has taken further authorial risks. A Thousand Acres is a modern American treatment of King Lear as the titles of several reviews indicate: “The Case for Goneril and Regan” (Time), “Lear in Iowa: Family Farm, Family Trouble” (The Wall Street Journal), and “Lear in Zebulon County” (The New York Times Book Review). Inviting comparisons to Lear and to Akira Kurosawa's Ran, which also inspired Smiley (Duffy, 92), is more dangerous business. However, Jane Smiley, whose previous works include Duplicate Keys and Ordinary Love and Good Will, triumphs over this challenge as well:

this powerful and poignant book doesn't lean against Lear for support. Jane Smiley takes the truths therein and lights them up her way, making the perils of family and property and being a daughter real and personal and new and honest and hurtful all over again.

(Carlson 12)

What this novel does do, Carlson goes on to say, “is to remind us again of why King Lear has lasted” (12). And Julia Just, in a partially unsympathetic review—she finds, for instance, that “the characters’ motivations sometimes hover on the outer edges of plausibility” (A14)—declares that, nevertheless,

the novel's center holds firm. Its narrative momentum is undeniable, as is the psychological truth … underlying the mortal combat between Larry Cook and his daughters and among the newly estranged sisters.


The unraveling of the Cook dynasty forms the plot of A Thousand Acres. Things fall apart when the Cooks openly begin operating as individuals rather than as a unit. None of them is capable of functioning as an independent adult, and their incapacity springs directly from practicing denial. While the Cooks kept the surface of their lives in good trim—ignoring such problems as self-abasement, cruelty, and drunkenness—each individual's well-being corroded.

Just before the great farm crisis of the eighties, Larry Cook, the leading farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, suddenly announces plans to retire from farming and to divide his assets among his three daughters: Ginny and Rose, who, with their husbands work Cook land, and Caroline, a Des Moines attorney. Only Caroline resists this change. For various reasons, her sisters and their spouses find the plan both appealing and logical. By years of hard work and good production, they feel, they have earned rights to the property and, perhaps even more importantly, to freedom from the subservience Larry Cook has exacted. In a very real sense, neither Ginny, Rose, Ty, or Pete has ever been recognized as an adult. Larry has controlled everything.

What none of the Cooks realizes is that this decision will shatter the family; no two of them will ever again be really close to one another, though initially, they appear to be fully and warmly united. “Appear,” of course, is the key word here, for from the outset, Smiley sounds notes of apprehension and warning. Ginny, the narrator, says of her father, for instance:

My earliest memories of him are of being afraid to look him in the eye, to look at him at all. He was too big and his voice was too deep. If I had to speak to him, I addressed his overalls, his shirt, his boots. … If he kissed me, I endured it, offered a little hug in return.


In a parallel plot, Harold Clark, Larry's friendly neighborhood rival, toys with the lives and expectations of his sons—stolid, faithful Loren, who has always helped his father on their farm, and Jess, back in Zebulon County after thirteen years of absence, having deserted from the army during the Viet Nam War. The central action begins at a party celebrating Harold's purchase of a “brand-new, enclosed, air-conditioned International Harvester tractor with a tape cassette player” (17). But even before the party is well launched, Ginny notes that Larry teases Harold pretty sharply about the tractor, and she tells us,

the real bone of contention was not that Harold had pulled ahead of my father in the machinery competition, but that he hadn't divulged how he'd financed the purchase, whether cold, out of savings and last year's profits (in which case, he was doing better than my father thought, and better than my father), or by going to the bank. … My father didn't know and that annoyed him.


Harold and Larry may be best friends, but they are also competitors, and the power to sting one another lies beneath the friendly surface:

Jane Smiley knows that the forces at play in any rural society are powerful and not unsophisticated. There is nature to contend with. There's the housewives’ constant struggle to keep the farm out of the house. And there is the rivalry of farmer against farmer, the competition for success with the crops, with machinery and with the bank—which ends sometimes in vying for one another's farms.

(Carlson 12)

Just as Ginny suggests the covert tension between her and her father and between her father and his friend early in the narrative, so she soon reveals that there are problems within her own marriage and within that of her sister, Rose. Rose's husband, Pete, is ambitious, tempestuous, even violent—he once broke her arm. Rose does not take these traits lightly, sometimes almost goading Pete. Thus, early on, readers speculate that perhaps the cancer attacking Rose's body is a symbol of her troubled personal life.

Ginny and Ty also operate under considerable stress. Ty is often the peace-maker between his father- and brother-in-law, and Ginny, also a conciliator, at times races about cooking breakfast in separate houses: her own, her father's (because he prefers not to eat elsewhere), and Rose and Pete's (because Rose is recovering from surgery). Though both are peaceable by nature, Ty and Ginny do not always agree. Though Ginny has suffered five miscarriages, Ty knows about only three. Disregarding her husband's insistence that they stop trying to conceive, Ginny has refused to give up, keeping her further attempts a secret from him. And in a brilliant bit of foreshadowing, Smiley uses Ginny's secrecy to show how badly she misses the autonomy, the full adulthood, denied her by her father. Ginny says,

One of the many benefits of this private project, thought at the time, was that it showed me a whole secret world, a way to have two lives, to be two selves. I felt larger and more various than I had in years, full of unknowns, and also of untapped possibilities.


One such possibility which Ginny explores is adultery. She begins an affair with Jess Clark who is both physically attractive and emotionally intriguing—simultaneously familiar and strange. Jess is a satisfying lover, but their affair is doomed, a fact Smiley symbolizes with typical sophistication. For instance, early on, Ginny realizes:

that some of the worst things I had feared and imagined had happened to [Jess] … hadn't he been damned and repudiated, worse than abandoned—cast out—by his father as the opening event of his adult life?


Secondly, Ginny and Jess's most intimate moments—both physically and emotionally—take place at “the little dump … in a cleft behind a wild rose thicket that we [formerly] used for refuse” (122). Like Jess, the dump is both familiar and strange, for though no one else uses it, Ginny doesn't “‘recognize anything here'” (122). Moreover, the dump itself is deceptive. In 1979, the year of the novel's primary action, the dump seems to be a natural “bit of prairie”; yet, as Ginny reminds Jess, “‘When the pioneers got here, [it] was all under water'” (124). An odd blend of junk and beauty, of nature and artifice, the dump is an ironic symbol of Ginny's new “freedom,” and clearly signifies the instability of her affair.

It is also ironic that Ginny finds deception invigorating, for actually, instead of possibilities, Ginny's excitement indicates great naivete. Though she is the oldest of the three sisters, she is the most trusting and the most immature, maintaining her innocence by concentrating on smoothing family relationships. Once she opens herself to the exciting possibilities of duplicity, however, she also opens to ugly memories long suppressed. Once she scratches that seemingly placid, harmonious surface, shocking depths gape beneath her feet.

When Larry Cook, whose mental health deteriorates rapidly, decides to reclaim his gift, Ginny must finally confront his erratic behavior, his drinking, his almost constant fury. Franker, pricklier, extremely angry, Rose intensifies antagonism against their father by forcing painful memories back into Ginny's consciousness. This is the deadliest secret, a key to Jane Smiley's vision of the Lear/daughters relationship, for she was forcibly struck by an observation in Kurosawa's film; “one son tells the old man that his children are what he made them” (Duffy 92). Gradually, Ginny realizes that she and Rose have been shaped by Larry's battering, by his sexual abuse, by the consequent secrecy and isolation it imposed, and by his refusal to allow her—or anyone in her generation—autonomy.

Initially, Ginny sees herself as wholly united with Rose, a comradeship strengthened, she supposes, by their mother's early death and by their joint responsibility for Caroline. Confident that she and Rose share a sustaining practicality and an understanding of themselves and of life, Ginny relies upon their,

ongoing narrative and commentary about what was happening that grew out of our conversations, our rolled eyes, our sighs and jokes and irritated remarks. The result for us was that we found ourselves more or less prepared for the blows that fell—we could at least make that oddly comforting remark, ‘I knew all along something like this was going to happen.’


Even this “odd” comfort is false, however, for Ginny actually understands little about the relationships around her. Having locked away her past, Ginny now misapprehends the present, comforting herself with “closeness” to Rose and with the stubborn belief in the viability of their relationship:

All my life I had identified with Rose. I'd looked to her, waited a split second to divine her reaction to something, then made up my own mind. My deepest-held habit was assuming that differences between Rose and me were just on the surface, that beneath, … we were more than twinlike, that somehow we were each other's real selves, together forever on this thousand acres.


Though it is Rose who has raided against the unfairness of the sisters’ lot—“This person who beats and fucks his own daughters can go out into the community and get respect and power, and take it for granted that he deserves it” (302)—it is also Rose who most closely resembles their father. She is a predator who goes after what she wants: “‘I want what was Daddy's. I want it. I feel like I've paid for it … ’” (p. 303).

Having attempted to submerge her father's abuse in a series of affairs, Rose now turns to Jess, knowing full well that he is Ginny's lover. Worse, perhaps, she regards this behavior as her right:

‘He loves me, Ginny. You don't think I would let him have anything private with my own sister, Do you? … Don't you remember how Mommy said I was the most jealous child she ever knew? … I mean, I control it better now … but I'm always jealous. That was how Jess got me to sleep with him. He talked about what a sweet person you are and how much he loved you. …’

I said, ‘I guess you want everything for yourself, huh?’

‘Well shit, yeah. I always have. It's been my besetting sin. I'm grabby and jealous and selfish and Mommy said it would drive people away so I've been good at hiding it.’


Another carefully maintained facade disintegrates, and Ginny admits that, “It hurt more than I had expected” (303), because “all my swirling thoughts had narrowed to … the knowledge that Rose had been too much for me, had done me in.” (304) Hurt and disenchanted, she feels “drenched with insight, swollen with it like a wet sponge” (304). But,

The strongest feeling was that now I knew them all. That whereas for thirty-six years they had swum around me in complicated patterns that I had at best dimly perceived through murky water, now all was clear. I saw all of them [Rose, Pete, Ty, Larry] from all sides at once.


Because Rose “answered my foolish love with jealousy and grasping selfishness” (308), the veil over Ginny's past dissolves, her self-deluding grasp of “reality” dissipates, and, above all, her hope for the future disintegrates. She believes that “a whole new life could bloom for Rose” (307) but that, “The future seemed to clamp down upon me like an iron lid” (308). A hopeless person is a dangerous person, and suddenly rage supplants Ginny's grief (310–11). She puts her farm-wife's experience to use in a deadly scheme against her sister. Disillusioned and disenchanted, Ginny now also feels “intensely, newly, more myself than ever before” (305). This ugly new self truly reflects Larry Cook's bitter heritage.

Further revelations frame these family conflicts. Ginny comes to believe that she and Rose were “shaped” in yet another dreadful fashion. Jess Clark, who sees the area with the eye of an outsider because of his long absence, maintains that her miscarriages and Rose's cancer are consequences of local farming practices. Jess believes, and Ginny (and Rose) accept that fertilizer runoff has drained into the aquifer and that the well water they drink is responsible for their physical ills, just as their father's abuse and their mother's reserve are responsible for their psychological problems. Larry's success has caused their suffering.

And here, irony compounds irony, for rich and fertile as it may be, Zebulon County was never meant to be farmed as the Cooks and their neighbors have farmed it, for when the Cook ancestors first arrived, they found that the land they had purchased sight unseen “was under two feet of water part of the year and another quarter of it was spongy” (14). For ninety years, the family has buried tile, “reclaiming” ever more acres:

Tile ‘drew’ the water, warmed the soil, and made it easy to work, enabled [Larry] to get into the fields with his machinery a mere twenty-four hours after the heaviest storm. … However much these acres looked like a gift of nature or of God, they were not. We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks.


In Smiley's view, land abuse, like child abuse, is a poisonous to relationships as it is to water. Lust for power and for ownership motivates both activities, she suggests. But in his arrogance and pride, Larry Cook has erred even further. He has acquired his even thousand acres by benefiting by the ignorance and inexperience of others and by working it with a kind of forced labor. His sons-in-law and his daughters, in thrall to blood, marriage, and hope of future ownership, have been his servants, almost his slaves.

The power of a dreadful temper and of a tightly controlled purse is great, and thus Larry Cook has owned and demeaned them. When finally Ginny, Rose, Ty, and Pete rebel, they follow Larry's example. When they break their word, they emulate him. When they indulge in the bitter luxury of hatred, they, like Larry, are very good haters. And this, of course, is the final Cook harvest, an almost Dickensian furor of death, destruction, heart break, despair. Though her voice and her achievement are entirely her own, Jane Smiley continues the vein of social criticism which often surfaces in great fiction and which binds her to other major writers.

Still another literary echo rings effectively through Smiley's work. One must acknowledge the fact that her vision of property acquisition, of supplanting human values with greed, of freewheeling abuse of both land and people is strikingly similar to William Faulkner's view of the curse invoked upon the South by similar practices. A family cannot thrive with its roots in poisoned soil. The agrarian dream turns nightmare when exploitation replaces nurture. This sad message seems, in the hands of skilled writers such as Faulkner and now Smiley, powerfully true, convincingly American.

Though A Thousand Acres clearly dramatizes Jane Smiley's grave concern about American culture and American agricultural practices, it does not deny all hope for the future. Certainly, the surviving Cooks have been scarred by suffering and loss. Materially, they are much less well off, and, in that sense, they live “smaller” lives. Ginny actively works to expiate the sins of her forbears, determined to protect her nieces from further harm.

But despite this enormous undertaking, Ginny is personally rather better off than before. She may not be happier, but she is certainly stronger and certainly more independent. Supportive but not controlling of others, Ginny now earns wages for work no harder than that she did on the Cook farm. Her plans for the future are neither grandiose nor exploitative; instead they suggest that she will now lead an examined life, a life she's freely chosen. Doubtless, she will err, but Ginny's developing ability to take charge of her life suggests a quiet echo of Faulkner's declaration that humankind will “prevail.”

In A Thousand Acres, then, Jane Smiley issues a warning and makes a hopeful recommendation in favor of the modest, non-exploitative, self-defined life, free of others’ control, yet benefiting from communal support. Both her caveat and the hope should be stitched into the fabric of American life.


  1. Quilt: “Bars,” Amish artist unknown, c: 1923; from the Esprit Quilt Collection, San Francisco. Photo by Sharon Reisdorph and Lynn Kellner. Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson.

  2. See Time, Nov. 11, 1991, p. 92. Photo by Jeffrey Foss.

Works Cited

Baker, John F. and Calvin Reid. “17th NBCC Awards: Idealism Meets Commercialism.” Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1992, p. 10.

Carlson, Ron. “King Lear in Zebulon County,” A Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review, Nov. 3, 1991, p. 12.

Duffy, Martha. “The Case for Goneril and Regan,” A Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. Time, Nov. 11, 1991, p. 92.

Just, Julia. “Lear in Iowa: Family Farm, Family Trouble,” A Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 13, 1991, p. A14.

Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1991, p. 44.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Margaret Forster (review date 30 April 1994)

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SOURCE: “Truly Interesting Horses,” in Spectator, Vol. 272, April 30, 1994, p. 39.

[In the following review, Forster lauds Smiley's Barn Blind.]

Marvellous, isn't it, how an author's first novel can suddenly be worth the risk of publishing when their sixth has hit every kind of jackpot? I bet Jane Smiley's Barn Blind was offered to UK publishers when it appeared in her own country. I bet it got turned down as ‘too American,’ that handy euphemism used both sides of the Atlantic to save a publisher from any real critical opinion and always meaning simply they don't like it. But once A Thousand Acres was such a success, hey presto, Barn Blind gets ‘discovered’.

But that's publishing, folks, and why complain, especially in this instance? I'll tell you why. It spoils the delight a first novel always brings—that terrific feeling of recognising, yes, here is talent, here is skill, here is the beginning of something which is going to grow and grow into—well, into A Thousand Acres. The cart has been put before the horse and tends to obscure it. Barn Blind just cannot be treated as a first novel and is in danger of suffering accordingly. It has to measure up or flop.

It measures up, in spite of a wobbly first quarter. Here, just as in A Thousand Acres, is the same slow, unwinding of the narrative string and then the sudden pull, the shocking jerk as the point of it all is pushed home. Patience, such patience this writer has, content to proceed with measured steps, hesitant but carefully confident too. She knows she has to interest us in this family as individuals, in the two parents and four children, before the group dynamics will mean a thing. She has to give them all their own peculiar identity and take us over every inch of the farm where they live according to those ‘equestrian rules, stable management rules’ which govern it.

Never have horses and horse trials and shows been made so interesting to one who has no interest whatsoever in them. In fact, the whole novel stands or falls on how well Jane Smiley can convince us that horses are all that really matter to Kate, the powerful mother of this family. We have to feel, hear, see and suffer with the horses, or Kate's lack of connection with her husband, three sons, and one daughter is incomprehensible. We do. What in heaven's name is a ‘downhill triple nostride in-and-out’ jump? You'll realise in no time and jump it with Peter, heart thudding like his.

But do not for one moment imagine this is any kind of Jilly Cooper's Riders country. Different territory entirely. The tension here is real and almost unbearable, and it all stems from Kate's sense of alienation. She loves her children only in relation to how well they connect with her horses. Any rebellion against riding is a sin. And her children seem at first extraordinary in that they do not rebel, do not protest. They resent and even hate her in varying degrees, but they conform. Each fantasises about escape, but only one manages it. Their mother turns the screw of her absolute domination tighter and tighter until we know it will break.

When it does, the real control of Jane Smiley emerges. Not for this author the neat ending, the satisfying come-uppance for Kate. What happens is brutal in an emotional way but it is Kate who is left astonishingly undamaged and her children released. Her husband—a background but important character—can hardly tolerate how his wife reacts to the tragedy which overtakes them. He always has pined for what he calls ‘just four normal American kids’ and he at last sees clearly why they never could be, and never will be, normal in the way he desires. There is a sickening feeling of absolute truth about his realisation.

Truth is what Jane Smiley cares about most—truthful descriptions, truthful conclusions. If one of the purposes of fiction is to illuminate dark corners of life, then she fulfills it triumphantly.

Margaret Rozga (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Sisters in a Quest—Sister Carrie and A Thousand Acres: The Search for Identity in Gendered Territory,” in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 18–29.

[In the following essay, Rozga compares and contrasts Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.]

Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres each have as their main character a woman in search of a place for herself. Aside from this basic quest motif, however, what is most apparent are the differences: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, a turn of the century work, is narrated by a third-person voice whose pronouncements figure in the novel almost as prominently as do the voices of the main characters; A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley's late twentieth century novel, is narrated by the main character, Ginny Cook Smith. The main and title character in Sister Carrie is a young Wisconsin woman who leaves home to seek her fortune in the Big City. Ginny in A Thousand Acres is an Iowa woman who marries young and stays on the farm until she is almost forty, leaving as the last desperate attempt to find herself rather than the first. Ginny's relations with her family in Iowa, especially with her sister Rose, are intense; Carrie, on the other hand, though she is identified in the title by a familial term, rarely thinks of her parents once she leaves home. She stays briefly with her sister upon first arriving in Chicago, but sees quickly that her value in that household is due almost exclusively to the contribution she is expected to make to their finances. Thus the works are different in their point of view, as well as in demographic situations of their main characters.

Perhaps the most obvious link between these works is the presence of a Caroline, who, in each work, leaves home after high school. Each Caroline is also someone who comes alive in performance. But this link seems de-emphasized or coincidental. Ginny notes that Caroline's name, like her own, was “taken from a book” (94), but she does not specify what book. Caroline Meeber, known by her nickname Carrie, of course, plays a major role in Dreiser's novel. Caroline Cook is rarely called Cary and, when she is, the name is spelled thus with a -y. Nor is Smiley's character the major focus in A Thousand Acres, though she complicates the plot and serves as a point of contrast to her sisters.

The more important link between the two works is in their underlying purposes. Both works are revisionary, in the sense that Eileen Teper Bender uses the term to describe the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. That is, they rethink patterns of earlier fictions. Critics have noted how Sister Carrie inverts the Horatio Alger, Jr. story pattern: rags to riches by way of virtue. Virtue for a woman means sexual abstinence before marriage; on such terms Carrie does not qualify. Thus Sister Carrie raises questions about the social structure and conventional morality of its day, including women's roles within that social and moral structure.

For its part, A Thousand Acres, as many reviewers have noted, reimagines Shakespeare's King Lear with Larry Cook as the twentieth century Lear, Caroline as the contemporary Cordelia, Ginny and Rose replacing Goneril and Regan, and Harold Clark somewhat akin to Gloucester. He has two sons, Loren and Jess. Though both of Harold's sons were born within the same legal marriage, Rose and Harold each see Jess as something of a bastard, each for his or her own reasons. In reconstructing such a plot, Smiley also raises questions about the social structure, focusing especially on women as daughters. She seeks to understand several related issues in late twentieth century terms: what would drive two out of three daughters to irremediable conflict with their father; how can a man still be absolute ruler of his domain, and if the kingdom and acquisition of more land is the primary value, then what roles are possible for women? Her work concludes not by upholding the image of the dutiful daughter but by questioning patriarchy.

Both Dreiser's Carrie and Smiley's Ginny are essentially without a place of their own for most of their stories. The places where they reside are within some man's circle of relationships and on some man's property. Their stories are not tales concluding like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a resolution “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” though they, especially Ginny Cook's, become stories of exploring or searching for a “no man's land.” That phrase has, in the light of these works, more positive connotations than is usually the case. What makes the difference between seeing that phrase as signalling a place that is terrifying and indicating something more hopeful is one's gender and class. Male characters who do not enjoy upper class status, like Hurstwood, in the second half of Sister Carrie and Ty and Pete before their marriages into the Cook family in A Thousand Acres, may be well-advised to be cautious about identifying with social definitions and conventions. But the main characters are female. Though each achieves a different degree and quality of self-definition, their stories suggest that a woman's identity may be better found by moving against, rather than following or embodying, prevailing myths about women.

The degree to which Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie achieves self-definition has been a matter of critical debate. Stories such as hers, of young women from small towns or rural areas moving to big cities to try their luck, were familiar in both nineteenth-century life and fiction. David E. E. Sloane, for example, discusses Joaquin Miller's 1886 novel, The Destruction of Gotham as a particularly relevant example of the convention. Dreiser, of course, inverts that convention insofar as his character eventually achieves financial success despite her “fall.” “Fallen women in American novels,” Sloane notes, “paid the price of sin—death, bitter and impoverished or luridly painful and ugly, rather than rising to wealth and public appeal.” (39) In Sister Carrie, as Ellen Moers also finds, there is a contrary cause and effect in operation. She writes, “For Carrie's sexual adventures hardly destroyed her; instead they stimulate the unfolding of her temperament much as the sun's light and heat bring the plant to flower.” (146) But, she goes on to note, Dreiser's first readers were offended by such a suggestion of a natural process of growth, seeing it instead as vice rewarded.

Negative reaction in Dreiser's own time to his inversion of this story line may say more about the critic's investment in the social convention than about the literary quality of the novel. Sloane so argues: That critics hated this aspect of the book even in its softened form is telling evidence of the strength of established social and economic forces working against reform, and the unwillingness of contemporary Americans to confront the sexual and personal problems inherent in labor conditions. (44).

Since Dreiser's time some critics, Sloane among them, continue to see the novel as undermining the idea that work and conventional virtue bring success, without attaching a negative evaluation of such an effort. Instead such critics focus on how skillfully Dreiser conveys his intentions. Sloane believes that Carrie's ascent to financial success “is part of the crucial exchange of roles that really reflects Dreiser's naturalistic philosophy at its most subtle.” (55) He argues that Carrie's success, and Hurstwood's decline, are the result of “comparable social chances and perversities” (58), but his evidence is sometimes ambiguous, rather than a clear guide to Dreiser's intentions. Sloane labels as Dreiserian, for example, the newspaper reviewer's analysis of the audience response to Carrie's performance: “The vagaries of fortune are indeed curious” (SC 354, Sloane 58). The implication seems to be that the audience might have as easily taken a fancy to another player. Indeed they may have, but Sloane himself also notes that the narrator focuses on Carrie's particular sexual appeal: “It was the kind of frown they would have loved to force away with kisses. All the gentlemen yearned toward her” (SC 353, Sloane 58).

Her sexuality and, more to the point, her society's sexism, are the more specific elements influencing Carrie's chances from the moment she senses “a certain interest growing in that quarter” when Drouet is seated behind her on the train (SC 2). Several critics have noticed how pervasive is the sexual harassment, though they don't always use that phrase, in the early work place scenes of the novel. On her first lunch break, for example, Carrie is appalled at the “Familiar badinage among the men and girls” and “feared that the young boys about would address such remarks to her—.” Surviving that, she finds another form of the same thing once back at her work station, “when another young man passed along the aisle and poked her indifferently in the ribs with his thumb.” (SC 32) The other women at the shoe factory tell her simply not to mind. Sloane summarizes the nature of the work place: “men cast lustful eyes on her and make veiled propositions; wages are inadequate; female companionship is low and coarse, even when other factory girls are kindly intentioned.” (44) At least with Drouet, Carrie receives more ample compensation and, as Ellen Moers notes, some warmth (149). But she is still a sex object.

The responses of both Drouet and Hurstwood to Carrie's performance in Under the Gaslight for Drouet's Chicago lodge share in the sexual nature the reviewer sees in the responses of the men in the New York audience. Drouet is described as being “beside himself. He was resolving that he would be to Carrie what he had never been before. He would marry her, by George! She was worth it.” (SC 150). Hurstwood's response is similar: “He could have leaped out of the box to enfold her. He forgot the need of circumspectness which his married state enforced. He almost forgot that he had with him in the box those who knew him. By the Lord, he would have that lovely girl if it took his all.” (SC 151). Carrie's theatrical success, then, is more than a matter of chance. It has the same basis as her rise to the position of mistress, first to Drouet, and then to Hurstwood. The men in the New York audiences seem similar to Drouet and Hurstwood, but at a more anonymous level.

The financial success, then, may say more about the audience than it does about Carrie. Carrie herself, however, does more than simply change her financial situation. Barbara Hochman sees Carrie move from one kind of longing to another:

“From Dreiser's point of view, while some modes of desire give rise to a feeling of hunger or need that impels the self toward others (and generally leaves it inextricably entangled as a result), certain other modes provide the self with a sense of plentitude that becomes, in turn, a source of power and autonomy.” (53)

Carrie's relationships with both Drouet and Hurstwood are of the first type; her longing for the theater of the second. Hochman goes on: “only in the theater playing the role of another woman, can Carrie be sure of maintaining the distance between herself and those members of the audience to whom she was ‘a delicious little morsel. … ’” (53) In other words, Carrie learns a way to survive that doesn't involve the conventional conclusion, being devoured. Donald Pizer summarizes: “Carrie's relationship with men eventually become encumbrances hindering her further search for fulfillment.” (8)

Once Carrie has managed to secure some space for herself, she faces the question of what to do with that space. That is the position she is in at the end of the novel. She is affected by Ames’ assertion that playing in comedy may not be the highest use of her talent. Still she is in an ironic position. First having earned recognition when she speaks the unwritten line, “I am yours truly” (340), Carrie is not truly who she seems. She is not really Carrie Madenda, that being a name given her by Dronet to cover the awkwardness of their relation as concerns his lodge brothers. That name gets her a room at the Wellington where her name “is worth something” (357), but it is not her identity. She is not really the young woman without much life experience her room mate assumes her to be. She has not been in a position to demand the kind of roles Ames tells her in his “preachments” she should be doing (386). Nor is she as indifferent to conventional morality as Dreiser's first readers seemed to believe. If she were, Hurstwood could not so easily convince her to stay with him simply by promising marriage and then deluding her with an illegal ceremony. She has, in fact, not yet defined herself or thought enough about the meaning of her experience to develop her own values.

In the half dozen or so years covered by the time of the novel, Carrie has demonstrated how far toward self-definition one can go when one's primary motivation is negative; she has been moved more by her immediate fear of poverty than by an abstract conception of what she is or could be. As she sits at the end in her rocking chair, the narrator says, “she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty.” (399) Through these “devious ways,” that is, ways she does not consciously and/or explicitly name, she has achieved a space of her own; more conscious thinking both conceptually and metaphorically, is needed for her to name that space for herself, that is, to affirm her own identity.

Almost a century later, Jane Smiley offers in the first-person narration of Ginny Cook Smith at least the beginnings of such a naming process. Initially, Ginny's identity is as much defined for her as is Carrie's, probably more so since Ginny is surrounded by family. She is the eldest daughter of Laurence Cook, largest landholder in Zebulon County, Iowa. The plot of her story echoes the plot of King Lear, with the father distributing the land to the daughters while he still lives, and cutting off the youngest daughter in a fit of pique. Yet Smiley, like Dreiser, alters the traditional story with which she is working. Some of the incidents are modified. The blinding of Harold Clark, for example, is done by more devious means than are used with Gloucester. Other incidents do not take place at all; Caroline, unlike Cordelia, lives, though her father thinks her dead; Ginny, unlike Goneril, does not poison Rose, though she intends to. Instead Rose dies of breast cancer probably caused, by the same factor that keeps Ginny childless, the poison that the father has spread across the land, ironically in order to increase fertility.

Like Dreiser's Sister Carrie, as well as like Shakespeare's King Lear, it is a work in which much happens. But it is essentially Ginny's story, and the main point of interest is how Ginny grows from her identification with her father's view to a view of her own. In Zebulon County family relationships and land define the world. Early in the novel, we are presented an inventory of who owns what and with what, if any, encumbrances. (4) Except in the case of the Ericson's, who fail as farmers, the land is identified as the father's. Certainly within the Cook family, the father is the absolute ruler. As Ginny describes her childhood belief he is even god-like. She says when she was in first grade, she thought her father defined the categories of both farmer and father. “To really believe that others even existed in either category was to break the First Commandment.” (19)

Within this family configuration, siblings, sisters can play a special role. When their mother dies, Ginny and Rose take over the rearing of Caroline, and, as she becomes a teenager, arrange for her to have more freedom and social life than they did. In fact, as Ginny gradually rethinks her childhood, under the pressure of her father's increasingly difficult behavior and Rose's questions, she realizes that they protected Caroline from the incest they themselves suffered. Once Ginny realizes that she had suppressed memories of the incest, she rejects the paternalism that she sees as the underlying cause. Caroline, however, has been protected by her sisters and so cannot understand their bitterness. Rose says about Caroline's relation to their father, “Being his daughter is all pretty abstract for her” (60). Nor can Ginny's husband Ty understand Rose's anger. Given their different states of experience, no easy solutions exist for their conflicts. Even Ginny and Rose are divided by the jealousy that arises when both are attracted to Harold Clark's son Jess.

Ginny thinks “there was, in addition, no escaping being sisters” (345). At this point in the novel, she might like to escape sisterhood; her relationship with Rose is still strained. She and Rose make peace, however, before Rose dies. Ginny is the only one to hear Rose's final accounting of her life: her “sole, solitary, lonely accomplishment” was her ability to insist on seeing and naming reality for herself. “So all I have is the knowledge that I saw! That I saw without being afraid and turning away, and that I didn't forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can't stand what you know. I resisted that reflex.” (355–356) Ginny finally is less intractably angry, but she has become equally courageous in standing firm. Her farewell conversation with her husband Ty indicates as much; she can still be firm in her understanding of what events mean and who she is.

She is more than the daughter of Laurence Cook, certainly more than a sex object, though that is what her father's system of thinking would make of her. Hints of this gradually build through the novel. If men are the landowners and acquisition of more land is the primary value, then women come to be seen as a means to that end. Ginny's father is the product of such a marriage to secure land claims. At age thirty three, John Cook, who had earned “through sweat equity, a share in the Davis farm,” married Edith Davis, age sixteen. (15) Laurence, born when his mother is eighteen, eventually thinks of women in terms of livestock. His youngest daughter, planning marriage at age twenty-eight, is old to be a “breeder” (13). Even the women take it for a joke at first, but the dangers of such thinking become clearer. In this light, a sure sign of trouble in Ginny's marriage is that on the night she is most sexually aroused with her husband, she cannot help but think of herself as “a sow” (164). Later, after the night of the storm, even though Ginny's been stripped of her illusion that everything will be all right, she thinks, “I felt another animal in myself, a horse haltered in a tight stall, throwing its head and beating its feet against the floor, but the beams and the bars and the halter rope hold firm, and the horse wears itself out, and accepts the restraint that moments before had been an unendurable goad.” (198).

The affair with Jess Clark, whatever kind of bastard he may otherwise be, is an action that helps to break Ginny's ties with her father and his way of thinking. She begins to ask questions. For example, Larry tells her a story about neighbors whose disabled son had to do his plowing “as straight as the other boys,” or be whipped and concludes that “the boy did his share, and he respected himself for it. It was the old man's job to see to that.” (175) Instead of adding this to the mythology of fathers Ginny has inherited, she now asks her father, “How do you know?” At this point, however, she has trouble standing firmly on her question. She says, “When my father asserted his point of view, mine vanished.” (176)

Other factors help Ginny develop a point of view she can remember and stand on firmly. Her father's behavior becomes more vicious and more difficult for Ginny to justify in her own mind. He calls her a “bitch” and “barren whore,” thus hurling at her as an insult her own greatest unhappiness, her inability to have children. She is dumbfounded; “shock was like a clear window that separated us.” (181). Nor does Ty defend her, a fact that also realigns her thinking. Only Rose can speak. She calls this accusation “beyond ridiculous.” (181) Rose's resistance shores up her own. As Ginny tells her before Rose dies, “without you to goose me. I just fall back into this muddle.” (354)

But it is without Rose that Ginny leaves the farm for St. Paul, believing in terms of Jess that Rose, “had done me in” (304). Then when she realizes that she and Ty have very different ideas about what to do after winning the court case with Caroline, she lets Ty have everything for a thousand dollars. In St. Paul she submerges herself in the routine of her job as a waitress, “that blessing of urban routine” in which she says, “I forgot I was still alive.” (336) But the quiet of the routine and the space in St. Paul allow her to consolidate her point of view. When Ty stops to see her before leaving for Texas, she articulates that clearly in terms that contrast her initial identification with the family myth. Her first person plural now appears in quotes, a way to show the distance she herself now feels from that identity:

I can remember when I saw it all your way! The proud progress from Grandpa Davis to Grandpa Cook to Daddy. When ‘we’ bought the first tractor in the county, when ‘we’ built the big house, when ‘we’ had the crops sprayed from the air. … You see this grand history, but I see blows. I see taking what you want because you want it, then making something up that justifies what you did. I see getting others to pay the price, then covering up and forgetting what the price was. …”


Even though she has not at this point reconciled with Rose, Ginny gives Rose credit for helping her to see “what my part really was” (342). She also understands the incest as part of the system rather than an isolated aberration. The “beating and fucking us.” she says, “were part of the package, along with the land and the lust to run things exactly the way he wanted to no matter what” (343). She has, that is, developed a stance on which she can and does firmly stand. Thus she goes further than did Dreiser's Sister Carrie, not only finding a space for herself, but developing the kind of thinking needed to establish a firm sense of her identity.

Not only does Ginny evaluate what has happened in conceptual terms, but throughout the novel, she develops a symbol system to replace the animal imagery of her father's view. From her early childhood, she had been fascinated by the underground water system, the network of drain tiles used to make the land workable as a farm. But she was punished for trying to hear that water forced underground, “squatting on one of those drainage well covers, dropping pebbles and bits of sticks through the grate.” (47) Her father had no fondness for what had been; he “always spoke of the land his grandparents found with distaste—those gigantic gallinippers, snakes everywhere, cattails, leeches, mud puppies, malaria” (46). His pride was in subduing that land. As a child, Ginny learned to take pride in being the heir of that drained land, but as her story unfolds, she catches sight of pelicans and thinks the sight teaches a lesson about “what is below the level of the visible.” (9)

Much of her own life has been submerged, in particular her desire to keep trying to have a child. Having that underground current in her life Ginny feels in possession of “a whole secret world, a way to have two lives, to be two selves. I felt larger and more various than I had in years, full of unknowns, and also of untapped possibilities. In fact, I was more hopeful after the two last miscarriages than I had been after the first.” (26)

It is not just the sense of an underground life that connects Ginny to the water drained from the land. That water had been poisoned by the fertilizers spread over the land, and those same toxins bring on Ginny's miscarriages and Rose's cancer. When she returns to the farm before it is auctioned, one of sounds she hear is “the eternal drip and trickle of the sea beneath the soil.” (365). She counts as part of her inheritance “the loop of poison we drank from the water running down through the soil, into the drainage wells, into the lightless mysterious underground chemical sea, then being drawn up, cold and appetizing, from the drinking well in to Rose's faucet, my faucet.” (370) That water drained from the fields did not disappear but went underground and became poison. Ginny's own secret life, too, became poisoned and awaits a cleansing and reemergence. The British story transplanted to American soil requires revision. Ultimately, it is not a King Lear story that lives here; the child of the exploited land now in exile, no longer a dutiful daughter, no longer innocent, fashions a revision and readies herself to present a new mythology.

Dreiser's Carrie, and Smiley's Rose and Ginny are characters from works written over ninety years apart. But they are sisters in a kind of quest. If Carrie is left in a state of melancholy, Rose rejects that, telling Ginny, “We're not going to be sad. We're going to be angry until we die. It's the only hope.” (354) Rose is angry to death. Ginny, however, takes another step in her thinking. She also see the danger of anger, jealousy and possessiveness because she has lived those emotions as well as been their victim. Hers is a double consciousness: she was part of “Ty's good little planet” where “you don't have to remember things about yourself that are too bizarre to imagine” (303); she also was a victim of that world. The canning jar of poisoned sausage helps her to remember both. Thus it is her safeguard against becoming like her father, “the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.” (371)

Ginny, more consciously than Dreiser's Carrie, seeks a no man's land, a place where no one can exercise his, or her, “lust to run things exactly the way he [or she] wanted to no matter what” (343). Of course, neither has yet found it. But both have a sense of how to work toward that end. Dreiser's Carrie at least knows not to exercise her position as star merely seeking her own pleasure. She rejects Lola Osbourne's view that the cold and the snow are only means for a sleigh ride. Ginny, having dealt with Caroline who fears Ginny will say something to “wreck my childhood” knows “there are just some things you have to ask.” (364) The first-person narration in this novel indicates Ginny can explain her view to any one ready to listen.

Works Cited

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Bantam Classic edition, 1982.

Hochman, Barbara. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Actress: The Rewards of Representation in Sister Carrie.” Pizer 43–64.

Moers, Ellen. Two Dreisers. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.

Pizer, Donald, ed. New Essays on Sister Carrie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

Sloane, David E. E. Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser's Sociological Tragedy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Tim Keppel (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Goneril's Version: A Thousand Acres and King Lear,” in South Dakota Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1995, pp. 105–17.

[In the following essay, Keppel traces the reasons why Smiley chooses to tell A Thousand Acres from the perspective of Ginny (the Goneril character).]

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Thousand Acres is both a brilliant retelling of King Lear and a powerful work on its own terms. Like Shakespeare, who drew on well-established sources for his plot, Smiley adopts the basic storyline and gives it new life. The place is a farm in Iowa. The year is 1979: land foreclosures, the oil crisis, a general malaise. Larry Cook, the tough, autocratic owner of a thriving, thousand-acre spread, impulsively decides to turn over its operation to his three daughters. Elder sisters Ginny and Rose, whose husbands work for the old man, go along with the idea. Caroline, youngest and best-loved, a lawyer determined to spurn farm life and marry a Des Moines attorney (named Frank), expresses doubts. Enraged at her insubordination, the father disinherits her.

The parallels to King Lear are obvious. Smiley's major departure, however, is her decision to tell the story from the viewpoint of Ginny and explore the inner lives of the so-called “evil” sisters. Smiley “never bought the conventional interpretation that the sisters were completely evil,” she told an interviewer, despite the fact that “even for feminist critics a remark condemning Goneril and Regan was de rigueur.” Unconsciously at first, she “had reservations: this is not the whole story.”1 Seeing Kurosawa's Ran provided the key insight. In the film the daughters are sons, and one of them tells the father that his children are what he made them.

Smiley had her thesis.

Marianne Novy observes that Goneril and Regan are much less psychologically complex than most Shakespearean characters of comparable importance: “Few of their lines carry hints of motivations other than cruelty, lust, or ambition, characteristics of the archetypal fantasy image of the woman as enemy.”2 Shakespeare does not allow them, Novy adds, “to point out wrongs done to them in the past as eloquently as Shylock does, or to question the fairness of their society's distribution of power as articulately as Edmund. … They never try to explain [their actions against Lear] as an attack on an oppressor.”

Goneril and Regan on the one hand, and Cordelia on the other, exemplify Western literature's traditional depiction of woman as devil or angel, Eve or Mary. In Shakespeare, notes Linda Bamber, it is not only the villainous women who have fixed characters: “the good women are as inviolable as the bad ones are incorrigible. Cordelia and Desdemona are no more likely to change for the worse than Goneril and Regan are to change for the better. … Their identities are a part they cannot help playing, not something they achieve. … The Self is masculine, then, in Shakespearean tragedy, the women are Other.”3 The world of King Lear, a kingdom with no queen, suffers from the absence of a feminine principle to act as symbolic and psychological counterbalance to male authority.4

In A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley seeks to remedy this imbalance by exploring the female characters which have been marginalized and vilified. For Ginny and her sisters, being raised motherless by an authoritarian father is the predominant aspect of their lives. As young girls in church they would hear their minister characterize God not in terms of goodness but of power. As for their father, he “had no minister, no one to make him gel for us even momentarily. My mother died before she could present him to us as only a man, with habits and quirks and preferences, before she could diminish him in our eyes enough for us to understand him.”5

Larry Cook is a strong-willed man driven by a principle that “might as well have [been] a catechism: ‘What is a farmer's first duty? To grow more food. What is a farmer's second duty? To buy more land'” (45). His obsession with this principle helps explain the questionable means by which he acquires his thousand acres, and the fact that he closes the deal on the day of his wife's funeral. Cook's attitude toward property is quintessentially male. At one point Ginny tells Harold Clark (read: Gloucester):

“A farm isn't everything, Harold.”

“Well, it's plenty, isn't it?. … If you'd have been sons, you'd understand that. Women don't understand”


For years, Ginny has accepted her father's worldview: “Acreage and financing were facts as basic as name and gender in Zebulon County,” she says. At eight she considers the acquisition of her playmate's family's land as “appropriate and desirable” (4). In high school, she complies with her father's wish that she marry Ty Smith, who has recently inherited a 160-acre farm. Thus, when her father proposes transferring the property to the three daughters, Ginny doesn't even consider objecting: “He wanted us to do it (100). We didn't have any choice” (98).

It is significant that Larry Cook proposes the land transfer just as his youngest and favorite daughter Caroline is about to marry and move to the city. Though he quips that “it's almost too late to breed her,” (10) his offer can clearly be seen as a dramatic attempt to keep her on the farm.

The opening ceremony of King Lear, which in its staging and its intended effect is that of a marriage, has also been seen by critics as a clever scheme to prevent the marriage that Cordelia's suitors so eagerly seek. Lear “will not freely give Cordelia her endowment unless she purchases it with pledges that would nullify those required by the wedding ceremony.”6 As Cordelia asserts, she cannot marry if she loves her father all. Yet, by not professing her undivided love for him, she will lose her dowry, and consequently her suitors. Lear's plan works to perfection as Burgundy refuses her. But then, despite Lear's efforts to sway him, France accepts her. Lear is outraged, accusing France of lust: “Hot-bloodied France that dowerless took” her (2.4.212).

A comparison of King Lear to its source King Leir, may help shed some light of Shakespeare's intentions. Whereas at the end of Leir, the king unites with Cordelia and France to form an alliance for the military recovery of his kingdom, in Lear, Shakespeare chooses to keep France offstage, foregrounding the relationship between father and daughter. Similarly, the passionate final scenes between Lear and King Leir.7 Lear expresses his true desires in the impassioned lines: “Come, let's away to prison: / We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage: / … He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven” (V.iii. 8–23).

Mark Blechner describes King Lear as a love-tragedy between father and daughter. In the first scene, the father banishes the beloved daughter after having attempted in vain to prevent her from marrying. In the final scene, he achieves his wish, the taboo is broken, he welcomes her “as a smug bridegroom” and, as in nearly all tragedies in which a taboo has been broken, the transgressing characters die.8

As further evidence that Shakespeare intended to portray Lear's unconscious passion for his daughter, Blechner points to Shakespeare's decision to change Leir (pronounced to rhyme with “there,”) to Lear, which has the “connotation of its homonym “leer.”9

The first psychoanalyst to write about Lear is Sigmund Freud, who focuses on the daughters as representations of the three roles women play in a man's life—the woman who bears him, the woman who is his mate, and “the Mother Earth who receives him once more.”10 Blechner charges that by limiting himself to such a narrow focus, “Freud, the pioneer explorer of the role of unconscious passion and aggression … seems in this case to be demonstrating the powerful repression of these motives himself,” evading issues of incest and destructiveness in familial relations.11

Linda Boose argues that Lear's expressed desire for Cordelia's “kind Nursery” conjures an image of the father as an infant nursing from his own daughter. “The implied relationship is unnatural because it allows the father to deflect his original incestuous passions into Oedipal ones.”12

Boose's analysis underscores Lear's binary division of women into sacred and profane, madonna and whore. It helps explain Lear's idealization of Cordelia and his misogynistic, overtly sexual outbursts toward his elder daughters who in his eyes fail to meet his demands. He fumes:

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are centaurs,
Though women all above:
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the Gods inherit
Beneath is all the fiend's: there's hell, there's darkness,
There is the sulphurous pit—burning, scalding,
Stench, consumption: fie, fie, fie! pah! pah!


A bit later his comments reveal a possible clue to their origins.

Thou rascal beadle, hold they bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back.
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whip'st her.


Marianne Novy [156] submits that Lear's revulsion with his daughters imagined lust is actually revulsion with himself;13 he is demonstrating projection. Just after he gags at imagining the stench beneath their girdles, he acknowledges the smell of mortality on his own hand. He calls his imagination “foul as Vulcan's stithy,” and he often blames himself for fathering them: “Judicious punishment—’ twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters” (III.iv.72–73). A close look at Lear's invocation of social evils and his self-justifying declaration that he is “more sinn'd against than sinning” reveals a gap in logic that can perhaps best be filled by his abrupt mention, several lines before, of incest (III.ii.54).14

In A Thousand Acres, Larry Cook's drunken, abusive behavior toward Ginny and Rose degenerates until one night as a violent storm is brewing he suddenly lashes out at Ginny: “You barren whore! I know all about you, you slut … dried-up whore bitch.” (181).

Larry Cook rages off into the storm. And here Smiley makes her most dramatic re-vision of Shakespeare. Instead of recounting the father's experience during the storm, Smiley chooses to focus on the daughters. Alone in the farmhouse dark from a power outage, the storm roaring outside, the daughters face their own terrible storm within. Speaking tentatively in the darkness, they begin to remember unspeakable incidents from their childhood.

Rose: “He went into your room at night.”

Ginny: “What for? I don't remember that at all.”

Rose explains her own experience and how her father said that if she “went along with him, he wouldn't get interested in [Caroline].”

Ginny refuses to believe that anything happened to her. “Maybe I was sleep. Maybe he … decided not to do it for some reason. Maybe you were prettier.”

“… Prettier doesn't make any difference. You were as much his as I was. There was no reason for him to assert his possession of me more than his possession of you. We were just his, to do with as he pleased, like the pond or the houses or the hogs or the crops” (190).

Smiley's decision to focus on Ginny's experience instead of her father's is pivotal. Whereas the tempest scene for Lear transforms him from angry autocrat to sympathetic figure of pitiful insanity, Larry Cook's tempest episode occurs offstage, and the reader's sympathy becomes bound with the daughters.

Edmund Fuller, one of the few reviewers less than unequivocally complimentary of A Thousand Acres, charges that “the book's greatest weakness is Larry Cook's irredeemable, unrepentant monstrousness. … The only scraps of redemptive feeling belong to the older sisters.”15 Yet, can not the reverse be said of King Lear? Do not the only scraps of redemptive feeling belong to the father and Cordelia? Like Shakespeare, Smiley appears to realize that both father and elder daughters cannot be rendered sympathetically. Thus, in light of the father's shameless behavior, she chooses to tip the scales in favor of the daughters.

It is instructive to examine why Shakespeare chose his course and why Smiley chose not to follow. Kathleen McClusky maintains that in the action, point of view, and theatrical dynamic of its central scenes, King Lear requires that its audience accept “an equation between human nature and male power. In order to experience the proper pleasure of pity and fear, the audience must believe that fathers are owed particular duties by their daughters and be appalled by the chaos which ensues when those primal links are broken.”16

To support her argument, McClusky examines the revisions Shakespeare makes in his source. In King Leir, the sisters’ villainy is much more clearly a function of mere plot, whereas the narrative, language, and dramatic organization of the Shakespearean text all define the sisters’ resistance to their father in terms of their gender, sexuality and position within the family. Family relations in this play are seen as fixed and determined, and any movement within them is protrayed as a destructive reversal of the rightful order.

An important part of the feminist project, according to McCluskie, is to insist that the alternative to the patriarchal family and heterosexual love is not chaos but rather the possibility of new forms of social organization and affective relationships.17

Smiley attempts to advance such an alternative in A Thousand Acres. Her first step is to provide a psychological complexity for the female characters, and she does this by focusing on the positive relationships of women among women, relationships which do not exist in King Lear. In the face of an oppressive male environment, Ginny and Rose find their primary source of contentment and support in one another. The two sisters live directly across the street and share their daily hopes and fears. Ginny comforts Rose in the aftermath of her radical mastectomy and Rose consoles Ginny who has suffered through five miscarriages. The only friction between the sisters is Ginny's envy of Rose's two daughters, which she manages by becoming a second mother to them. The relationship between Ginny and her nieces constitutes the purest and most positive relationship in the novel.

In King Lear, the king refers only once to his dead wife, and then in the context of adultery. But in a brilliant essay, Coppelia Kahn argues that the mother is indeed quite present in the play, albeit in the form of a “maternal subtext.”18 In A Thousand Acres, Smiley seeks to reclaim the missing mother through the memories of the daughters. From the beginning, the daughters yearn for her, and discuss how their lives might be different had she lived. “I used to fantasize,” Rose admits, “that Mommy had escaped and taken an assumed name, and someday she would be back for us” (187). When Ginny takes her nieces to the swimming pool, a townswoman confesses that Ginny's mother expressed concerns about how her daughters would fare after she died. The woman seems on the verge of broaching the subject of abuse, then refrains. After Larry Cook's irrational behavior climaxes and he moves out of his house, Ginny finds that “Daddy's departure had opened up the possibility of finding my mother” (225). She sorts through her mother's possessions, trying to understand who this woman was, and in doing so, confronts unexplored parts of herself.

Another way Smiley develops the sisters’ complexity is by reassessing their sexuality. The women of King Lear are tainted rather than empowered, as men are, by their sexual capacities. They are often described with bestial imagery. In A Thousand Acres, the women initially regard themselves in such terms. Ginny feels “another animal in myself, a horse haltered in a tight stall, throwing its head and beating its feet against the floor, but the beams and the bars and the halter rope hold firm, and the horse wears itself out, and accepts the restraint that moments before had been an unendurable goad” (115). A Thousand Acres reverses the emotional structures of King Lear; in the place of Lear's poignant line about man as a “poor, bare, forked animal” (III.iv.110), we hear Ginny seem to ask, “Is woman no more than this?”

Ginny feels as though her body is the possession of her father: “It seemed like my father could just look out of his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breast, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable” (115). She has trouble making love to her husband: “Daytime was better than nighttime, and no surprises. I always wore a nightgown. When he pushed it up, I closed my eyes … I didn't want to see … my body” (279). Ginny realizes that “One thing Daddy took from me when he came to me in my room at night was the memory of my body” (280).

In King Lear, Goneril and Regan are presented as monstrously lustful, whereas Albany, the third member of their love triangle, is allowed to view the situation with bemused detachment.19 In A Thousand Acres, Ginny's and Rose's relations with Jess are much more mutual and heart-felt, and when Jess ultimately becomes detached, it is he who is portrayed as cold and egocentric.

In its early stages, however, Ginny's involvement with Jess helps awaken her self-awareness and endear her to the reader. Though she is married, a fact which ultimately holds her culpable for her actions, Ginny's unfaithfulness is mitigated by her husband's alliance with her father and his resemblance to him in several important ways: his stoicism, his lust for land, and his interference with Ginny's attempts at becoming pregnant. In contrast, Jess Clark, Harold's prodigal son who returns after avoiding military service and “slip[ping] into the category of the unmentionable,” (6) is a vegetarian, dabbler in Eastern religions, and advocate of organic farming, someone who causes Ginny's sense of men to “undergo a subtle shift” (113). “I suspected that there were things he knew that I had been waiting all my life to learn,” Ginny says. He gave her “something important to wait for, something besides the next pregnancy. In fact, it occurred to me that the next pregnancy might be the final stage, the culmination or the reward, for learning what Jess Clark had to teach, a natural outgrowth of some kind of rightness of outlook that I hadn't achieved yet” (70).

Jess is the catalyst for Ginny's awakening, both physical and psychological. He arouses her sexual feelings for perhaps the first time and also convinces her that the poisonous chemicals Larry Cook and the other farmers are putting into the soil are very likely the cause for her miscarriages, as well as Rose's illness, and the deaths of Ginny's and Jess's mothers. For Jess, the violence done to the land is related to the war over land in Vietnam. He views the conflict as generational: “Can you believe how they fucked us over, Ginny?” (55). Like Albany's Jess's “illegitimate exclusion from society gives him an insight into the ideological basis of that society even as it renders him vulnerable to and dependant on it.”20

The motif of poisoning runs throughout the novel, both the poisoning of the land and of the female body (also seen in feminine terms, as in “Mother Earth”). Eventually it is this poisoning and its ramifications which destroys them all. Harold Clark is blinded by a chemical fertilizer. Rose's husband, Pete, implicated in the blinding, consumes a toxic quantity of alcohol and drives into the quarry. Ginny discovers Jess's amorous relations with Rose and hatches a plan to mix water hemlock into sausage and kraut preserves for Rose to eat. But before Ginny can bring her plan to fruition, Rose's cancer takes her first. Yet despite the novel's grim conclusion, Ginny's final act is life-affirming: she washes the poisoned preserves down the sink and resolves to push on, knowing that she has Rose's daughters to care for.

Whereas King Lear concludes with only men remaining, as if to signal a return to the rightful patriarchal order, A Thousand Acres ends with only women, among them the sole representatives of the next generation. Such a conclusion seems to champion McCluskie's feminist alternative to patriarchy: “the possibility of new forms of social organization and affective relationships.”

One of the female characters remaining at the novel's conclusion is Caroline, who, unlike Cordelia, does not die. Yet in what she takes away from her experience she represents a marked contrast from Ginny, one which merits examination. In King Lear, when Cordelia departs her father's realm for a new life in her husband's, the denial of the father's blessing renders the separation incomplete and the daughter's future blighted. In response, Cordelia asserts, “O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about” (IV.iv.23–24); she characterizes her life with France as having been one of constant mourning for the father to whom she is still bound.

Likewise in A Thousand Acres, Caroline sets off for Des Moines where she marries without taking her husband's name, and soon returns without her husband to join with her father in a law suit against her sisters. Cordelia's legalistic language becomes Caroline's legal career and the fantasy trial of King Lear becomes a family legal battle royale. In a truly Shakespearean dramatic moment, Ginny is shopping at a downtown clothing store when her father and Caroline enter. Eavesdropping from behind the curtain of the fitting room, she hears her father talking to Caroline in the eery and repulsive sugary tones he used to employ with her.

In the novel's final scene, with Larry Cook, Rose, and Pete dead, Ty and Jess departed, Ginny meets Caroline just before the auction of the bankrupt family farm. Caroline has come to reclaim some of her father's things. When they find a picture of their father in his twenties, Caroline says:

“Daddy looks familiar.” She smiled.

“How familiar?”

“He looks like Daddy, that's all.”

“How familiar?”

“As familiar as a father should look, no more, no less.” [Ginny] said, “You're lucky.”

“What does that mean?”


Ginny attempts to tell Caroline the truth about their father but Caroline does not want to listen. “You're going to wreck my childhood for me. I can see it in your face. You're dying to do it, just like Rose was. She used to call me, but I wouldn't talk to her!”

Unlike Ginny, Caroline has chosen to forgive her father.

“He made amends. We got really close at the end.”

“He thought you were dead.”

“That was the very end! Before that, he was just as sweet as he could be.”


The sisters do not reconcile, and after Caroline leaves, Ginny wishes she had told her the truth. She doesn't understand Caroline's wish to retain her childlike innocence, reinforced by its legalistic rationalizations. Caroline remains bound to her father, as does Cordelia to King Lear. But Caroline's self-delusional innocence, and its blindness to the injustices of the patriarchal system, is far more harmful than the pain of knowledge. It is for this reason that Jane Smiley has chosen Ginny to tell the story of the family's thousand acre farm, and the cause of its ruin, to the next generation.


  1. Duffy, Martha. “A Thousand Acres.” Rev of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Time. Nov. 11, 1991: KT8.

  2. Novy, Marianne L. “Patriarchy, Mutuality and Forgiveness in King Lear.Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. (Chapel Hill: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984) 153.

  3. Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982) 9.

  4. Schotz, Myra Glazer. “The Great Unwritten Story: Mothers and Daughters in Shakespeare.” The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Boner. (New York, 1980) 47.

  5. Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991) 20.

  6. Boose, Linda. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA. 97 (May 1982): 333.

  7. Blechner, Mark J. Ph.D. “Lear, Leir, and Incest.” American Imago. 45 (Fall 1988): 318.

  8. Blechner, 319.

  9. Blechner, 317.

  10. Freud, S. “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” Collected Papers, Volume IV. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1949) 252–256.

  11. Blechner, 323.

  12. Boose, 334.

  13. Novy, 156.

  14. Stockholder, Kay. “Sex and Authority in Hamlet, King Lear, and Pericles.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 18.3 (1965): 25.

  15. Fuller, Edmund. “Kind and Unkind Daughters.” Rev. of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and The Quondam Wives by Mairi MacInnes. Sewanee Review: 101 (Spring 1993) 53.

  16. McLuskie, Kathleen. “The partiarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure.Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985) 98.

  17. McLuskie, 106.

  18. Kahn, Coppelia. “The Absent Mother in King Lear.Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) 33–49.

  19. Erickson, Peter. “Maternal Images and Male Bonds.” Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press 1985) 104.

  20. Dollimore, Jonathan, “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” Radical Tragedy. (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984) 201.

Works Cited

Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982. 9.

Blechner, Mark J. Ph. D. “Lear, Leir, and Incest.” American Imago 45 (Fall 1988): 309–325.

Boose, Linda. “The family in Shakespeare Studies.” Renaissance Quarterly. 40 (1987): 713–42.

Boose, Linda. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA. 97 (May 1982): 32–47.

Carlson, Ron. “King Lear in Zebulon County.” Rev. of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. New York Times Book Review. Nov. 3, 1991: 12.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” Radical Tragedy. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984. 189–203.

Duffy, Martha. “A Thousand Acres.” Rev of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Time. Nov. 11, 1991: KT8–11.

Erickson, Peter. “Maternal Images and Male Bonds.” Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985 103–115.

Freud, S. “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” Collected Papers, Volume IV. London: The Hogarth Press, 1949, 244–256.

Fuller, Edmund. “Kind and Unkind Daughters.” Rev. of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and The Quondam Wives by Mairi MacInnes. Sewanee Review; 101 (Spring 1993) 50–3.

Gohlke, Madelon. “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Pardigms.’” Representing Shakespeare. Ed. by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 170–187.

Kahn, Coppelia. “The Absent Mother in King Lear.Rewriting the Modern Europe. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 33–49.

Kirik, Kathy L. “An Inquiry into Misogyny in King Lear: The Making of an Androgyny.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. 1.1 (1979): 13–28.

McLuskie, Kathleen. “The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure.Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985, 88–108.

Novy, Marianne L. “Patriarchy, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear.Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: The Univ. of North Caroline Press, 1984, 150–163.

Purkiss, Diane. “A Thousand Acres.” Rev. of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Times Literary Supplement. Oct. 30, 1992: 20–21.

Schotz, Myra Glazer. “The Great Unwritten Story: Mothers and Daughters in Shakespeare.” The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E.M. Boner, New York, 1980, 44–9.

Shapiro, Laura. “A Thousand Acres.” Rev. of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Newsweek. Nov. 18, 1991: 82–4.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Signet Classic, 1963.

Stockholder, Kay. “Sex and Authority in Hamlet, King Lear, and Pericles.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 18.3 (1965): 17–29.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991.

Stern, Jeffrey. “King Lear: The Transference of the Kingdom.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 41.3 (Fall 1990): 299–308.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display. New York and London: Methuen, 1986.

Thompson, Ann. “Are There Any Women in King Lear?” The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, 117–128.

Whittier, Gayle. “Cordelia as Prince: Gender and Language in King Lear.Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 1.2 (1989): 367–399.

Merle Rubin (review date 4 April 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Lively Satire of Derring-Do at Moo U.,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, No. 89, April 4, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following review, Rubin praises Smiley's ambition in presenting a multitude of characters and subplots in Moo, but complains that she fails to fully develop them.]

There's a lot to like about Jane Smiley's latest novel, Moo, starting with a good-natured, clean-living hog named Earl Butz. Earl is the subject of a secret university experiment designed to discover just how large a hog might grow if allowed to keep on eating whatever it wants without paying the usual price of being turned into pork chops before its time.

Bob Carlson, the student assigned to the animal's daily maintenance, is too embarrassed to tell his parents that Earl is probably the closest he's come to making a friend on the Midwestern campus familiarly known as “Moo U.” And, indeed, most of the other characters we meet—faculty, staff, administration, and students—are a lot less endearing than this innocent, well-meaning, overfed beast.

Dr. Bo Jones, who runs the hog project, is ready to drop it all when the opportunity arises for a new research grant to study wild boars—in Uzbekistan. His colleague, Dr. Dean Jellinek, is obsessed with cloning cows and inducing “calf-free” pregnancies in them.

Jellinek's ex-wife, Elaine, has become the consummate university grant-finder, traveling the country to liaise with corporate donors like folksy Texas billionaire Arlen Martin, who's about to form a mutually beneficial relationship with Moo U.’s best-known, highest-paid professor, Dr. Lionel Gift.

A self-appointed high priest of the marketplace, Gift teaches his economics students (or, as he prefers to call them, his “customers”) that ruthless competition, endless consumption, and complete disregard for anything but profits are the sure-fire route to universal happiness. Practicing (albeit in secret) what he preaches, Gift is scheming with billionaire Martin to sink a gold mine under one of the hemisphere's few remaining cloud forests in Costa Rica.

Cloud forests—and other endangered ecosystems—are the passionate concern of Moo U.’s leading horticulturist, a die-hard 1960s radical who goes by the name Chairman X Chairman X's 20-year common-law marriage to Lady X, which has resulted in a handful of little X's, is threatened, meanwhile, by his intense infatuation with the lovely new language instructor, Cecelia Sanchez, who hails from the imperiled region of Costa Rica.

Dr. Gift's schemes come to light, thanks to the clever detective work of the formidable middle-aged secretary who practically runs Moo U.

When she's not transferring funds from the athletic program to the library or making sure that frauds and incompetents get their just desserts, doughty Mrs. Walker (who also happens to be a discreet, monogamous lesbian) serves as assistant to provost Ivar Harstad, a nice but ineffectual man happily involved in a longterm relationship with Prof. Helen Levy, who's a pretty wise woman herself. Ivar's twin brother, Nils, is the university dean. Despite (nearly identical) appearances, the two have little in common. Longtime bachelor Nils is a born-again Christian, who suddenly believes that the Lord wants him to marry a young virgin, have six children, and move to Poland.

These are but a few of the many characters and story lines to be found in this novel, a lively satire of just about every aspect of post-liberal American culture as epitomized in the microcosm of one typical Midwestern university.

A versatile writer who has tackled a wide range of modes, from historical fiction (The Greenlanders) to contemporary realism (A Thousand Acres), Smiley sets this ninth novel in the academic year 1989–90. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe is what prompts Dr. Jones to abandon Earl for Uzbek hogs and inspires Nils Harstad with dreams of bringing capitalist know how to Poland.

In an age of minimalism, it's heartening to see an author inventing so many characters and subplots. In this case, however, it becomes hard to keep track of them all because too many are insubstantial and thinly developed.

Some of Smiley's touches are quite inspired—like that aptly named Dr. Gift, who does promise rewards for amoral behavior but whose beneficent-sounding moniker means “poison” in German. But a lot of the time, Smiley seems merely to be going through the motions, dutifully trying to flesh out people and themes that never really come to life. Writing a little less would have been a more effective way of displaying her considerable wit and skill as a satirist.

Claire Messud (review date 19 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Pigging Out with the Professors,” in Guardian, May 19, 1995, p. 7.

[In the following review, Messud lauds the variety and wit of Smiley's Moo.]

In spite of its absurdities, or perhaps because of them, ours is an age which accords the greatest literary respect to the most sober stories. With rare exceptions—Confessions of Zeno and A House for Mr Biswas come to mind—this century's most acclaimed fiction does not occasion much laughter.

So it is a cause for celebration that Jane Smiley has turned her talents to comedy. Smiley is, incontestably, a serious writer. From her first novel, Barn Blind, she has beautifully and precisely catalogued the bitter intimacy of human relationships, the universality of misunderstanding and grief. Her Pulitzer prize-winning triumph, A Thousand Acres; adapted the greatest tragic narrative, reworking Lear in the sprawling, workaday landscape of the American prairie and granting, to the humble Cook family, the calamities of kings.

In her latest novel, Moo, Smiley's daring is different, but no less spectacular: here is satire on a grand scale, a microscopic examination of contemporary American mores conducted with great wit and a gracious indulgence for human frailty. If the stage for Smiley's tragic vision has been the confinement of the family, her locus for the comic is society at large, as it plays on the campus of a state university in the American Midwest. It is the turn of the decade, the academic year of 1989–90, and upheaval is rife: communism is falling in Eastern Europe, and the state government is slicing funding for education, on the principle that “It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught Marxism and now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness.”

Faced with such cuts, the university is frantically seeking corporate support, a tactic which embroils them in unsavoury and politically incorrect activity—namely, a plan to raze the virgin forests of Costa Rica in favour of a gold mine. It is an undertaking applauded by the university's eminent economics professor (and rabid capitalist), Dr Lionel Gift, in a confidential report: but such reports have the oddest ways of, and the oddest reasons for, leaking.

Everyone at Moo U has personal upheaval to contend with, too. The Dean of Extension, Nils Harstad, is told by God to marry a dinner lady named Marly Hellmich, breed six children, and move to Eastern Europe. Loren Stroop, a local farmer, is moved by his terror of the CIA and the FBI to reveal his secret plans for a machine that will revolutionise American agriculture. Chairman X, the radical dean of the horticulture department, is fomenting dissent and falling into bed with a young Spanish lecturer named Cecelia Sanchez, to the dismay of the mother of his children, the woman-he-never-got-around-to-marrying. Professor Dean Jellinek is so busy trying to devise a system for false pregnancy in cows that he neglects his girlfriend, Joy, with dire consequences. Meanwhile, the young creative writing professor, Timothy Monahan, is coming up for tenure and having an identity crisis at the same time, a trauma only moderately relieved by his hilariously rendered forays into American literary society. One of his students, Gary Olsen, is writing extraordinarily dreadful short stories in which his roommate's girlfriend Lydia (the secret object of Gary's affections) is imagined ten years on as obese and bald. And so on …

There are fixed points at the centre of this whirling madness: the Provost's secretary, Mrs Walker, a formidable woman in middle age who seems to control the university's destiny; and a huge hog, secretly nurtured in a disused building in the middle of the campus. This pig, named Earl Butz, spends his time getting fatter: “he was bred to eat. That was his genius and his burden.” When Earl is finally let loose, each of the novel's characters finds in him a different meaning: he is the farm animal at the heart of an originally agricultural institution; the symbol of capitalist greed and university funds misspent; the catalyst for romance; he is, above all, a revelation.

In this ranging, interconnected comedie humaine, Smiley's crystalline insight splinters but never blurs: each character, porcine included, is granted a distinct and memorable consciousness, and is observed with generous wit. That Smiley has revealed a great comic gift only confirms her seriousness as a novelist. Trying to describe this book's marvellous variety is like trying to describe London to someone who has never been there. The only appropriate exhortation is “Read it.”

Michael Carlson (review date 27 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Very Flat, Iowa,” in Spectator, Vol. 274, May 27, 1995, p. 44.

[In the following review, Carlson presents an unfavorable assessment of Smiley's Moo.]

The hermetically sealed world of the university campus is a disproportionately rich source for novelists. The darker side of academe's supposedly rarefied atmosphere has lent itself to works that range from Barth's Giles Goat Boy to Porterhouse Blue.

Unfortunately, in Moo, Jane Smiley is more blunt than Sharpe. She avoids milking this rich source for anything more than a genteel smile and an obvious point. One senses that Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State University, must be woefully unhappy but fantastically comfortable in her own Midwestern situation, for there is much griping but little feeling in this book.

With so many writers in America employed as teachers, the campus novel provides a means for them to vent their frustration at being subservient to bureaucrats and responsible for the education of the well-scrubbed. They take their prolix revenge in novels like Moo, and rack up publication credits towards tenure at the same time.

If you have read Jane Smiley's Greenlanders, you may simply recognise a dab hand with a flat and boring landscape. Making a point about the homogeneity of a Midwestern campus is fine, but Smiley's characters are as hard to differentiate as those in the Viking sagas. The students might as well have names like Kelli Sherrisdottir; they are that difficult to tell apart. In fact the faculty boasts the identical twins Ivar and Nils Halstead, who presumably escaped from Greenland just before the Skraelings got them.

Everyone in the book, including the author, speaks in the same flat voice. I exaggerate. The black females inject ‘girl’ into their conversations with each other (‘Girl, you're crazy’) and the students distinguish themselves from the faculty by, like, using ‘like’ in awkward places.

The outline for Moo may have been a winner. Much of it is familiar (there is even a role for Anthony Sher in the TV adaptation). Unfortunately, as the plot is enacted it is telegraphed so blatantly and described so clinically as to render it inert. It is like being told the story of Custer's Last Stand by an animal rights activist concerned about the humane disposal of the horses that died.

This outline has been stuffed to bursting, like Earl Butz, a hog being force-fed in a secret experiment on campus. The 700-pound porker is the novel's most endearing, if not necessarily most complex character.

The other characters follow campus novel conventions. The dean's secretary actually runs the university. She is also a cold lesbian. Her boss is a cold hetero-barely-sexual. The cast also includes an ex-radical professor (Chairman X, a nice conceit), the grant-obsessed corporate professor, the hapless would-be bureaucrats, and the writing professor with the Peter Pan complex, working the MLA circuit and looking for a publisher.

Most of the insight to these characters, unfortunately, is attempted in a few paragraphs of authorial backchat, which reaches it nadir toward the end when one character digresses into three pages about the changes in American colleges since the 1950s. Or else it is described through food. Like the so-called dirty realists, Smiley looks on with horror as Americans munch their way through Brand-Name foodstuffs. A Chicana professor is recognisable because she likes spicy food. Everyone else finds things ‘tasty', apart from Earl Butz, for whom eating is just a job.

One of Moo’s blurbs is an anonymous quote, which one hopes is not author-generated. ‘There is nothing Jane Smiley cannot write about fabulously well,’ it says. Read that again. Add your own ‘sic’. Writing well can be defined in many ways, of course, but when Ms Smiley tells us that one character's ‘first love was still cloning’ we assume she doesn't mean that he left an abandoned lover out there somewhere reproducing herself genetically ad infinitum. I'm afraid the book is full of such longueurs. And as a campus story Moo has not enough Animal House and rather too much Little College on the Prairie. In fact Moo is an almost udder bore.

Laurie Taylor (review date 9 June 1995)

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SOURCE: “Pork-Barrel Politics,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 356, June 9, 1995, p. 37.

[In the following review, Taylor lauds Smiley's use of humor in her presentation of university life in Moo.]

We can't see Jane Smiley's hands in the photograph of her on the back flap of Moo this very funny successor to her Pulitzer prize-winning tragedy A Thousand Acres, but it's difficult to imagine that they're doing anything other than pulling strings. Even as she introduces the lengthy list of characters who inhabit the sprawling Midwestern agricultural college called Moo University, we can sense the twitches of personality, the tugs of ideology, which will propel each of them into a distinctive moral or symbolic role in the comedy.

Earl Butz may, when he is introduced in the first chapter, be only a hog undergoing a fattening-up regime in accordance with an investigation by a crazed academic (Dr Bo Jones) into how big a hog might grow if allowed to eat at will, but he's already nicely primed for a hilarious death, several hundred pages later, at the feet of a former County Pork Queen. Neither can there be the slightest doubt that there will soon be some kind of dramatic collision between Chairman X, the radical-ecologist head of the Horticulture Department who “constantly struggled against the urge to violence”, and Dr Lionel Gift, the university's Panglossian professor of economics. Gift's first principle was that “all men, not excluding himself, had an insatiable desire for consumer goods, and that it was no coincidence that what all men had an insatiable desire for was known as ‘goods', for goods were good which was why all men had an insatiable desire for them”.

Also lining up to play their appointed roles in this everyday story of the departmental rivalries, promotion manoeuvring, research-grant duplicity and savage cutbacks of modern university life is Timothy Monahan, associate professor of English, whose novel-writing gives him a leeway for eccentricity “although he was not in fact as eccentric as he might have wished”. Then there's Mrs Loraine Walker, erotic lesbian lover and university secretary for 22 years, who was fond of insisting to all callers that “the university had rules” although in truth “the university rules were a subset of Mrs Walker's rules”; and administrator Bob Brown, whose “only distinct characteristic was his habit of referring to the students as ‘our customers'”.

It's a cast list that eventually reaches almost epic proportions. More than once I had to check back to make certain that I was not confusing student Kerri, the Warren County Pork Queen, with student Sherri “whose desperate wish was that her father would leave and take her mother with him” or with student Diane who “was gaga for some reason over Big Bob”. But so adept is Smiley at creating characters with a single story, and so joyously in control of their interwoven destinies, that it is almost disappointing to find every one of them so neatly matched and dispatched in the final chapters.

Moo is a pyrotechnic display by an author at the height of her powers. It's a delicious satire on academic mores at a dull Midwestern university, a telling indictment of the managerial values that now dominate higher education in both the US and the UK and—just when you thought the campus joke was growing thin—a big fat bundle of laughs.

Emily Toth (review date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Moo, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1996, p. 49.

[In the following review, Toth offers reserved praise for Smiley's Moo.]

Jane Smiley's ninth book [Moo] revels in wickedly satirical jabs at academia, specially as practiced at agricultural universities in the Midwest (Smiley teaches at Iowa State). We meet an earth-motherish language professor who is having a warmly secret affair with the pale provost—whose secretary, a closeted lesbian, pulls everyone's strings and especially likes slyly shifting money from the athletic budget to the library (I cheered).

Meanwhile, the provost's twin brother, a nasty agronomist, is seeking a vulnerable young woman with whom to produce six children, immediately and move to Eastern Europe to be role models for the downtrodden natives. He thinks he finds his Ms. Right ladling food in the school cafeteria—but she's finally disinclined to swallow what he dishes out.

Other characters include a paranoid inventor-farmer who's sure the FBI and CIA are after him and an animal scientist obsessed with getting cows to make milk without producing calves. His ambitious ex-wife and horse-loving girlfriend also appear, but the women characters don't get as much attention as the men—who do make better receptacles for ridicule.

Often the laughter is mixed with recognition, as with the naively funny assignments of a student creative writer. For his homework, he dutifully and continually eavesdrops on his roommate and girlfriend, records their quarrels, and writes increasingly horrible but hilarious scenarios about their future lives.

Smiley also knows how to make us wince at professional and regional peculiarities. The two black professors, always put on the same minority concerns committees, find each other excruciating. The handsome creative writing teacher is one young-man-on-the-make who knows exactly how to play the Bread Loaf/visiting author circuit. His match is the beautiful new Spanish professor who can't cope with silent Midwesterners that don't gesture or shout or even discuss. She watches, amazed, as people who “exchange(e) sentences a single word long” seem to understand one another perfectly.

Amidst all this, four young women arrive, first-year college roommates, each with her own hopes and dreams and fears … in short, there's a cast of thousands, including an oversized, constantly fed, hidden hog named Earl Butz.

Moo is comical and deliciously insightful at the start. On faculty committees, women follow family norms while men prefer playground rules—so the typical committee is a dysfunctional family bullied from within. Meanwhile, budget cuts always loom, administrators forever gnash and thrash, and the inane governor blames evil “deconstructionists” for everything that goes awry.

Gradually, plots coalesce around Chairman X, an unreconstructed 1960s radical who still loathes capitalism and believes in rain forests and free love. Before it's all over, he foments a protest riot, as one of these old dudes rolling around in the snow and fighting, “according to one student. It blew me away, man!”

But in between, Smiley sometimes loses me. There are too many characters, and too many I can't care about deeply (a risk with satire). Some characters are just part of the canvas, the overall picture of Moo University, without meaningful plots of their own. Of the four women students, only one is memorable: like many a satirist, Smiley finds young people vapid. Too, the fate of the giant hog, which many a reviewer has found rollicking, made me deeply sad. (I'm not even a vegetarian, just a bleeding heart.)

The main plot, though, is intriguing, engineered by a small, jugeared Texas billionaire who is hooked up with his Moo U. capitalist tool, a greedy economics professor. Thanks to networking and coincidence among the good people, the bad guys are more or less thwarted, all the threads are wrapped up neatly, and some good people get married, to live happily ever after.

Moo is a very good read, but not quite so funny as I had hoped. Maybe for folks like me who have worked in aggie universities, Moo—with all its venality, flat characters, obsessions, and weirdnesses—is just all too true.

Mary Paniccia Carden (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Remembering/Engendering the Heartland: Sexed Language, Embodied Space, and America's Foundational Fictions in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres,” in Frontiers, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1997, pp. 181–202.

[In the following essay, Carden asserts that Smiley's A Thousand Acres exposes a cultural amnesia created by agrarian life in America that tends to forget and silence the stories of women.]

Benedict Anderson defines the modern nation as an “imagined community” that should be distinguished “not by [its] falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which [it is] imagined.”1 He suggests that we remember national history by forgetting, that in the process of producing and maintaining a coherent “imagined community,” a nation's past is mis-remembered. “Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances,” he proposes, “spring narratives.”2A Thousand Acres,3 Jane Smiley's seventh work of fiction and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, excavates the gendered “amnesias” created by the agrarian imagined communities inscribed across American landscapes.4 The novel exposes the intertwined discourses of nation building and gender construction that locate paternal ownership at the origin and center of the nation while covering over alternative histories.

A Thousand Acres reconceives King Lear through Goneril's point of view,5 focusing on the cultural mechanisms that define and delimit a woman's place as her father's daughter. While the distance between Shakespeare and Smiley may seem great, both are interested in a similar question: What happens when the law of male ownership of land and women is interrupted. Smiley suggests that the same “logic of domination”6 constructs the worlds of Lear and of her Iowa farm family, and, in making this connection, she invokes the central concerns of ecological feminism, which takes as its starting point “the connections within social systems of domination between those humans in subdominant or subordinate positions, particularly women, and the domination of nonhuman nature.”7 Deborah Slicer suggests that recognition of “the fact that naturism is linked to our multiple social oppressions, including sexism, constitutes ecofeminism's greatest insight. And finding theories and political strategies that effectively identify and eradicate these tangled oppressions is perhaps our greatest promise, and challenge.”8 Focusing on the “twin dominations of women and nature,” A Thousand Acres seeks alternatives to the historical narratives of paternal ownership that support “multiple social oppressions.”9 Displacing the moral center of Shakespeare's plot, Smiley disrupts and decenters discourses that position the father's perspective as the focus of history.

Although reviewers greet her revision of one of Western literature's most canonical texts with varying degrees of enthusiasm, many identify, even celebrate, her novel as “essentially American.” To Edmund Fuller, A Thousand Acres seems “quintessentially mid-American,”10 while Ron Carlson remarks on the “stunning nostalgia” generated by “Smiley's portrait of the American farm.”11 The softcover edition quotes reviewers’ characterizations of the text as a “profoundly American novel,” a “story rich in heart-tugging revelations that explode in an otherwise placid landscape.” It is my contention that “Smiley's portrait of the American farm” is intended to unsettle American nostalgia for its mythical Rockwellian-hued past, tracking destructive gender-power dynamics to their roots in a not-at-all “placid” historical vision of the American heartland.

A Thousand Acres rewrites the American dream disseminated in the narratives that imagine America as a “wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top.”12 This “thrusting” American is unmistakably male, the hero who creates the nation by taking over and making over the “wide-open land,” claiming ownership and establishing dynastic occupation. Stories of the transformation of wild land to national homespace are inevitably told in the language of conquest, penetration, subjugation. Violence, Richard Slotkin writes, “is central to both the historical development of the Frontier and its mythic representation.”13 Although Slotkin does not consider this mythic and historic violence as a mechanism of gender production, other critics have noted that the violence that propels and energizes national expansion is recurrently represented in gendered terms.

Annette Kolodny, in The Lay of the Land, traces the pervasive trope in American literature that equates the landscape of the “new world” with what she calls “the female principle of gratification itself, comprising all the qualities that Mother, Mistress, and Virgin traditionally represent to men.”14 As it is encoded in countless narratives of national origin, this “female principle of gratification”—the inert and insentient earth—is the matter that the self-made man shapes into meaningful form, a form identifiable as “American.” Ecofeminist philosophies critique the dualistic discourses used to cast “oppressed groups as part of a separate lower order whose domination is natural, part of the order of nature. The interwoven dualisms of Western culture, mind/body, male/female, reason/emotion, and subject/object … create a logic of interwoven oppression.”15 The “story of the control of the chaotic and deficient realm of ‘nature’ by mastering and ordering ‘reason,’” Val Plumwood notes, “has been the master story of Western culture.”16 The metaphorization of national expansion as male heroic quest and sexual conquest emphatically codes America as a male entity and specifically closes down women's access to the scene of self-making by equating “woman” with the “wide-open” space men tame. Nina Baym argues that in American literature generally considered canonical

landscape is deeply imbued with female qualities, as society is; but where society is menacing and destructive, landscape is compliant and supportive. It has the attributes simultaneously of a virginal bride and a nonthreatening mother, its female qualities are articulated with respect to a male angle of vision: what can nature do for me, asks the hero, what can it give me?17

Not surprisingly, this angle of vision circumscribes possibilities for articulating gender in America; the sexually charged language used to narrate the nation creates an erotic link through which individuals understand themselves as subjects of national history. Interpellated by the dominant “romance” of self-making and nation building, individual women are called to find fulfillment in their “biological destiny” as ground for male creativity. If, as Slotkin suggests, “mythic space is a metaphor of history, and the heroes in a functioning mythological system represent models of possible historical action,”18 then women writers, as Kolodny points out, have felt compelled to confront, challenge, and change the gendered metaphors that make up American history.19

Willa Cather, for instance, reprojects masculinized discourses of the nation in the liminal spaces of the western frontier. In O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), Cather interrupts the dominant narrative of American beginnings, of the gendered conquest that begot the nation, by replacing the self-made man with a woman. Attempting to redefine the relation of female fertility to the process of nation building, Cather calls on cultural images of the female earth/earthly female in order to position an alternate female creativity at the center of the nation. Similarly, Mary Austin's representations of the “outliers” inhabiting the California desert in Cactus Thorn (1927) reconfigure traditionally gendered identities and interactions, critiquing the notions of sexual difference embedded in American democracy, law, and morality. She draws on stereotypes that link women with nature in order to imagine a landscape where alternative femininities emerge. From Ann Sophia Stephens's Mary Derwent (1858) to Marilynn Robinson's Housekeeping (1980), from Agnes Smedley's Daughter of the Earth (1929) to Louise Erdrich's Tracks (1988) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), from Mari Sandoz's Old Jules (1935) to the poetry of Joy Harjo and Ursula Le Guin, women writers intervene in the gender-and power-inflected discourses of self-making, finding ways to tell “the other side of the story.”20

Women's relationships to and on the land occupy a central place in recent studies devoted to the experiences of farm women, an area overlooked in traditional accounts of rural America. Discourses around farming, historically constituted as “a quintessentially patriarchal institution,”21 assume that “a farmer is a man.”22 Deborah Fink reports that in the 1980s farm women defined the issues they faced in rural America through “their husbands’ or sons’ desire to continue farming and their worthiness as farmers; they said that this was not the appropriate time to speak of women's concerns.”23 Women's concerns, Fink notes, have tended to remain unspoken in American farm cultures. In Agrarian Women, which records her research among farm women in Nebraska, she finds that agrarianism—“a gendered ideology in that it projects different ideals for men and women”—acts as a “filter through which white women interpreted their lives.”24 Agrarian ideologies that project the (male) farmer who works the land with his own hands as the most authentic representative of the American spirit and the moral and economic bedrock of the nation demand, Fink observes, “subordinate wom[en], usually concealed and peripheral,” who in their “duties as mothers and wives” devote their lives without question to “the overarching good of the farm.”25 This vision perpetuates and conceals male violence against women as well as the expropriation of female labor, sexuality, and maternity. Faced with cultural reinforcement of subordinate status and restrictive roles, women find little space in which to negotiate for self-expression, pleasure, and power. Joan M. Jensen, in Promise to the Land, suggests that farm women have been galvanized by the women's movement to “question the insistence that the family farm insure succession to the males rather than the welfare of the entire family.” She argues that “the crisis on farms … comes from within as well as without,” as contemporary women seek “a usable past, a more viable present, and a central role in rural development of the family farms.”26

Smiley, as Jack Kirby observes, deconstructs agrarian ideologies that valorize family farming as “a superior way of life” and male farmers who perform “their own productive labor” as “ideal republican citizens.”27A Thousand Acres records the disintegration of a farm family in 1979, “that fateful last year of boom prosperity, before Jimmy Carter's grain embargo … and the onset of the 1980s farm crisis.”28 Looking back at a time when many family farmers were forced off their land, Smiley challenges national nostalgia for the traditional agrarian/American values that mask the forgetting of women's stories under narratives that naturalize the patrilineal structure of the nation. Excavating the geography of male ownership encoded in our foundational fictions, Smiley asks what a “useable past” for farm women might look like and lead to.

A Thousand Acres opens with a mapping of “the great circle of the flat earth” (4), the thousand acres that comprise Larry Cook's prosperous farm. By the close of the novel, Larry's daughter Ginny will re-map this land, unsettling any “certainty” that the family's farm and life are “secure and good” (5) and challenging discourses that identify the father's ownership as “appropriate and desirable” (4). Smiley frames Ginny's narrative as a revisionary look back on her family's place in American space; she reexamines the naturalized hegemony of paternal ownership by focusing on its production of material “reality.”29 Ginny genders the farmland male—an extension of her father's body—and locates the language spoken on it within the register of paternal law. But she unearths beneath these acres a specifically maternal space, a forgotten, alternate landscape and discourse that undermines the foundation of the father's authority.

The first layer of Ginny's topography, the farmland that makes up the “heartland” in the American imagination, coincides with the paternal body. She believes that “the fields, the buildings, the white pine windbreak were as much [her] father as if he had grown them and shed them like a husk” (20). “He is this place” (104), she tells her husband. To Ginny, the neat “man-high” rows of corn, the clean fields, the carefully maintained grounds are not only “Daddy's” property, they are his body. She notes that farmers themselves “extrapolate quickly from the farm to the farmer. A farmer looks like himself … but he also looks like his farm. … What his farm looks like boils down to questions of character” (199).

Daddy defines the desirable character of the good farmer through a classically agrarian “catechism” that equates the farmer with the land:

What is a farmer?

A farmer is a man who feeds the world.

What is a farmer's first duty?

To grow more food.

What is a farmer's second duty?

To buy more land.

What are the signs of a good farm?

Clean fields, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water.

How will you know a good farmer when you meet him?

He will not ask you for any favors.


The land and machinery possessed and managed properly, the volume of goods produced and sold, the independence and ingenuity of the male creator, these are the measures of the man and are read in the farmland he owns.

With her construction of a landscape gendered male, Smiley complicates the equation of the earth with “the female principle of gratification.” As previously noted, this formulation positions “the feminine” as ground for national expansion by imagining it as the space where male desire is inscribed and made visible. Smiley's vision of a masculinized landscape produced out of male desire pushes this ideology to its logical outcome: A Thousand Acres depicts the material manifestation of discourses that expel “the feminine” from subjectivity and signification, from the history of the nation.

In Zebulon County, Iowa, “acreage and financing [are] facts as basic as name and gender” (4), and Daddy acts as the God-like spokesman of the catechism that subsumes all people as either objects or agents of his economy of ownership and production. He defines his girls as “breeders”—“Ask him. He'll tell you all about sows and heifers and things drying up and empty chambers” (10). A woman's sexuality is circumscribed by her childbearing function, and her primary responsibility is to uphold the “appearances” (199) that are signs of the good farmer. Daddy positions Ginny and her sister Rose as exploitable resources supporting his farm system, claiming his daughters as possessions that satisfy his needs, including the “unthinkable urge” (370–71) of sexual desire. Consequently, Ginny objectifies her body: It is “unmentionable” (279), grotesque in her own eyes, and under her father's gaze is “ridiculous in its very femininity” (114).

In Daddy's economy a woman is (only) a daughter, and her speech is (only) a reflection of his point of view. Larry's youngest daughter, Caroline, provokes his wrath and begins the textual conflict by speaking “as a woman rather than as a daughter,” something Ginny and Rose are “pretty careful never to do” (21). Ginny subordinates her voice to Daddy's: “Of course it was silly to talk about ‘my point of view.’ When my father asserted his point of view, mine vanished. Not even I could remember it” (176). Here, Smiley seems to formulate Ginny's position in almost Lacanian terms. For Jacques Lacan, the symbolic register-language is a function of the law of the father: “It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law.”30 In Lacan's terms, there can be no discursive process outside the symbolic, and no participation in the symbolic outside the access provided and created by paternal law. And, because Lacan reserves the position of speaking subject for the male child learning to become the father, “woman” is an alien speaker of a language skewed to represent male desire.31

Ginny struggles to understand her father, feeling “like there's treacherous undercurrents all the time. I think I'm standing on solid ground, but then I discover that there's something moving underneath it, shifting from place to place. There's always some mystery. He doesn't say what he means” (104). As object rather than subject in the economy of Daddy's authority, she is not to answer, interpret, or construct meaning, but rather to passively receive his speech, to speak only her “prescribed part” (33). Ginny identifies herself as one of Larry's “girls,” her “father's daughter,” who “automatically” believes “in the unbroken surface of the unsaid” (94).

“The unsaid” is Ginny's code for the excess of the father's language, for any voice that would cause static in his economy, for that which is expelled from discursive possibility and remains buried under paternal law.32 Paternal language, the dominant language of the culture, is powered by “the marvelous engine of appearances,” which allows “certain things to be known and spoken of, but not others” (293), and thus “proscribe[s] the entry of other realities” (294). This language is owned and policed by the father's voice and its “unanswerable remarks” (66); one of Daddy's “favorite remarks about things in general [is], ‘Less said about that, the better'” (135). If she is to maintain her place on the fatherland, to live the only way she knows how—as her father's daughter—Ginny must accept as natural this boundary of speakable and unspeakable, must act as a participant in her own silencing.

I suggest that Smiley's vision of a daughter's place in the culture of paternal ownership is “almost Lacanian” because, despite the seemingly overwhelming regulatory force of the father's language, she does not close off possibilities for resistance, knowledge, memory. Luce Irigaray, in her feminist revision of Freud and Lacan, insists that “woman” must turn masculinist discourse upside down, inside out, back to front. Rack it with radical convulsions, carry back, reimport, those crises that her “body” suffers in her impotence to say what disturbs her. Insist also and deliberately upon those blanks in discourse which recall the places of her exclusion and which, by their silent plasticity, ensure the cohesion, the articulation, the coherent expansion of established forms.33

Ginny's uneasy reception of Daddy's speech (“there's treacherous undercurrents … moving underneath it, shifting from place to place”) could indicate the instability of his language rather than an innate lack in the female subject. Similarly, she senses instability in the land itself, which disrupts traditional claims to historically mandated and justified ownership. The farmland, Ginny knows, is “new” (15), created with drainage tiles by her great-grandfather, grandfather, and father from the original swampy prairie. As a child, Ginny pictured the tile as a “floor beneath the topsoil” that “you could not sink beneath, better than a trust fund, more reliable than crop insurance, a farmer's best patrimony” (15). But she also imagined the water returning to “cover the earth again” (16), to dissolve the tiled landscape that composes the ownable and inheritable fatherland. As an adult, she knows that “the sea is still beneath our feet,” “endlessly working and flowing” (16). The story of this other, fluid geography and the stories behind the “details to mull over but not to speak about” in Daddy's narratives of creation—her foremother's lives (132)—are submerged beneath the fatherland and the history of the father's ownership.

Ginny's account of her life preceding the crisis that produces her narrative suggests that the tools to excavate this landscape of the unsaid and the desire to use them lie beneath her outward acceptance of her father's authority even as she performs her “job”: giving Daddy “what he asked … and if he showed discontent, to try to find out what would please him” (115). As she becomes entangled in the family conflict over control of the farm, she finds it more and more difficult to perceive this job as her duty or as her father's due. Daddy himself precipitates this conflict when he abruptly decides to form a corporation and give each sister “a third part” of the farm (18–19). When Caroline demurs, Daddy cuts her out, and the family is further divided as he feels he has lost the “respect” that goes with ownership.34 Ginny's continuing but increasingly ambivalent efforts to please her father (a man who cannot be pleased yet must be pleased) along with the struggle for the farmland (the material manifestation of his power as owner and patriarch) opens a space in which Daddy's status is denaturalized. As the power structure of the Cook family crumbles, tensions generated by Daddy's tenacious claim to absolute authority finally erupt when he curses Ginny and Rose, calling Ginny a “barren whore” (181). Following this encounter, Rose raises the specter of the abuse their father subjected them to, insisting to Ginny, who does not remember, that “he was having sex with you” (189). Ginny is left with the feeling that she “had been shaken to a jelly and … didn't know how to reconstitute [her]self” (192).

In order for Ginny to remember her father raping her, she must re-remember the history of paternal ownership that has shaped her world and her worldview. Here, Smiley enters the contentious debates swirling around “repressed memory” by suggesting that the gender/power arrangements embedded in cultural structures force corresponding amnesias. Cathy Caruth, in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, argues that

trauma seems to be much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.35

Smiley's central concern seems to be this issue of how experience is available, how it is knowable and speakable in specific times and places, in specific contexts and language systems.

I would suggest that Rose remembers Daddy's abuse because she has been equipped with a language for it: “I thought that he'd picked me, me, to be his favorite …. On the surface, I thought it was okay, that it must be okay if he said it was, since he was the rule maker. He didn't rape me …. He seduced me. He said it was okay, that it was good to please him, that he needed it, that I was special. He said he loved me” (190). While Daddy assigns Rose a “special” standing in the farm economy by virtue of her value in supplying his “needs,” Ginny receives no such assurances. When she does remember his abuse, she remembers him saying, “Quiet, now, girl. You don't need to fight me.” She does not “remember fighting him, ever, but in all circumstances he was ready to detect resistance, anyway. I remembered his weight, the feeling of his knee pressing between my legs, while I tried to make my legs heavy without seeming to defy him” (280). She does not recall “penetration or pain” but rather her survival “strategy” of “desperate limp inertia” (280). This dynamic of hidden, unexpressed resistance continues to structure Ginny's relations on the fatherland. Rose believes that the sisters “shared this knowledge, sort of underneath everything else” and because Ginny seemed to treat their father “normally … it was okay to just put it behind us” (190), but for Ginny, forgetting is what maintains the “norm.”

Reconstitution of Ginny's female self necessitates a change in strategy, a resistant rearrangement of the fatherland, her place on it, her memories of it. It means expressing and exercising defiance rather than hiding it; it means disrupting normalcy. Ginny begins to transgress the boundaries of paternal prescription and to give voice to the buried land and the silenced women when she excavates the blanks in Daddy's stories. She reconsiders her grandmother Edith's history: Edith, she knows, was the “silent woman” married at sixteen to thirty-three-year-old John Cook as the marker of the “share” that Cook had “gained, through dint of sweat equity,” in her father's farm (132, 15). Ginny's version of Edith's story insists upon her position as a sexual commodity. She alters family history through her speculation that Edith's “reputed silence wasn't due to temperament at all, but due to fear. She was surrounded by men she had known all her life, by the great plate of land they cherished. She didn't drive a car. Possibly she had no money of her own. That detail went unrevealed by the stories” (132–33). Her father's stories valorize men's creation of productive land from useless muck, their labor to maintain it, their perseverance and ingenuity in widening and strengthening their hold on it. Ginny's revisions insist on the female silence that enables the use of women as objects of exchange perpetuating the agrarian system. Converting blanks into sites where the unsaid emerges in language, Ginny dips beneath paternal language to retrieve its forgotten excess; rather than an unimaginable outside of absolute silence, the unsaid comes to represent discursive possibility.

Her reconstruction of the unsaid links her own position ominously to Edith's. Because the farm locale is built and maintained by male homosocial bonds,36 Ginny's husband Ty has actually married Daddy and his patrimony; he has “married up and been obliged to prove his skills worthy of … a thousand acres” (104).37 Ginny serves as the sign of a promised transfer from her father to her husband, and she comes to believe that Ty's “real loyalties lay with Daddy” (256). When Ty urges her to “be patient, endure, maintain hope” (147), he demands her silence and encourages her to emulate Daddy's model of Edith, the silent woman over whose body the homosocial bonds that ensure continuity of male ownership were cemented.

But Ginny knows that the narratives of men on the land told and retold by Daddy and Ty represent only one side of family and national history. Her reveries on the original watery landscape and its remaining traces intersect with memories of her mother or musings on the matrilineal line. In her first account of the original land, the submersion of the swampy prairie coincides with Edith's submersion under the history of men's significant action (14–16). Her second description of what the original prairie was like leads to her vision of what Edith's life was like (132–33). She notes that her father drained the swimming pond, “an ancient pothole that predated the farm” (85), shortly before her mother's death. Her ancestors purchased land when Edith died and her father bought the Ericsons’ land when her mother died; “nothing about the death of [her] mother stopped time for [her] father, prevented him from reckoning his assets and liabilities and spreading himself more widely over the landscape. No aspect of his plans was undermined, put off, questioned” (136).

Ginny imagines alternatives to the story of male creative violence and female silence when she places an alternate narrative of the land beside her revision of Edith's story, redefining the prairie that appears only as “malarial marsh” (23) in paternal language:

For millennia, water lay over the land. Untold generations of water plants, birds, animals, insects, lived, shed bits of themselves, and died. I used to like to imagine how it all drifted down, lazily, in the warm, soupy water—leaves, seeds, feathers, scales, flesh, bones, petals, pollen—then mixed with the saturated soil below and became, itself, soil. I used to like to imagine the millions of birds darkening the sunset, settling the sloughs … And the sloughs would be teeming with fish … millions or billions of them. I liked to imagine them because they were the soil, and the soil was the treasure, thicker, richer, more alive with a past and future abundance of life than any soil anywhere.


While her father “always spoke of the land his grandparents found with distaste” (46), Ginny remembers it as the source of a more desirable production—its teeming life is what makes the soil a “treasure.” Ginny envisions the swampy prairie as self-nourishing and maintaining, and she imagines gradual and natural shifts in the living land that contrast dramatically with the methods celebrated in Daddy's stories of farming triumph: tiles, machinery, chemicals.

Filling in another blank, Ginny insists that her father's farming methods poison women through breast cancer and miscarriages; the Cooks’ neighbor, Verna Clark, died when her breast cancer became “just plain cancer” (53), Ginny's mother died of cancer when Ginny was a teenager, and Rose dies of breast cancer during the course of the novel.38 When Ginny realizes that her own five miscarriages may have been caused by nitrates introduced into the well water by fertilizer runoff (165), she confronts Ty with his refusal to investigate the toxic possibilities of his farming and his unwillingness to change their way of living, linking his “patience,” his wait-and-see policy, with her lost children:

We never even asked about anything like that, or looked in a book, or even told people we'd had miscarriages. We kept it all a secret! What if there are women all over the county who've had lots of miscarriages, and if they just compared notes—but God forbid we should talk about it!


The silence around poisoned female fertility allows the cultural forgetting that preserves dynastic ownership: If women have too many children, lines of inheritance are splintered and the “farmer's best patrimony” fractured.39

The “big wet prairie” (16) is submerged, silenced, and poisoned by Ginny's paternal ancestors as they submerged, silenced, and poisoned her maternal ancestors. As Daddy and his representatives poison Ginny and Rose. The watery land and the women who live above it are covered over and spoken for, suppressed and devalued. Gendering the original prairie female and encoding it as representative of the maternal feminine, Ginny evades both the abject status of women in the paternal economy and the “mother earth” conflation of land and women as meaningless blankness so pervasive in American narratives of origins. The watery prairie creates life without plow or seed, without tiles or machines or chemicals, and is thus differentiated from the empty earth articulated as ground for male creativity in narratives of origin told from the male angle of vision.40 Ginny's consociation of the feminine with the fertile prairie may in turn seem to reinscribe the woman-as-reproductive-body trope. But, as we will see, in making this connection Ginny reclaims the female body and its products from the female fertility imaginable only in terms of its place in an agrarian economy. Although she posits her body as the site where the law of Daddy's ownership has been enacted and perceives it through her father's point of view as inadequate and freakish, she also establishes her female and (potentially) maternal body in excess of his law and beyond his naming; she understands her body as the site of both her victimization and her resistance.

Ginny traces the poisoned and silenced land and women to the American dream via her farmer ancestors’ adherence to ideologies valorizing ownership and mandating ever increasing production, and thus to the dominant narratives of nation building accomplished through male creative violence. She explores her place on the fatherland through the discourses that identify her as a “daughter” of the nation. Daddy, she knows, draws his authority from narratives of America as a land made great by hard-working pioneers. From this point of view Ginny is the recipient of the rewards reaped as the result of her ancestors’ sowing, the “beneficiary” of the “grand effort, someone who would always have a floor to walk on” (15), and someone whose role on the fatherland is circumscribed by the imperative of their example.

Ginny's response to these narratives is, understandably, conflicted:

Although I liked to think of my Davis great-grandparents seeking the American promise, which is only possibilities, and I enjoyed the family joke of my grandfather Cook finding possibilities where others saw a cheat, I was uncomfortably aware that my father always sought impossibility, and taught us, using the Ericsons as his example, to do the same—to discipline the farm and ourselves to a life and order transcending many things, but especially mere whim.


Daddy's self-made ancestors transformed the land to suit their desire, and their response to the “American promise” teaches him that the land and the people on it must be disciplined to produce and to recognize production as a virtue. The histories of his settler ancestors are the guiding principle behind his law, and their example positions the Ericsons—who seem to farm just for the fun of itas transgressive and inappropriate. While the Cooks toil “steadily … toward a larger goal” (46) of acquiring more land, Cal Ericson aspires simply to “get along, pay his mortgage, and enjoy himself as much as possible” (44). The Ericson farm “represents neither history nor discipline,” and Daddy's catechism teaches that their “inevitable failure must result from the way they followed their whims” (46).

Daddy's narratives of family/national history license him to outlaw the pleasure of whimsy and to rule his wife and daughters through the discipline necessitated by the historic demands of ownership, the “goal” that structures their lives. At the moral center of Daddy's stories is that ubiquitous hero of American history, the self-made man and his single-minded “historic passion” (132) forever increasing ownership. Ginny's “liking” of the association of her family with this American dream is complicated and contradicted by the Ericsons’ exclusion from it. But more significantly, her articulation of her abusive father's topos in terms of the pioneer spirit links his poisonous economy to the founding principles of America, to the “promise” of gain and prosperity that galvanized farming pioneers to inscribe America over the continent. This promise authorizes Daddy's “discipline” and subtends the set of assumptions that demand the entombment of women.

Retelling her father's authorizing narratives, Ginny tracks his authority to its source and demystifies his historical mandate. Her story of the construction of America's heartland revises the paradigmatic success story of the self-made man and critiques the trajectory of American history and corresponding conceptions of “American values” by remembering that women's voices and lives are covered over in this narrative of America's expansion from sea to shining sea. Ginny's resistant remembering enables her to reject her “farmwife” role and break her years of silence, to tell Ty “the other side of the story”:

You see this grand history, but I see blows. I see taking what you want because you want it, then making something up that justifies what you did. I see getting others to pay the price, then covering up and forgetting what the price was. Do I think Daddy came up with beating and fucking us on his own? … No. I think he had lessons, and those lessons were part of the package, along with the land and the lust to run things exactly the way he wanted to no matter what, poisoning the water and destroying the topsoil and buying bigger and bigger machinery, and then feeling certain that all of it was “right,” as you say.


In her reiteration of family history, the American dream is accomplished over women's bodies: Daddy's “lessons” in “beating and fucking” his daughters are part of a larger cultural “package” that, in its glorification of agrarian ideologies, inculcates desire for ownership and “lust” for ever increasing productivity.41 Revising these dominant narratives of national origin, Ginny “refuse[s] the gifts [she] was to be given” (248) as her father's daughter, beneficiary of the pioneers’ dream.

Ginny seeks to locate an alternate femininity and to retrieve women's voices by imagining both the watery landscape and the repressed maternal as sources of pleasure and escape. As the novel begins, she takes “a pleased little stroll along the bank” (7) of the Zebulon River, which flows “below the level of the surrounding farmlands” (4). Here, where the submerged sea surfaces, Ginny anticipates Jess Clark's “break through the surface” (7) of the unsaid and recognizes in the view along the river “a lesson about what is below the level of the visible” (9). She associates Mel's pond with respite, sensuous immersion, and Rose's “adored” presence (5). In the aftermath of her father's curse on her as a “dried-up whore bitch” (181), she searches for traces of “the telltale dampness of an old pothole to orient [her]self” in his cornfields (206). Throughout her narrative, she imagines the unsaid itself as a body of water, a still pool with an unbroken surface.

In Luce Irigaray's assessment, mother/daughter relations are a site “where the need for another ‘syntax,’ another ‘grammar’ of culture is crucial,”42 and this is precisely the site Ginny invests with subversive potential. Her displacement in her father's world focuses her search for discursive options in her mother, who died when she was fourteen. In her encounter with Mary Livingstone, who gestures toward but cannot articulate maternal language, Ginny learns that her mother “was afraid for [her]” and wanted her “to have more choices” (91). But for Ginny the most significant and disconcerting conversation is the one that does not occur: “‘There was another thing, too—’ She eyed me. I said, ‘What was that?’ Our gazes locked. Finally, she said, ‘Oh, I don't know. Nothing really'” (92). Mary, her mother's spokeswoman, apparently senses Ginny's position but cannot articulate it. Instead, she attempts to comfort them both by suggesting that because Ginny is a “good girl, and unselfish” she “will be rewarded” (92). Mary and Ginny's mother, subject to patriarchal prescription, retreat to assurances of the “reward” that the “good girl” can expect (apparently in the hereafter) for fulfilling her role quietly. Dutiful “girls”—keepers of appearances—perpetuate silence, a legacy from mother to daughter. Ginny's desire is for the language that can, and for the mother who could, provide alternatives to Daddy's ownership, disavow paternal right, introduce the unsaid into language. As Ginny goes swimming to collect herself after this conversation, she forms her “mother's maiden name with [her] lips” and considers becoming her “biographer” in order to root out “new answers to old mysteries” (94).

These “answers,” however, reside not in the mother she knew, but in the possibilities she invests in a kind of mother-under-the-mother. Ginny seeks the mother covered over by the mother who acted as a representative of paternal power, reinforcing Larry's possession of his daughters, “betraying” them in order to preserve the “united front” he demands (183). She remembers her mother's failure to defend her from Daddy's discipline, her acquiescence to his decree that “there's only one side here, and you'd better be on it” (183). The mother Ginny knew acted as a secondary enforcer of Daddy's law; she “promoted [her] father's authority and was not especially affectionate or curious about [her] feelings” (223). She even notes that she “bottle-fed” her daughters “impersonal[ly],” with “no melding … into symbiotic fleshy warmth” (93). But, as children playing with the clothing their mother wore before being fixed as “farmwife,” she and Rose feel “intoxicated … with a sense of possibility, not for us, but for our mother, lost possibilities to be sure, but somehow still present when we entered the closet” (224).

Desiring access to the mother-under-the-mother, Ginny desires possibilities for a female identity unconstructed by paternal desire. She regrets that her mother “died before she could present [Daddy] to us as only a man, with habits and quirks and preferences, before she could diminish him in our eyes enough for us to understand him.” That, she sees now, was their “only hope” (20). Rummaging through her father's house for signs of her mother, for traces of a language capable of answering her father and revealing what her mother would “have said about him” (225), Ginny seeks her mother's unheard subversive voice.43

However, she also acknowledges that there are benefits to the paternal system of knowing: in “a life where many things go unsaid … you don't have to remember things about yourself that are too bizarre to imagine. What was never given utterance eventually becomes too nebulous to recall” (305). For her, memory becomes possible as the ideologies of paternal ownership built on the unbroken surface of the unsaid are unsettled. As she lays down on her childhood bed, the knowledge that Daddy “had been in there to [her]” (228) resurfaces. Alone in her father's house, she screams

in a way that I had never screamed before, full-out, throat-wrenching, unafraid-of-making-a-fuss-and-drawing-attention-to-myself sorts of screams that I made myself concentrate on, becoming all mouth, all tongue, all vibration.

They did the trick. They wore me out, made me feel physical pain which brought me back to the present, that house, that floor, that moment. After a bit I got up and brushed myself off … When I got back to my house, it was nearly nine o'clock. Only nine o'clock. My new life, yet another new life, had begun early in the day.


Screaming herself into a “new life,” she wrenches an “unafraid” new voice from the body she retrieves from the unsaid, from the “category of the unmentionable” (279) created when Daddy “came to [her] in [her] room at night” and “took from [her]” the “memory of [her] body” (280). This first recollection of her father's abuse emerges as an image of him as a kind of monstrous baby. She remembers that he “had lain with me on that bed, that I had looked at the top of his head, at his balding spot in the brown grizzled hair, while feeling him suck my breasts” (228). In her father's economy of ownership, her body serves to nourish him; he claims sites associated with her potential maternity as resources that satisfy his needs. Even before the return of this memory, Ginny imagines that she will carry a child successfully only when she extracts herself from the system that feeds on her: Ty's refusal to continue trying to have a baby leads her to redefine pregnancy as her “private project” (26) and this reconception of conception reveals “a whole secret world, a way to have two lives, to be two selves. I felt larger and more various than I had in years, full of unknowns, and also of untapped possibilities” (26). In order to stop acting as a partner in her own silencing and a silent partner in the poisoning of land and women, Ginny redefines the meaning of femininity. She suggests that her passivity, her “accommodating … malleable” behavior, has prevented her past pregnancies from being sustained: “Who would stay with a mother who merely waited? Who accepted things so dully, who could say so easily, something will happen, we'll get another chance. No! It was time to sit up, to reach out, to choose this and not that!” (147). If the desirable mother actively chooses to resist paternal prescription it seems that, on some level, Ginny seeks to recreate herself as the mother-under-the-mother, to construct the conditions that will turn “the tide, and carr[y] the darling child into shore” (27).

But the “tide” in Zebulon County is likely poisoned, and “the darling child” would likely function as a “restraining influence” that would preserve the status quo and its attendant amnesias by making it “unwise to question the past” (256). With a child (preferably a son) involved, her family “would have sought instead to present a different picture: five generations on the same land. In honor of my son, wouldn't I warm enthusiastically to such a picture? All the other mothers of sons in Zebulon County did” (256). Ginny oscillates between her longing for a maternal femininity unmediated by paternal authority and her awareness that bearing a child in the farm locale would re-silence her and continue Daddy's tradition on the land. In the end, she extricates herself from this position between impossible desire and inevitable defeat and creates an alternate way to be a woman and a mother.

Throughout the novel, Ginny looks to Rose to fill the gap left by missing maternal language, hoping that “Rose, in herself, in her reincarnation of our mother, would speak, or act out, the answers” (94). But with Rose's revelation of her affair with Jess Clark, with whom Ginny has also had sex, Ginny is struck by her selfishness, her desire to have everything for herself (308, 304). Rose, it seems, does not speak in the “oracular voice” (153) of their mother—rather, she and Daddy are “two of a kind” (68). Jess, a returned draft-dodger brimming with resentment for the patriarchal farm culture and with ideas for organic farming, catalyzes Ginny's own anger; “can you believe,” he demands, how they have been “fucked … over” (55) by domineering fathers and silent mothers. Sex with Jess had been an act of resistance and desire, a dangerous flouting of appearances and of Daddy's definition of female sexuality, a reaching out for alternatives. Rose closes down this sense of alternatives by putting Ginny aside, leaving her “stuck with [her] old life” (307).44

Ginny chooses water hemlock, a natural poison found in watery maternal space, as the means of punishing Rose for failing to provide access to the-mother-under-the-mother, for reproducing the mother who betrays her for the father. With poisoned sausages that are “as thick as a man's thumb” (313), she creates the poisoned phallus as a symbol of Rose's alignment in the paternal economy. Rose does not eat Ginny's sausages, but dies nevertheless of breast cancer, killed not by her sister's rage but by the old poison. Ginny imagines Rose's desire for acquisition as “that cell dividing in the dark … subdividing, multiplying, growing, Rose's real third child … the child of her union with Daddy” (323), with the poisonous father/land.

But alongside Ginny's “vengeful wishes” (335) is her acknowledgement that Rose's desires are more complex than the poisoned phallus symbol allows. Her “clearest memories [are] of watching [Rose], unable to look away, watching her shine with anger” (144). The anger that Rose will not suppress to mollify father and husband, that fuels her insistence that Daddy's ownership is “not innocent” (150), provides Ginny with the language to revise her history on the fatherland and the words to tell Ty:

I can remember when I saw it all your way! The proud progress from Grandpa Davis to Grandpa Cook to Daddy. When “we” bought the first tractor in the county, when “we” built the big house, when “we” had the crops sprayed from the air, when “we” got a car, when “we” drained Mel's corner, when “we” got a hundred and seventy-two bushels an acre. I can remember all of that like prayers or like being married …. It's good to remember and repeat. You feel good to be a part of that. But then I saw what my part really was. Rose showed me …. but I knew what she showed me was true before she even finished showing me.


Rose may be enmeshed and implicated in the economy generated by lust for ownership, but her rage and resistance push Ginny to unearth her own revisionary voice.45

Smiley leaves Ginny's future unclear; she is, after all, still living in a culture that remains invested in Daddy's version of history. But in the end she offers hope for Ginny's resistant new self, the self she screams into being and mothers in a voice that talks back:

When I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me … her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can't imagine. I can't say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose never to remember—the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house late at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.


As a weapon and a tool, this “shard”—her knowing and speaking of what is unknowable and unspeakable in paternal language—propels and preserves her break through the unsaid.

It is this resistant voice that finally enables her to act as a mother-under-the mother figure. At the text's end, Ginny has pried herself loose from the farm locale and lives in St. Paul where she cares for Rose's orphaned daughters.46 While she lacks traditionally defined rewards of femininity—she has no money, no house, no man, no children of her own—she has gained the alternate rewards of memory, knowledge, and voice. As she narrates her experience, she passes on these gifts discovered in her new self, gifts that will help her nieces live with their own histories. Unlike her own mother and her spokeswoman, Mary Livingstone, Ginny functions as a mother with a voice.47 She offers her nieces—and her audience—what her mother could not offer her: the other side of the story of family and national history, the tools to excavate the unsaid.

Answering national nostalgia for the “grand” history built on agrarian ideologies, for the remnants of the pioneer's dream in “traditional” American life, Smiley uncovers the cultural, familial, and individual amnesias produced and maintained by the discourses of the nation. Caruth proposes that “history, like trauma, is never simply one's own … history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas.” Insisting on the fundamental intersection of individual amnesias with the imagined communities constructed by discourses of national history, Smiley, like Caruth, seems to suggest that “today, as we consider the possibilities of cultural and political analysis … the impact of this not fully conscious address may be not only a valid but indeed a necessary point of departure.”48


  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991), 6.

  2. Anderson, Imagined Communities 204.

  3. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). All references are to this edition and will be indicated parenthetically.

  4. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 204.

  5. Most reviewers have discussed the Lear connection. See, for instance, Ron Carlson, “King Lear in Zebulon County,” New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1991, 12; and Edmund Fuller, “Kind and Unkind Daughters,” Swanee Review 101 (1993): I-lii. While I don't wish to downplay this thematic, I do not have space to examine it in detail here; this essay is concerned with the gender-production attendant with America's foundational fictions, on the amnesias enforced by the mythology of frontier beginnings that equates male self-making with nation building.

  6. Karen J. Warren, “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Environmental Ethics 12:2 (1990): 132.

  7. Karen J. Warren, “Introduction,” in Ecological Feminism, ed. Karen J. Warren (New York: Routledge, 1994), 1. Warren defines ecofeminist philosophy as multicultural, in the sense that “it includes in its analyses of women-nature connections the inextricable interconnections among all social systems of domination, for instance, racism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, imperialism, colonialism, as well as sexism” (2).

  8. Deborah Slicer, “Wrongs of Passage: Three Challenges to the Maturing of Ecofeminism,” in Warren, Ecological Feminism, 39.

  9. Warren, “Introduction,” 1.

  10. Fuller, “Kind and Unkind Daughters,” li.

  11. Carlson, “King Lear in Zebulon County,” 12.

  12. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 5.

  13. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 11.

  14. Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 6.

  15. Val Plumwood, “The Ecopolitics Debate and the Politics of Nature,” in Warren, Ecological Feminism, 74.

  16. Plumwood, “The Ecopolitics Debate,” 74.

  17. Nina Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 75.

  18. Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 88.

  19. Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers 1630–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 3.

  20. The familiar stories told and retold in literature and history are, Molly Hite argues, “always somebody's stories.” She suggests that “the coherence of one line of narration rests on the suppression of any number of ‘other sides,’ alternative versions that might give the same sequence of events an entirely different set of emphases and values. One immediate consequence is that even though conventions governing the selection of narrator, protagonist, and especially plot restrict the kinds of literary production that count as stories in a given society and historical period, changes in emphasis and value can articulate the ‘other side’ of a culturally mandated story, exposing the limits it inscribes in the process of affirming a dominant ideology” (The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narratives [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989], 4).

  21. Jack Kirby, “Rural Culture in the American Middle West: Jefferson to Jane Smiley,” Agricultural History 70:4 (1996): 590.

  22. Deborah Fink, Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986), 232.

  23. Fink, Open Country, 238.

  24. Deborah Fink, Agrarian Women (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 12.

  25. Fink, Agrarian Women, 28–29.

  26. Joan M. Jensen, Promise to the Land Essays on Rural Women (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 25, 26.

  27. Kirby, “Rural Culture,” 582, 584.

  28. Kirby, “Rural Culture,” 592.

  29. Smiley prepares this embodied earth thematic with the novel's epigraph from Meridel LeSueur's “The Ancient People and the Newly Come”: “The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other. We were marked by the seasonal body of earth, by the terrible migrations of people, by the swift turn of a century, verging on change never before experienced on this greening planet.”

  30. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 67.

  31. I am obviously indebted to the many feminist analyses and revisions of Lacan's theory of language, sexuality, and subjectivity. See especially Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversive Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993); Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1990); Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), and This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

  32. This category includes the voices of younger men, such as Rose's husband, Pete, and Harold Clark's prodigal son, Jess, men who have yet to attain the status of the father, men who resent and resist his discipline. Smiley's characterization of Pete, especially, suggests that men are not born like Daddy, but are made into him.

  33. Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, 142.

  34. Kirby reads the novel as the story of a “family-farm succession crisis”: “A widower with three grown daughters, Cook faced infirmity and death without the male heir that agrarianism demands” (“Rural Culture,” 593). He responds by proposing the corporation, his “test of love and loyalty … like Lear's” (594).

  35. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 4.

  36. This is Eve Kosofky Sedgwick's term. She defines male homosocial desire as “a pattern of male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, rivalry, and hetero- and homosexuality … in an intimate and shifting relation to class.” It is “a kind of oxymoron. ‘Homosocial’ is a word occasionally used in history and the social sciences, where it describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by an analogy with ‘homosexual,’ and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from ‘homosexual.’ … To draw the ‘homosocial’ back into the orbit of ‘desire,’ of the potentially erotic, then, is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual—a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 1–2.

  37. Rose's husband, Pete, is not the right kind of farmer in Daddy's eyes. He resists the farm culture and its definition for manhood and fights constantly with Daddy, who does not credit any of his suggestions or desires for the farm. However, when he does become a farmer he takes out his anger on Rose. Ginny fears Pete's temper but understands his frustrations, which form part of “the unsaid.” Pete drowns himself in the quarry, which is “manmade but natural, too, the one place where the sea within the earth lay open to sight” (247).

  38. Edith died at forty-three of unrecorded causes, and her daughters died in the 1917 influenza epidemic (132). In this culture, women die early, usually of disease, while men die violent deaths. Of the men's longevity, Rose says: “Don't you wonder if they all didn't just implode? First their wives collapse under the strain, then they take it out on their children for as long as they can, then they just reach the end of their rope” (187).

  39. Daddy's friend Harold Clark, whose subplot parallels his, blames inheritance problems on women: “I've got myself into a fix now. One farm, two boys. Two good boys is a boy too many, you know. Pretty soon there are two wives and six or eight children, and you got to be fair, but there's no fair way to cut that pie …. So the wives start squabbling. That's the first thing, ain't it?” (156).

  40. Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” 75.

  41. I use the term “reiteration” in Judith Butler's sense. She argues that, although the paternal symbolic positions itself as the necessary condition of cultural intelligibility and coherent subjectivity, “what is ‘forced’ by the symbolic … is a citation of its law that reiterates and consolidates the ruse of its own force.” She asks what it would mean “to ‘cite’ the law to produce it differently, to ‘cite’ the law in order to reiterate and coopt its power, to expose the heterosexual matrix and to displace the effect of its necessity” (Bodies That Matter, 15).

  42. Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 143.

  43. In the course of this search Ginny finds “one black-and-white picture of a baby in a hat” (226), a baby that could have been any of the Cook daughters, or all, or none. This unnamed baby is evocative of an existence that precedes the father's abuse and discipline, for the self that could have heard the mother's missing voice. However, the unidentifiable baby simultaneously reminds Ginny of the cultural silence around lost and forgotten children: “Maybe there was another one after all, one that came before me. It wasn't impossible, and not unlikely, either, that I wouldn't know about it. Another something less said about the better” (321). The photograph of the unnamed baby and Ginny's own ghost children (308) are evocative of the forgotten unsaid that haunts the farm culture.

  44. Although Jess seems at first to offer attractive alternatives—he refuses the authority of father and nation, he wants to implement nonpoisonous farming methods, he seems to see women not as breeders but as equals—his relationship with Rose gradually reveals another impossibly regimented system as well as an equally destructive desire to remake the land in his own image.

  45. Her sister Caroline, on the other hand, sustains the amnesia that supports Daddy's authority by refusing to hear Ginny's story, not wanting her memories of her childhood to be “wreck[ed]” (362).

  46. She works as a waitress—the job Rose imagined for their mother in her fantasy that she had not died but escaped (187). She also attends college and plans to major in psychology (358), which Caroline studied briefly and used to analyze and account for her father (118).

  47. Susan Strehle pointed this out to me.

  48. Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 24.

Ron Charles (review date 26 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “Challenging Mark Twain's Tales of Simpler Times,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 90, No. 83, March 26, 1998, p. B1.

[In the following review, Charles provides a favorable assessment of Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.]

Ernest Hemingway once said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” and since then a river of ink has flowed to justify that monumental claim.

Two years ago, Jane Smiley went against this current of praise and took the nation's school teachers to task for excusing what she considers Twain's moral passivity in response to slavery.

In Harper's magazine the Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote, “All the claims that are routinely made for the book's humanitarian power are, in the end, simply absurd. To invest The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with greatness is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is.”

It's now apparent that when she wrote those words, she was also working on an alternative to Twain's classic. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton moves the political discussion of slavery onto center stage in a way that Huck and Jim never consider. And when a slave bolts with the young narrator, the escape isn't a leisurely raft trip and freedom isn't guaranteed.

Smiley has produced a novel as engaging as any ever written about the “peculiar institution” which eventually tore the United States apart. This picaresque tale presents a series of remarkable characters, particularly the inexperienced narrator, whose graphic descriptions of travel and domestic life before the Civil War strip away romantic notions of simpler times.

When the novel opens, Lidie, a lazy, lanky girl who's more comfortable with a rifle than a needle, finds herself the subject of endless sighs and corrections from her responsible, hard-working sisters. By way of introduction she brags, “I had perversely cultivated uselessness over the years and had reached, as I then thought, a pitch of uselessness that was truly rare, or even unique, among the women of Quincy, Illinois.”

As much to escape her sisters’ tedium as anything else. Lidie marries a deeply principled Unitarian, whose quiet demeanor first excites and then scares her. Indeed, she has reason to feel alarm. The ever sanguine Thomas Newton is actually a gun-running activist in the radical abolition movement. From her boring home in Quincy, Lidie finds herself propelled into the volcanic Kansas Territory on the eve of the Civil War.

In the polarized atmosphere of 1856, Lidie cannot remain so happily uninterested in “the goose question,” a euphemism for one's position on the slavery issue. Instructed by her earnest husband, shrill propaganda, and the savage treatment that Lawrence, Kan., endures from pro-slavery Missourians. Lidie soaks up the fervor of her abolitionist community. Her only stable guide throughout this harrowing adventure is a ridiculously irrelevant handbook on women's etiquette.

When a band of thugs murders Thomas, Lidie's fire grows more intense, but it also grows more personal and removes her from the political battle that so inspired her husband. Driven by grief and revenge, she says goodbye to her friends, dresses as a man, and heads out into the lawless territory to track down the killers.

Even that clear motive, however, loses its focus as Lidie finds her principles and the hatred she feels muddled by the benevolence she receives from a family of slave holders. Easily swayed by the opinions of others—her impatient sisters, her abolitionist husband, a runaway slave—Lidie finds herself hopelessly ambivalent.

“The very certainty of everyone around me drove all certainty out of me,” she admits. In the end, like Huck, Lidie is so bewildered by horrors and hypocrites that she can do nothing but stop writing and shake her head. “Revenge was more complicated than I had thought it would be.” Lidie admits, “but then so was everything else one looks forward to with confidence.”

Indeed, there's much thought-provoking complication here. Smiley has created an authentic voice in this struggle of a young women to live simply amid a swirl of deadly antagonism.

Heller McAlpin (review date 5 April 1998)

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SOURCE: “Up from Slavery,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 5, 1998, p. 4.

[In the following review, McAlpin lauds Smiley for how she deals with both personal relationships and complex political ideas in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.]

Why the current fascination among novelists with the years bracketing the Civil War? Could it be fallout from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary? The allure of a powerful moral issue set against the backdrop of compelling drama? Last year brought us Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a prizewinning epic about a wounded Confederate soldier's trek home to his beloved, and this year we have Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, about the abolitionist crusader John Brown. And now, four years after her own Pulitzer Prize winner, A Thousand Acres, comes Jane Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. A confluence of factors in mid-19th century Kansas—plucky pioneers with a moral mission who moved westward into a situation ripe with conflict—no doubt drew Smiley to this period.

Smiley's ninth book of fiction is a memoir focusing on the action-packed, life-altering 21st year of a feisty heroine from Quincy, Ill., who marries a Yankee abolitionist and accompanies him to Kansas Territory. There, a fight that presages the Civil War is waging between Free Staters and Missourians over whether the new state will abide slavery. Smiley's novel is a rousing, grippingly paced historical saga, but it manages at the same time—in classic Smiley fashion—to also be a touching portrait of marital love, an account of personal growth from ideological ambivalence to strong convictions and a searching inquiry into complex moral issues.

Smiley starts on relatively solid, simple moral ground, at least by contemporary standards: Her characters are emphatically not “sound on the goose question,” meaning they don't accept slavery. But, as they are transformed by unfolding events that constantly surprise them, she quickly moves from this position into grayer, much more interesting areas: How far should one go in the name of beliefs? How tolerant should one be of others’ values, particularly values you find abhorrent? Is territoriality justifiable? Is theft in the name of a cause justifiable? Is it OK to steal from people who have been good to you, even if you don't believe that what you're taking—a slave—can rightly be considered property at all? Is revenge justified? Are there circumstances in which killing is justifiable?

Lydia Harkness is a large, plain woman of 20 who has been in the care of her narrowminded older half-sisters since her mother's death seven years ago. To their despair, she prefers horseback-riding, shooting, swimming and writing to sewing and housework. Her family is eager to marry her off, even to an abolitionist from Massachusetts passing through on his way to Kansas Territory. The year is 1855, and Kansas is not yet part of the union. Abolitionists from the North, like 30-year-old Thomas Newton, are flocking to what has been touted in fliers as a land of mild climate and major opportunity in the hopes of keeping it slave-free. Because her options are few and she is an adventurer at heart, and because she is drawn to Thomas’ levelheadedness and “air of amusement,” Lydia decides somewhat impulsively to join him.

What the newlyweds come up against in the territory is “something alien and unexpected.” They find a harsh climate and an inflammatory situation between the proslavery Missourians, depicted as “obdurate and threatening” drunken “Border Ruffians” and the more genteel Northerners. Smiley convincingly details the many stages of confrontation as well as the financial and practical aspects of eking out a subsistence living, whether crammed into shared rooms in the lively, growing town of Lawrence or alone on an isolated claim on the windy prairie in a rough 12-by-12-foot windowless cabin. Despite the dangers and hardships, Lydia and Thomas gradually come to know and respect one another and to feel “safe in the wilderness of space and nuptial contentment.” The lighthearted scenes of sweet domestic intimacy spent reading Emerson, Stowe and Thoreau or talking teasingly about relations between the sexes are particularly charming.

There are constant tension and continuous clashes with the mean-tempered, intemperate Missourians. These include ambushes by border patrols and pogrom-like sackings as well as threatened retaliations to atrocities said to have been committed by abolitionists including John Brown. Smiley effectively intersperses small, carefully wrought domestic quarrels that arise between the “disputatious” Lydia, who wants to quash the enemy, and her sometimes frustratingly restrained, judicious husband.

When Thomas is shot in cold blood along with Lydia's beloved horse, it is no surprise that her first reaction is to seek revenge. And it is utterly in character that she should disguise herself as a boy to search for the killers, a development that enables Smiley to further highlight the inequalities women suffered then. It is also no surprise that Lydia has internalized Thomas’ “desire to act on principle” and finds herself weighing her every move by wondering what her husband would think. “What to do for Thomas, what to do that he would not have disapproved of, how to honor him, even how to think of him, was a hot little nut of a question that I turned over and over, trying to crack, day after day,” she tells the reader. When she collapses after a miscarriage and is taken in by slaveholding Missourians, whose principles she finds loathsome but who are unfailingly kind to her, she realizes that issues aren't as simple as she thought.

The voice Smiley creates for her sympathetic and wonderfully human heroine is sharp, engaging, wry and wise. Also right on the mark are the chapter headings that never give away too much (“I See the Bottom of the Well,” “I Sully My Character”) and the many distinctive characters, including Lydia's wild soul mate of a nephew, Frank, who seems to have wandered off the pages of Mark Twain, with his ubiquitous “see-gar stub” protruding from his mouth.

The intricate emotional analysis for which Smiley has become justly celebrated, tracing characters’ feelings as they fluctuate and evolve with the precision of fine needlework, is much in evidence in Lidie Newton. She is as adept at capturing the subtle nuances of relationships as she is at chronicling complex political activity. This is a gripping story about love, fortitude and convictions that are worth fighting for regardless of the outcome.

James A. Schiff (essay date Summer 1998)

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SOURCE: “Contemporary Retellings: A Thousand Acres as the Latest Lear,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1998, pp. 367–81.

[In the following essay, Schiff discusses Smiley's rewriting of King Lear in A Thousand Acres.]

In this century, and particularly since Joyce's Ulysses, numerous novels and poems have attempted to retell earlier stories, myths, and fairy tales. Between 1920 and 1980, writers such as Yeats, Lawrence, Faulkner, Mann, Hermann Hesse, Max Frisch, Anthony Burgess, John Barth, Bernard Malamud, Jean Rhys, John Gardner, Donald Barthelme, Anne Sexton, John Updike, and Angela Carter have employed the “mythical method,” a term for literature that explicitly attempts to retell earlier stories that have achieved mythic significance. Although none of those writers has equaled the success and achievement of Ulysses, many notable and valuable retellings have appeared, including Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (a reworking of Jane Eyre), Updike's The Centaur (assorted Greek myths), and Gardner's Grendel (Beowulf).

Recently, the urge to retell has become even more pervasive. Everyone seems to be doing it. Kathy Acker: Don Quixote, John Updike: Roger's Version and S., the latter two installments of his Scarlet Letter trilogy, and Brazil (Tristan and Iseult), Geoff Ryman: Was (The Wizard of Oz), Valerie Martin: Mary Reilly (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Lin Haire-Sargeant: H. (Wuthering Heights), J.M. Coetzee: Foe (Robinson Crusoe), Thomas Berger: Robert Crews (Robinson Crusoe) and Orrie's Story (The Oresteia), and Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres (King Lear).

Perhaps more than ever before, the refashioning of canonical texts has become a major literary enterprise, with both established and unknown authors trying their hands. That effort raises in my mind two pressing questions: Why would a writer choose explicitly to retell an earlier story or myth? And why is so much of that activity happening in recent years?

An initial response to the first question might be, it is easier than inventing a new story. Retelling someone else's story enables a writer to appropriate a preexisting framework with a cast of familiar characters and themes; one might say that a good deal of the work has already been done. That explanation is problematic: is it truly easier to compose a story that not only will have to operate on two levels but also to compete with the earlier version's success? A more useful approach to that question, I think, is to consider the prominence within our culture of myths and canonical stories such as Oedipus, Jesus, Moses, Odysseus, Jane Eyre, Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Hamlet; those stories, which have realized varying degrees of acceptance and familiarity, have played a role in defining and influencing culture. Over time, however, readers and writers sometimes tire of the way that an earlier story is told or become uncomfortable with certain aspects of the story and with the kind of social influence that it exerts. By updating the story, offering a new perspective, filling in narrative gaps, or simply playing with ambiguities, a contemporary writer receives the satisfaction of having altered a familiar story according to his or her own personal orientation, often transforming the treatment of issues of gender, class, or race. Thus, the influence that the familiar story exerts may be altered according to the contemporary's writer social agenda. In addition, the contemporary writer can link his or her name to the earlier canonical writer or tale, perhaps appropriating some of its authority and success. Finally, if the writer should tell the story better or in a more generally accepted manner than the earlier teller, then possibly the retelling may become the newly established version. (Earlier versions of “Cinderella” or Tristan and Iseult exist than those that are the most generally known.)

But why have there been so many retellings in recent years? Some would argue that the novel is dead and that the mythical method, the retelling of old stories, is the only alternative. Although many find such apocalyptic thinking attractive—particularly as we live on the verge of a millennium—end-of-the-world reports on the novel have become more stale than the novel itself, which I think is doing just fine. As early as 1923 T. S. Eliot was suggesting that the mythical method, as used by Joyce in Ulysses, was perhaps the only alternative: “In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him …. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method” (177–78). Over the last seventy years we have seen that the mythical method is not the only option, although it has become an attractive and popular one.

My own sense is that two factors have led to this recent surge in retellings. First, changes in both the literary canon and culture at large, particularly in regard to issues of gender, class, and race, have altered the way in which we see canonical texts. Many contemporary retellings attempt to view the “mythical” story from a new or even marginalized perspective; certainly that is the case with Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (Lear from the perspective of Goneril) and Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (a companion story to Jane Eyre with the focal point being Rochester's first wife, the so-called madwoman in the attic). Indeed contemporary critical inquiry has led us to re-read canonical texts and question aspects of those texts that have been almost completely unexamined.

Fashion may be a second reason for the surge in retellings. After all, this is an age in which visual media is obsessed with the sequel, remake, rerun, and instant replay—all of which are attempts to return us to material that we have already experienced. In the film industry, sequels have become standard—Rocky V, Police Academy 6—and the remake is becoming increasingly popular. We now hear of plans for movie sequels to such long-untouched “classics” as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. In addition, the desire to refashion can be found in both the vast number of contemporary films that have been made from previously published novels, and in recent efforts to alter earlier black-and-white films through colorizing. Old stories are always being remade, but never before to this degree, and never before have they been remade so easily and shamelessly. Marketing factors in the high-expense film industry account for the compulsion to return to familiar, predictable material; and superior technology, which generates the belief that we can improve upon the past, plays an additional role.

Interestingly enough, a similar trend has been taking place in the literary world. Recently, not only have we seen a vast number of retellings, but increasingly writers, particularly in detective and mass-market fiction, are returning to their own familiar characters and plot formulas over the course of many novels. Even such distinguished authors as Philip Roth, John Updike, and Reynolds Price have returned, years later, to earlier characters who proved successful: Nathan Zuckerman for Roth; Rabbit Angstrom, Henry Bech, and the Maples for Updike; and Rosacoke Mustian, Wesley Beavers, and the Mayfields for Price. Although that trend toward returning to one's own familiar characters is hardly new in literature, it appears in recent years to be occurring at an accelerated pace. Technological advancements have not played the immense role in literature that they have in film, but it may only be a matter of time before new narrative art forms such as hyperfiction alter the literary scene and assist us once more in retelling previously told stories. A kind of zeitgeist exists in the worlds of film and literature that draws writers and film makers, like never before, into reshaping old stories.

In light of the recent surge in the publication of retellings and the contemporary interest in intertextuality, one would expect an abundance of critical material. Surprisingly there is not—at least not of specific discussions of how one text retells another. The most useful study I have come across is John J. White's Mythology in the Modern Novel, yet White deals primarily with European male writers of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Jack Zipes's Don't Bet on the Prince is also quite good, particularly on feminist concerns, but he focuses exclusively on fairy tales. Other studies of interest include John B. Vickery's Myths and Texts, Michel Gresset and Noel Polk's Intertextuality in Faulkner, Robert Con Davis and Patrick O'Donnell's Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction, and a recent article in Critique by Peter Morgan entitled “Foe's Defoe and La Jeune Nee: Establishing a Metaphorical Referent for the Elided Female Voice.” My own work in this area includes a book on Updike's revision of Hawthorne: Updike's Version: Rewriting The Scarlet Letter.

Many recent retellings have been ignored simply because they are weak. Coover's Pinocchio and Updike's S., though interesting for their intertextual maneuverings, have been overshadowed by other works from those writers. As with lesser-known writers, such as Haire-Sargeant, the contemporary recasting is often subject to brutal criticism: “H. emphatically does not succeed …. its hero bears so little resemblance to the first Heathcliff that the reader can only wonder at the lack of copyright laws restricting the use of characters’ names” (Kakutani B2). Contemporary retellings often seem trapped within the earlier narrative frameworks and thus are likely to appear either contrived and manipulative or so loose that any connection to the earlier text is muddled and insignificant. Many writers also seem to turn to the mythical method as a kind of fashionable postmodern narrative exercise. Although the exercise sometimes delivers intriguing results, it often succumbs to self-conscious excess while failing to generate successful sustained narrative.

To my mind, of the many recent retellings, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres stands out as the most resounding success, as an independent story and as a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear. Texts that use the mythical method must not only deliver an interesting contemporary story, but simultaneously must make the reader “feel [as if] the chosen analogy has enriched his understanding of the primary material” (White 90–1). Pure “slavish imitation” would, of course, be “devoid of surprise and lacking in life.” In recasting, therefore, the contemporary writer must change his or her attitude, shift the emphasis, and focus on different aspects of the earlier story (White 108, 112). A Thousand Acres, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, is successful in both regards.

Yet to restate an earlier question in a slightly different manner: Why retell King Lear? Shakespeare did it so magnificently; why do it again? and why do it differently? A recasting of such a powerfully established canonical text as Lear is likely to fail, or at least to pale beside the original. Why subject oneself to such a comparison? For Smiley, the answer lies in a failure of Shakespeare's text: “I'd always felt the way Lear was presented to me was wrong. Without being able to articulate why, I thought Goneril and Regan got the short end of the stick.” She goes on to echo what many critics have already observed of Goneril and Regan: “There had to be some reason [Lear's] daughters were so angry. Shakespeare would attribute their anger to their evil natures, but I don't believe people in the 20th Century think evil exists without cause. I knew where that anger came from …” (qtd. by Anderson 3). Smiley's central objective then in rewriting Lear is to provide a motivation for and an understanding of the two older daughters; in so doing, she is creating a feminist version of Lear, giving a voice to those otherwise unheard and maligned heroines.

Some purists are inclined to disparage recastings of any sort, viewing them as either sacrilegious (a violation of a “classic”) or derivative (a cheap and easy imitation). One should bear in mind, however, the textual history of Shakespeare's story. His version may be the most familiar, but it was hardly the first nor was it the most recent. One can find earlier versions of the Lear story in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, John Higgins's The Mirror for Magistrates, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, and The True Chronicle History of King Leir. an anonymous play of Shakespeare's own time. Post-Shakespeare versions include Nahum Tate's adaptation entitled King Lear, along with more recent revisions such as Edward Bond's Lear, Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Gordon Bottomley's King Lear's Wife, and now A Thousand Acres. Shakespeare himself has been linked to more than just a single Lear as evidenced by the ongoing dispute concerning the quarto text versus the folio. My point is that there are many Lears, and though one is more famous than the others, each is a version that works from prior texts. In other words, Smiley is doing precisely what Shakespeare did in the early 1600s: retelling a story about Lear that others before her have already told.

Before beginning to study the intertextual dialogue between Lear and A Thousand Acres I need to address how historically Lear has served as a text open to revision. Why do some stories lend themselves more easily to retellings? Length is a factor, as we see with fairy tales and classical myths, the most commonly retold stories. It is easier for a contemporary writer to get a handle on “Cinderella” than on War and Peace. Beyond length, what about Lear or Robinson Crusoe leads to so many retellings? I think the first ingredient is the presence of an archetypal situation or scene: a journey home (Odyssey); a shipwreck and ensuing isolation/adventure (Robinson Crusoe); the ritualistic passing of authority and property from parents to children (Lear). Second, the story must possess significant mysteries or gaps, points of ambiguity that stir a need for later elaboration and explanation. Lear contains such a mystery, the one that Smiley latches onto—what could have caused such hatred and brutality from Goneril and Regan. Finally, the prominence of the tale is a factor. Most retellings depend upon a reader's familiarity with the original material. A refashioning of Hamlet or Lear is far more likely than one of Shakespeare's Pericles or Timon of Athens.

It is important that Smiley is the first female writer of any significance to turn to Lear. Men have penned all of the many versions before and after Shakespeare's. As Smiley explains, “The rise of feminism began when women in college classes were presented with interpretations of famous books that seemed wrong to them” (qtd. by Anderson 3). Smiley found something wrong with Shakespeare's depiction of Lear's older daughters; in reading commentaries about King Lear, she was surprised to find that even the most radical feminists rejected Goneril and Regan: “A remark condemning Goneril and Regan was de rigeur” (qtd. by Duffy 92). Behind this treatment and reception of Goneril and Regan, Smiley locates a fundamental problem of how patriarchal society traditionally has viewed father-daughter relations: “The battle between fathers and sons has to do with the exclusion of sons from the world of men. It's a matter of power. Once they're let in, the battle is over. But when daughters are really angry, and have good reason to be angry, they, in a lot of ways, can never be included. For daughters who have been abused, there is a kind of irreconcilability that is much more radical than anything the sons could ever come up with” (qtd. by Anderson 3). From Smiley's perspective, the social structure works to maintain and preserve patriarchy at the expense of casting out or slighting the daughters.

Father-daughter relations are central in King Lear and A Thousand Acres: each begins with and hinges on a public scene in which the father divides his “kingdom” between his daughters. In Lear the scene is a public ceremony that ostensibly is staged for the purpose of dividing the kingdom and providing a husband for Cordelia, the youngest and best-loved daughter. Lear, however, eager to keep the spotlight on himself, expresses his “darker purpose” or more secret intention: he will offer a third of his land to each daughter in exchange for a public confession of their love for him. Goneril and Regan give Lear precisely the performance he desires, although it is not what they feel, and they are rewarded with land. Cordelia, the daughter most like Lear himself, refuses to play that game and is cast out and rejected. Lear will pay immensely for this scene; he has cast out his dearest ally and has bequeathed his kingdom to his greatest enemies.

A Thousand Acres, set in 1979, near the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, uses a rural middle-class American version of that scene. The occasion, more provincial and less royal, is an Iowa pig roast, open to most of the farmers in the area. Harold Clark, the Gloucester figure in the novel, is the host. Larry Cook, the Lear figure and patriarch of the Cook family, is the closest thing to a king in Zebulon County, having acquired the finest and largest farm, a thousand acres of fertile, well-tiled land. He is the quintessential American farmer and father, presenting a facade of strength, stoicism, and industriousness to the admiring community. As in Lear, the focus of this equally central and tragic scene between father and daughters is not meant to be on the patriarch. In Lear the spotlight is to be on Cordelia and her two suitors, Burgundy and France; in A Thousand Acres it is meant to be on the Clark (Gloucester) family and Harold Clark's “twin exhibits,” his son Jess (the Edmund figure), who has just returned from the West, and his recent purchase, “a brand-new, enclosed, air-conditioned International Harvester tractor with a tape cassette player” (17). In each text Lear/Larry impulsively places himself at center stage, as if childishly reacting in jealousy against the scene that is about to occur.

In Smiley's novel, Larry announces that the family is “going to form this corporation” and that his three daughters, Ginny (Goneril), Rose (Regan), and Caroline (Cordelia) will each own shares. As in Lear, the father is acting out of character and the youngest daughter, his avowed favorite, resists such uncharacteristic behavior. Whereas her elder sisters, both farm wives, refer to Larry's plan as “a good idea,” Caroline, the only daughter who has already left the farm (for a law career in Des Moines), refuses to endorse her father's impulse, simply stating, “I don't know” (19). As with Cordelia's response of “Nothing, my lord,” Caroline's reply prompts a number of questions. Is she acting honorably here, speaking in her father's best interests? Or are her motives personal, foreseeing her “father's plan as a trapdoor plunging her into a chute that would deposit her right back on the farm” (21)? Is she speaking more as an attorney than a daughter? Or is she speaking as a sister who hates to see her siblings get what she believes they want? Whichever the case may be, the result is the same as in Lear: the two elder daughters take possession of the land, and the youngest daughter is cast out.

That scene is central to both texts; the generational exchange of property triggers the fall of the patriarch into madness and despair and allows the patriarch's elder daughters to acquire and experience some of the power that their father once wielded. In other words, the father becomes the child and the daughters become the parents. The ensuing events in Smiley's novel closely mirror the events in Shakespeare's play: Larry (Lear) is cast out into a storm; Caroline (Cordelia) marries Frank (France) and then returns to help her discarded father; Harold (Gloucester) is blinded through the actions of Pete (Cornwall); Ginny (Goneril) and Rose (Regan) each carry on a sexual romance with Jess (Edmund); Ginny attempts to poison Rose; Larry is ultimately reunited with Caroline; and after a series of family deaths, the Cook (Lear) family ceases to operate the farm (kingdom). Smiley even maintains the Gloucester family subplot; in A Thousand Acres Harold Clark (Gloucester) is caught in a similar parent-child struggle with Jess (Edmund) and Loren (Edgar). More than almost any recasting that I have come across, Smiley's remains true to the earlier text in regard to plot.

The difference, however, and it is by no means minor, lies in the perspective. Whereas Shakespeare focuses on the patriarch and is primarily sympathetic to both him and Cordelia, Smiley centers her story around Ginny, from whose perspective we discover the hidden truths about the Cook family. In Shakespeare's play Goneril is viewed from a distance; we never gain access to the inner workings of her consciousness, and she appears cold, ungrateful, and aggressively hostile. She responds to her father's gift of land not with delight or gratitude, but with malice and paranoia, remarking to Regan that they must conspire together to “do something” to Lear so as to disempower him in his increasing madness. In A Thousand Acres, however, Ginny is placed at the center of the novel in the role of narrator. We are, in effect, given her version, which offers an alternative reading to the evil daughter syndrome inherent in Shakespeare's Lear. From Ginny's perspective, Larry becomes identified as a sexually abusive father. She is a victimized daughter struggling to understand her past and maintain her self-respect. In telling the story from the daughter's perspective and revealing the hidden evils of the father, Smiley makes us aware not only of an alternative version to the story but also of how our Western literary tradition has tended to honor the patriarch at the expense of the daughters.

Smiley's novel, however, is far more complex than a simplistic trashing of fathers and men, with Larry/Lear epitomizing evil and Ginny/Goneril good. As a narrator and character, Ginny is polite, noncommittal and nonconfrontational; in other words, she has become remarkably adept at fooling and shielding herself from the truth. We, as readers, must continually question her observations and motives. In contrast to Goneril's malicious and conspiratorial response to her father's gift of land, Ginny, in her typically noncommittal and passive way, remarks, “I tried to sound agreeable” (19). Though a far cry from the cold and malicious Goneril, Ginny is not quite pure innocence; she commits adultery with Jess and attempts to poison her sister Rose. Her interest in the farm is not totally selfless. When she remarks to Caroline that they should receive the gift of the farm “in the right spirit,” we question whether Ginny is going along with her father out of the goodness of her heart or out of self-interest. After all, she stands to gain a one-third share in a three million dollar farm. Considering Ginny's character, it is doubtful that she knows her own motivations. She epitomizes those qualities most commonly associated with the American heartland, particularly with the daughter/wife/female of the heartland; she is stoic, industrious, devoted, domestic, polite, and concerned above all with keeping up appearances. She questions little, represses all that is painful, and desires a sort of absence of personality. As she explains of her manner of speaking, “This is something I do often, this phrasing and rephrasing of sentences in my mind, scaling back assertions and direct questions so that they do not offend, so that they can slip sideways into someone's consciousness without my having really asked them” (115). Playing the role that the social structure has carved out for her, Ginny is the archetypal good girl and daughter, the agreeable female.

Whereas in Shakespeare's play the central action leads to the education and self-realization of the patriarch, in A Thousand Acres a similar process occurs for the daughter, Ginny. Like Lear, she has been “more sinned against than sinning,” and in the course of the novel she discovers just how much. From Mary Livingstone she learns that her father has denied what her mother wished for her: “she wanted you to have more choices. I know she wanted you to go to college. She never wanted you to marry so young, before seeing some other places and trying some other things” (91). She becomes aware that the Cooks may have acquired land from the Scotts and Ericsons through manipulation and less-than-honorable means. Through her own empowerment and her father's parallel deterioration—he has been in a tail spin since giving up his land—Ginny begins to discover how much she has repressed and failed to question. In the process she finally gains her voice, her real voice, which never before has been used. When confronting her father about his drunk driving and laziness, she speaks for the first time in that new forceful voice, “‘They're probably going to revoke your license, but even if they don't, I will, if you do it again …. this is your warning, and I expect you to pay attention to it'” (148). Ginny's own reaction to her newly acquired strength and candor is bliss: “It was exhilarating, talking to my father as if he were my child, more than exhilarating to see him as my child …. It wasn't a way of talking that I was used to—possibly I had never talked that way before—but I knew I could get used to it in a heartbeat” (148).

That scene marks a breakthrough for Ginny. Her father's present weakened condition has given her the opportunity and strength to tap into her emotions, and interestingly, Ginny here begins to sound most like Goneril:

I stepped toward [Rose], alive with the sense that I'd had the night before,

that the tables could be turned on our father, that he could be taken in

hand and controlled; we just had to agree on our plan and stick to it.

(A Thousand Acres 152)

GONERIL (to Regan): Pray you let us hit together; if our father carry

authority with such disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will

but offend us.

(King Lear, I, i, 302–4)

In the context of A Thousand Acres, as opposed to King Lear, we understand why Ginny/Goneril has just cause for speaking of her father in such a manner, and we are likely to cheer her on.

The farming community of Zebulon County does not cheer her on. From the community's perspective, the Cook daughters have manipulated Larry into giving them and their husbands the land. In addition, they see Larry's mad and uncontrolled behavior as a result of the malice, greed, and ungratefulness of his daughters. From the communal perspective, Larry is the patriarch, the man who has done no wrong in devoting his entire life to hard work so that his family could benefit. The community can interpret Larry's decline, in tandem with the financial rise of his daughters, in only one way: the daughters are evil, and the father has been unjustly punished and maltreated. That is, of course, how many of us read Lear. Smiley's brilliance here is that she has recreated not only the characters and scenes of Lear but also the audience. In essence she has given the audience or readers of Lear a role in her novel; they, or we, play the part of the community, the chorus if you will. Thus, Smiley implicates her reader. Those of us who have in the past sympathized with the patriarch Lear and viewed Goneril and Regan as malicious are not at all unlike those characters in Zebulon County who feel compassion for Larry and bitterness for his daughters Ginny and Rose.

The revelation of A Thousand Acres and the reason why we cannot “honor thy father,” is Ginny's recollection of having been sexually abused by Larry: “my father came to me and had intercourse with me in the middle of the night. I could remember pretending to be asleep, but knowing he was in the doorway and moving closer. I could remember him saying, ‘Quiet, now, girl. You don't need to fight me.’ … But I never remembered penetration or pain, or even his hands on my body, and I never sorted out how many times there were. I remembered my strategy, which had been desperate limp inertia” (280). Any precedent for sexual abuse is nonexistent in Lear, but such a revelation helps to understand what could have happened in the unstated past of Lear's family. Some may contend that Smiley's introduction of abuse is heavy-handed and makes her job too easy; who can blame a victim of abuse for anything? Yet the revelation of abuse is credible, makes absolute sense, and fits the story. In addition, it answers well to its culture. Contemporary climate within the United States is unique in its openness to confronting and understanding the sexual abuse of children. It seems natural that Smiley would utilize that concern to explain the daughters’ behavior.

If there is a weakness to A Thousand Acres, it is in the last hundred pages where Smiley feels compelled against credibility to remain true to the Lear plot. In those pages we see the “accidental” death of Pete (Cornwall), the blinding of Harold (Gloucester), the death of Larry in the grocery store, the attempted murder by poisoning of Rose by Ginny, and the loss of the farm. Within the context of Shakespearean tragedy, those brutal and violent events make sense, but in a “realistic” novel set in contemporary rural America, they seem excessive and manipulative. The pace of the novel becomes too hurried in the last quarter, and that series of outrageous events gives one the feeling that Lear rather than Smiley's story is steering the narrative.

A Thousand Acres makes contributions to and elaborations on the Lear story other than its primary value of giving Ginny/Goneril a voice and telling the story from the perspective of the daughters. Smiley's most significant elaboration concerns the land itself. By setting A Thousand Acres in a farm community, Smiley gives the land a much greater and more central role than ever before. Her characters are intimately tied to the land; it is their means of survival. In essence, Smiley has Americanized the Lear story by setting it not only on an Iowa farm, but in the presidency of a peanut farmer, during a time in which many American families were losing their farms to corporations and banks. Land is probably the key attribute of any nation, but land has a special significance in the United States. Rich in resources and vast in size, the United States has served as the New World and Promised Land. The American farmer, traditionally strong and prosperous, has helped to feed the world. Smiley's novel, however, indicates that the quest for more and better land has taken a toll. In a series of events that mirrors their nighttime playing of the board game Monopoly, the Cook family eventually loses the farm to the Heartland Corporation, which has bulldozed the homes, barnyards, and people, so that “No lives are lived any more within the horizon of your gaze” (368). In addition, it is feared that the land, once thought to be so rich, is now contaminated with poisons and chemicals.

Perhaps the most interesting feature in Smiley's consideration of the land is the primitive relationship she posits between land and body, as seen in her epigraph, taken from Meridel Le Sueur's autobiographical essay, “The Ancient People and the Newly Come”:

The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and

create each other. We were marked by the seasonal body of earth, by the

terrible migrations of people, by the swift turn of a century, verging on

change never before experienced on this greening planet.

The mutuality between the human body and the land extends back to Genesis: humans were made from the land (of clay), existed to take care of the land, and ultimately were absorbed back into the land. We have seen in the United States particularly how the land has been associated with the feminine, as Annette Kolodny has demonstrated in two wonderfully engaging books, The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her. Kolodny points out that one of “America's oldest and most cherished” fantasies is of a “harmony between man and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine—that is, not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female principle of gratification” (Lay 4). From Smiley's perspective (and Kolodny's), the land has been abused, and in discussing that abuse, Smiley uses the land as a metaphor for the body. Like the female body, the land has existed as something for men to control, possess, violate, and exploit. Larry Cook's nighttime excursions into his daughters’ beds parallel the gradual taking and accumulation of his neighbors’ land. In each situation, he is forcefully spreading himself over a “body,” asserting his power, control, and ownership of that body. He views his daughters, like the land, as his. Mother Earth or daughters Ginny and Rose, all are feminine bodies for him to assert his will over and to bury his seed within. (Caroline, the one daughter who avoided incest, is also the one whose life and career choices were least controlled by Larry)

The land-body metaphor works on another level; both the land and body have a hidden dimension, something that lurks beneath the surface. Ginny and the others from this midwestern farming community place a premium on keeping up appearances and repressing any confrontational, dangerous, or unruly emotions. In other words, the outward appearance of the body gives no sign of what lurks beneath. That is true of the Cook family; no one in the community could guess that the family's past hides incest and abuse. That is also true with the land; much is hidden beneath the surface, as Ginny explains: “There was no way to tell by looking that the land beneath my childish feet wasn't the primeval mold I read about at school, but it was new, created by magic lines of tile my father would talk about with pleasure and reverence” (15). “Man-made” technology has altered not only the surface of the land but the soil beneath; a hidden network of tile has made the land easier to work and has produced prosperity. In their efforts to master the land, however, men have been reckless and irresponsible (much as was Larry Cook with his daughters), and problems—“man-made” poisons and chemicals lurk beneath the surface prosperity.

Jess Clark, whether prophet or environmental alarmist, points out to Ginny and the others that they are paying for past exploitation by having to live on poisoned soil and well water. A symbol of female fertility, the land, like the daughters, has been violated by a male presence; the poisons of the past lie buried within, threatening the fertility of both the land and the daughters. Smiley suggests that Ginny's infertility results from drinking poisoned well water. The natural world is being destroyed and made artificial. Rose's daughters and Ginny swim not in the ponds and quarries, which have become either nonexistent or “brown and murky,” but in the town's concrete swimming pools. Smiley demonstrates how even in rural areas the simple, primitive catharsis that comes from immersion in natural water is becoming increasingly impossible: “What Rose and I once did in our pond, simply float on our backs for what seemed like hours, soaking up the coolness of the water and living in the blue of the sky, was impossible here [at the Pike swimming pool]” (95). Presumably the male impulse toward conquest and mastery has done such tremendous damage, to the land and to the daughters. Smiley's novel fits neatly into Kolodny's frontier mythology, which demonstrates that the American male traditionally has treated the land in terms of conquest, using violence and aggression if necessary, whereas the female, the American Eve so to speak, dreams of transforming the wilderness by cultivating a modest garden (precisely what the infertile Ginny has been doing in her back yard).

Smiley creates enough ambiguity about the apparent poisoning of the land to keep things interesting. The novel appears to advocate more environmentally sensitive farming techniques, although Smiley is unclear as to whether Jess Clark's warnings are sensible or ridiculous. To some degree, the potentially poisoned land plays the same role that the gods and the wheel of fortune play in Lear. Just as Gloucester blames his problems on “These late eclipses in the sun and moon” (I, ii, 101), Jess Clark is likely to explain Ginny's infertility and Larry's madness on the poisoned well water. Chemicals have replaced the gods, becoming the invisible and mysterious forces that influence our fate. Yet we must bear in mind Edmund's common sense warning in Lear: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars” (I, ii, 115–8)

In addition to giving the land a much greater role than did Shakespeare, Smiley fills in many of the gaps in the Lear family history. The missing mother, for example. The families of Lear, Gloucester, Cook, and. Clark have no matriarchal figures. (Some contend the absence of a so-called nurturing figure is the reason for the decline of these families.) Lear contains only a single reference to the deceased mother (and wife to Lear); Smiley provides us with an actual character: “She belonged to clubs, went to church … kept the house clean and raised us the same way the neighbors were raising their children, which meant that she promoted my father's authority and was not especially affectionate or curious about our feelings” (223). Mrs. Cook appears to have been a rather typical farm wife and mother except in one respect: “She had a history … and for us this history was to be found in her closet” (224). Like so much in the Cook family, Mrs. Cook's past exists, so to speak, in the closet; that is where Ginny and Rose find the seven pairs of high-heel shoes, the eight or ten hats with flowers and fruit, and the “tight skirts and full skirts and gored skirts, peplum waists, kick pleats, arrow like darts, welt pockets”—certainly not the typical wardrobe of a farm wife whose “present was measured out in aprons” (224). The beautiful and elaborate clothing, suggestive of a private rebellion from such a repressive environment, “intoxicated [Ginny and Rose] with a sense of possibility.” Though largely a mystery to her daughters, Mrs. Cook nevertheless offers, in this novel about daughters, hope for the future. Rose explains, “I used to fantasize that Mommy had escaped and taken an assumed name, and someday she would be back for us. … She was a waitress at the restaurant of a nice hotel, and we lived with her in a Hollywood-style apartment … neighbors on either side” (187). That dream of escape from the captivity of the farm becomes the course of action that Ginny actually takes. She leaves Ty and the farm, moves north to St. Paul, takes a waitressing job at Perkins, and settles into a two-bedroom garden apartment. (Hardly Edenic, it overlooks “the highway in the back and a little concrete stoop and my parking place out front.”)

Smiley also helps us better to understand the childhood of Ginny/Goneril and Rose/Regan through the creation of Rose's two daughters, Pam and Linda. Obviously without parallel in Shakespeare's play, the daughters of the cancer-ridden Rose offer a mirror into the past; they are in effect extensions or intimations of the adolescence of Ginny/Goneril and Rose/Regan. Like their mother and aunt, Linda and Pam are the daughters of a dying mother and approximately the same age as Ginny and Rose when their father sexually abused them. Through Linda and Pam, Ginny is able to imagine herself and Rose as adolescents and ponder Larry's behavior: “How could anyone approach them with ill intent? … But of course, it hadn't been their bodies, it had been ours” (193). The very presence of Linda and Pam also begs the question of whether the Cook/Lear cycle will continue. Will these daughters be abused or victimized in some manner? Smiley appears optimistic in this respect because Larry, the last male of the Cook line, is dead, and the farm, the institution that has in effect held these women captive, is lost. The novel began motherless—fathers were in authority and mothers were absent; it ends fatherless, with a woman raising daughters, suggesting if not a healthier at least a more supportive environment for females. Unlike their biological and adoptive mothers, Linda and Pam go from high school to college (at the age of forty Ginny, too, begins taking college courses in psychology), where presumably they will have better opportunities than Ginny and Rose ever had. Yet the end of A Thousand Acres is not particularly optimistic for either women or men. The hope for Eden, represented in the farm, has been lost, and the more urban alternative of concrete highways and franchise restaurants—a “man-made” country that is rootless, artificial, and somewhat numb—is hardly an attractive alternative.

Like most other versions of the Lear story, Smiley's text ends at a different place from Shakespeare's and with more surviving characters. Shakespeare's version, in which Lear carries in the body of the dead Cordelia, prompted Samuel Johnson to write, “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and … to the faith of chronicles” (296). The ending of Lear has been subject to historical controversy, most conspicuously in Nahum Tate's adaptation that restores the romantic ending found in the anonymous King Leir. A number of versions before Shakespeare's, in fact, allowed Lear and Cordelia to “prevail over their enemies,” with Lear “enjoy[ing] a few years of happiness with his ‘good’ daughter before his death” (Leggatt 6). However, even in the versions in which Cordelia and Lear survive, the happiness is only temporary. Cordelia's nephews, the children of Goneril and Regan, return after Lear's death and overthrow Cordelia.

A Thousand Acres holds true to the most typical version of the story in bearing its share of death, tragedy, and calamity; however, Smiley's novel is not nearly as unforgiving as Shakespeare's Lear. In Smiley's novel, Ginny is given a second chance, something that does not exist in tragedy. Smiley is the only author who allows the Goneril figure to survive, though others have let Cordelia live. In essence, Ginny has survived the abuse and transported herself away from the farm to a new city to start her life over. It is an afterlife of sorts. Escaping the burdens, secrets, and self-repression of her Iowa past, Ginny ostensibly hopes to begin to construct, or recover, a personality for herself. Some may argue that Ginny is worse off at the end of the novel (she has left a relatively good husband, a house full of possessions, and a network of acquaintances and friends to exist rather anonymously in exile), but to do so is to fall into a trap. By placing a greater value on Ginny's earlier existence, when she had clear objectives and was part of an industrious, ambitious family, is to buy into those patriarchal values that encouraged Ginny to be a good, stoic, nonconfrontational, polite daughter. Though a productive family life appears more socially acceptable than Ginny's current solitary exile, we must remember that her past was based on lies and deception; in the present she is undergoing a process of self-therapy. The woman who has imagined herself as a variety of animals (dog, horse, hog) is becoming a person, a woman, a voice. The key factor in this slow process is learning to remember and not to repress. The final words of the novel reveal Ginny's determination to remember and know what the others have forgotten or refused to see:

And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left

me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the

ability it confers, of remembering what you can't imagine. I can't say

that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose

never to remember—the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing

him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed,

when he wandered around the house late at night after working and

drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shard I

safeguard above all the others.


Ginny's decision to confront the past is nothing less than a victory, but one sees a mixed blessing in such a painful recovery.

Works Cited

Anderson, Jon. “Author Finds Ample Fodder in Rural Midwest.” Interview with Jane Smiley. Chicago Tribune. 24 November 1991: C1, C3.

Duffy, Martha. “The Case for Goneril and Regan.” Rev. of A Thousand Acres. Time 11 November 1991: 92.

Eliot, T. S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 175–78.

Gresset, Michel, and Noel Polk, eds. Intersexuality in Faulkner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1985.

Johnson, Samuel. “Notes on Shakespeare.” Selected Writings. New York: Penguin, 1968. 289–305.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Tracing a Lost Heathcliff and Finding a Natty Cad.” Rev. of H., by Lin Haire-Sargeant. New York Times. 23 June, 1992. B2.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P: 1984.

—. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P: 1975.

Le Sueur, Meridel. “The Ancient People and the Newly Come.” Ripening. Ed. Elaine Hedges. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.

Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Morgan, Peter E. “Foe's Defoe and La Jeune Nee: Establishing a Metaphorical Referent for the Elided Female Voice.” Critique 35.2 (Winter 1994): 81–96.

O'Donnell, Patrick, and Robert Con Davis, eds. Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.

Schiff, James A. Updike's Version: Rewriting The Scarlet Letter. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Pelican-Penguin, 1970.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Vickery, John B. Myths and Texts: Strategies of Incorporation and Displacement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

White, John J. Mythology in the Modern Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

Zipes, Jack. Don't Bet on the Prince. New York: Routledge, 1986.

Dale M. Bauer (review date July 1998)

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SOURCE: “Territorial Imperatives,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 15, Nos. 10–11, July, 1998, p. 28.

[In the following review, Bauer praises Smiley's presentation of political commitment in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.]

Jane Smiley's newest novel [The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton] plays continually with the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction and history: sentimental passages, picaresque plots, direct addresses to the reader. Her heroine's adventures could even be said to start by revising Jane Eyre's confession, “Reader, I married him” as “Reader, I buried him.” Lidie's story begins with her marriage, not to a Byronic lover like Mr. Rochester, but rather to an abolitionist named Thomas Newton, who brings her to “bloody Kansas” in the 1850s when that territory was the site of fierce hostilities between abolitionists (also known as free-soilers) and pro-slavery frontiersmen.

Unlike the nineteenth-century novels that Smiley is adapting, however, marriage is not the end of this young woman's career. Her husband's death frees Lidie to pursue her adventures, launching the novel into its second half, in which Smiley describes Lidie's quest for revenge against Thomas’ murderers, and, along the way, her discovery of her truly inventive self, especially her own sense of political commitment.

Readers will see a fully informed historical bent in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. The novel begins where Huckleberry Finn leaves off: with Lidie and her husband “lighting out for the territory.” But if in 1885, the year that Huck was published, there was not much wilderness left, in the 1850s the Territory had yet to become “sivilized”; it offers Smiley a splendid moral stage upon which to play out her heroine's conflicts over slavery and women's identity.

In the first pages of the novel, Smiley explains that Lidie Harkness, a “plain” and “useless” woman, went to a female seminary organized along the principles set out in Catharine Beecher's school. These principles included the virtues of domestic science, along with daily exercise for women, ventilation and free bodily movement of the sort that Amelia Bloomer was advertising in the decade of the novel's events. In school, Lidie learns the principles presented in Beecher's 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy, a famous advice book on managing the overwhelming details of a household and family. Yet as Lidie herself ironically declares, “that hole of kitchen work was one I didn't care to fall into.”

Smiley plays with Beecher's injunction against novel-reading: “Under the head of excessive mental action, must be placed the indulgence of the imagination in novel reading and castle building. This kind of stimulus, unless counterbalanced by physical exercise, not only wastes time and energies, but undermines the vigor of the nervous system.” Lidie does both: she reads Pride and Prejudice and she builds castles. What else is the idealistic mission of the abolitionists but to create a utopia for African Americans, and what better way than through literature for Smiley to prove that moral values can be taught through historical fiction?

Passages from Beecher's Treatise open every chapter and give Lidie's contrasting experiences a grounding not only in literary realism, but also in the imagination of history. Beecher's advice proves to be comically inadequate to the allegiance Lidie pledges to her new husband's cause in joining the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. As part of the contingent of homesteading abolitionists, Lidie and Thomas move to Kansas in order to stake out free territory and defend Kansas—with violence if necessary—against “border ruffians” and pro-slavery factions. Smiley borrows this detail from Beecher's life, too: Catherine's brother, Henry Ward Beecher, allegedly sent Sharps rifles, or “Beecher's Bibles,” along with the Free-Soilers who emigrated to Kansas. (Even the name Lidie takes when she cross-dresses belongs to the famous Beecher patriarch, Lyman—father of Catharine, Harriet and Henry.)

Once they reach the Kansas prairie and stake their claim, Lidie's observations become more and more self-conscious, illuminating the marriage of two individuals as well as that of people to the land. She remembers those early nights on their claim when she and Thomas were alone in their cabin: “The prairie had seemed so wide and pathless then, its emptiness as old as it was broad. That had lasted a few nights. How many? Fifteen? Twenty? That was the length of our honeymoon, the total accumulation of our innocence ….”

The brilliance of Smiley's novel lies in exactly such passages as these: through Lidie, Smiley gives credence to the gendered experience of this violent history. She gives us a glimpse of the fortitude and the sacrifices of women in Kansas territory, fighting alongside men and flourishing—through babies and business—at the same time. While Lidie does not produce or reproduce in the usual way, her experiences offer us a challenge to the ways women's history has often been told—as ending with a romance, with a man or with ideas.

Situating Lidie's adventures in American history also gives the tale wider scope, since readers are being introduced to the history of a territory where gender difference meant less than political differences about slavery and freedom. Toward the end of the novel, once Lidie has miscarried and been forced to abandon her cross-dressing, she encounters Lorna, a runaway slave in the service of the pro-slavery family that has taken her in and nursed her back to health. Earlier, Lidie and Thomas had helped this same enslaved woman by providing money for her escape. Now Lorna invents a new “plot” for the two women, a plan to escape to the North.

This last section of the novel rewrites the ending of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which the female slaves—Cassy and Emmeline—escape Legree's sexual terrorism. But now one of the fugitives is white and it is the slave, Lorna, who forces her to comply. This episode is reminiscent of the recognition plots in so many novels of the 1800s, where long-lost relatives and lovers are separated and reunited. In Smiley's version, Lidie recognizes her black female partner as a kindred spirit, a family more meaningful to her than her stepsisters or her pro-slavery relatives, perhaps even more than her husband. Yet Lidie and Lorna are captured: Lidie goes to Boston to visit her in-laws; Lorna is sold South.

In the story's last pages, Lidie is conscripted to speak for the abolitionist cause—to tell “Lorna's story” and raise money for the cause. She is ambivalent about her ability to speak for the slave woman's desire to be free. She gives the lecture, but feels it as a “betrayal” of Lorna and herself, even though the lecture is a success. As Smiley concludes, “Giving testimony was more important than the testimony given.” Although Lidie's testimony is irresolute about the meaning of her adventures, the novel's account of Lidie's moral engagement is no less powerful because of these doubts and uncertainties.

Like Catharine Beecher's treatise and Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel, Smiley's work revels in details. We need only remember that Harriet was a chronic invalid, often suffering attacks of blindness upon contemplating the prospect of so many household tasks, what she called “the dark side of domestic life.” While Smiley's 452-page narrative might be overly mired in these details about life in the Kansas Territory, her remarkable heroine glosses these details about the “dark side” of abolitionist politics, as well as the danger of the most politically idealistic of projects in pre-Civil War territory. Smiley's success comes in her vast and challenging perspective on the drama of political commitment.

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 25 September 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1985

SOURCE: “Sold South,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 25, 1998, p. 22.

[Oates is the author of several novels, including Man Crazy. In the following review, she asserts that while there are some well-written individual scenes in Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, the novel does not work as a whole.]

What's in a title? There is a certain gravity signalled by such ponderous nineteenth-century titles as War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Red and the Black. The discreet alliterations of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, still more Peregrine Pickle, suggest gravity lightened by wit. There are tersely symbolic and “poetic” titles—The Golden Bowl, The Cherry Orchard, The Rainbow, To the Lighthouse, The Crucible—that remain classy and fashionable. There are pointedly allusive titles—The Sound and the Fury, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Violent Bear It Away, A Flag for Sunrise, The Beautiful Room Is Empty—that evoke a literary tradition that envelopes the current work and, it is hoped, enhances it as a more mundane title would not. The oldest, most austere and dignified title-category is one involving a proper name—from Medea to Lolita, Moby-Dick, Dombey and Son and Herzog. There are literary works that identify themselves as writings, like Notes from Underground, Confessions of a Mask, Notebook (Robert Lowell). Closely related to such titles is the self-referential, self-conscious parody-title—John Cheever's Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, The Great American Novel by Philip Roth, John Barth's “Title”, The Death of the Novel and Other Stories by Ronald Sukenick.

A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley, a Midwestern retelling of King Lear from a feminist perspective, takes its thematically appropriate title from Walt Whitman; her rather mild satire, Moo (1995), derives its title from a slang term for a Midwestern “cow college” (that is, a land-grant agriculture school). The brash title of her new, mock-nineteenth-century novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, signals the comic picaresque, and prepares the reader for looseness, if not laxity, of structure; there is a postmodernist archness here on uneasy terms with the actual adventures of the earnest young woman narrator, which we discover to be imagined, at least partly, as a solemn moral corrective to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (A few years ago, Smiley dared to suggest in a controversial article that Twain's classic is not the American masterpiece everyone claims. This quixotic gesture had the effect one would expect, similar to that of denying the “divine inspiration” of the Bible in the American Bible Belt.)

True to its title, Illinois-born Lidie Newton's account of her inconclusive adventures in the frontier “Bleeding Kansas” (pre-Civil War Kansas Territory in the 1850s) is action-oriented, presented more as a pageant of assiduously researched episodes than as an integrally structured novel. Dramatic focus isn't felt until nearly the halfway point, when, after a very long preparation, Lidie's Abolitionist husband, Thomas Newton, is shot by pro-slavery Border Ruffians. Throughout, Lidie is observant and good-hearted, but not a very subtle thinker; she is plain-spoken in her speech as she is “plain”—even “ugly”—in her person. Her sensibility is unfeminine, yet oddly sexless: “I could neither ply a needle nor play an instrument. I knew nothing of baking or cookery, could not be relied upon to wash the clothes … nor lay a fire in the kitchen stove. My predilections ran in other directions, but they were useless. … I could ride a horse astride, saddle or no saddle. … I could bait a hook and catch a fish.”

Unlike her distinguished predecessor Huck Finn, Lidie has no gifts of comic exaggeration or devastating irony; she sees people and things in a forthright manner, lacking even the social strategies of feminine coyness and subterfuge—“I did not have the tiny hand you read about in books.” Lidie's voice, especially at the outset of her adventures, in her twenty-first year, has a monochromatic blandness that fails to communicate emotion or urgency:

I was elated to see my husband and to know that our side had suffered no losses. And the Missourians with their slave woman had run off. Some festering that had promised to disturb us was now averted. Thomas, himself elated and chilled with his adventure, matched my gladness at his return with his own.

In the slow-moving first half of the novel in particular, as Smiley methodically constructs her fictionalized “real” world, Lidie reports history to us in virtually the voice of a novelist's notes, richly detailed and yet somehow colourless. There's a hurlyburly of activity in KT (as Kansas Territory is called), perhaps too much to be absorbed and made personal:

It was said that meanwhile the Border Ruffians were massing for a fight at Franklin. The carbines were needed in town, and Thomas was, too. All the men in Lawrence were busy drilling and building earthworks and talking of strategies for defense, but Lawrence was all too vulnerable—approachable from almost any direction, and especially open from the bluff. Against a real attack, with artillery and cavalry charges, the people of Lawrence could not defend themselves. … There were thousands of Missourians massed to attack Lawrence, and the first thing they did was sit and wait, allowing their numbers to swell and the people of Lawrence to ponder their fate. …

How to make “history” dramatic? By going inward, away from the generic and reportorial, into strangeness, distortion and hallucination. Stephen Crane had no first-hand experience of war and knew little of the Civil War when he wrote his impressionistic masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage, at the extraordinary age of twenty-four; Cormac McCarthy assiduously researched the American West, yet invented for his Gothic masterpiece Blood Meridian a voice of apocalyptic rhapsody and lunatic obsession.

Lidie Newton, as her very name suggests, is too “normal” a sensibility for a novel of such length and ambition. She is too simple to engage our interest, except as a vehicle for a churning plot; when she makes a remark with a quotable ring, “We are Americans now, husband. We don't know where we are going or what for, nor do we know anyone we're travelling with. But we're perfectly certain it will all turn out best in the end”, it is in a context in which it makes little narrative sense, for the anti-slavery activist Thomas Newton, smuggling state-of-the-art Sharps rifles into Kansas Territory, knows exactly where he's going, and Lidie is well aware of his intentions. Her own “disputatious” manner is at odds with her initial lukewarm feelings about slavery, which doesn't seem very convincing; we have the uneasy feeling that Lidie's character is being contrived so that, later in the narrative, she'll be converted to a passionate Abolitionism. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a picaresque tale lacking a sufficiently bold picaresque voice.

Yet Jane Smiley is one of our most gifted writers, and Lidie Newton contains vividly rendered individual scenes. The scene in which both Lidie's husband of ten months and her horse Jeremiah are wantonly killed is expertly rendered, and reverberates long afterwards with the depth of pathos we have come to expect in the author's more layered, psychologically realistic work. Smiley is one of those rare contemporary writers who can create animal characters without sentiment or exaggeration, and I intend no backhanded praise in saying that Lidie's Jeremiah is the novel's most estimable and sympathetic character, akin to the wonderful horses of Smiley's early farm novel Barn Blind. (Many a reader, dry-eyed at the death of the too good, too perfect and priggish Thomas Newton, will wipe away tears at the death of Jeremiah.) When Lidie's young boy-cousin Frank enters the scene, there's a quickening of interest, for the increasingly ungovernable boy is a version of Twain's Tom Sawyer, caught up in potentially deadly Free Soil guerrilla agitation in the wake of Border Ruffian violence and the Messianic raids of the Abolitionist “Captain” John Brown. A Missouri slaveholder who proposes to Lidie is a virtuoso of passionate bigotry, whose speeches are far more lyric than those of the Abolitionists:

This the tragedy of our institution [slavery], not that we have these relationships of superiority and inferiority … but that money has entered in and corrupted everything like a disease! You know why the slave is unhappy in his work? Not because he is a slave, but because he knows he represents a certain amount of money, a thousand dollars, say. He thinks that because he represents a thousand dollars, he is a thousand dollars, walking around. He feels himself rich! He's distracted from his God-given purpose on this earth, which is to serve. … The so-called master and mistress serve the selfsame thing! We are all servants! The land is the master!

The far more tightly constructed second half of the novel revolves around Lidie's desire for revenge against the men who have killed her husband and Jeremiah, and her attempted rescue of a Negro slave named Lorna, in a plot that self-consciously parallels the concluding chapters of Huckleberry Finn. Having expressed her dissatisfaction and disapproval of Twain's novel (which was after all published not in 1998 but in 1884), Jane Smiley seems to have intended to “correct” Huck's, or Twain's, acknowledgement of the Negro slave Jim's humanity, deemed insufficient by contemporary standards. Lidie Newton is therefore portrayed as condescending to the older slave woman, and even less than her equal in many respects. Smiley surely intended Lorna to be a complex “black” character, a natural-born sage and something of a feminist, but Lorna somehow fails to convince, and simply disappears from the narrative—abruptly and irrevocably—when Lidie's plot to rescue her is thwarted, and Lorna is “sold south” by the Missouri slaveholder. Lidie's hope of revenging her murdered husband also comes to nothing when she loses conviction and throws her loaded pistol under her bed.

It is admirable that Jane Smiley should present so flawed and inept a protagonist, resisting the creation of a “heroic” liberated woman of the 1850s, yet Lidie's lacklustre self begins to weary. Unlike Smiley's more typical protagonists, gripped in the jaws of obsession like the “barn-blind” mother of Barn Blind (1994), the Lear-like incestuous patriarch of A Thousand Acres and the utopian farmer-carpenter of the compelling novella Good Will, Lidie seems simply to lack passion as well as intellect and to be inadequate to expectations set into motion by the very title The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Her indecisiveness she attributes to a KT penchant for believing “two contradictory things to be true at the same time”; but the historical fact of Bleeding Kansas, still less the devastating Civil War soon to come, hardly confirms this interpretation. Lidie's statements about herself—“Now I was a new person, one I had never desired or expected to be”—seem only rhetorical; even her marriage has not affected her physically; when she disguises herself as a boy to move among enemy pro-slavers in Missouri, the masquerade is far too easy. So remote is this picaresque novel from convincingly depicting the vulgarity, mundane brutality and bawdiness of frontier Kansas-Missouri, its characters, Lidie among them, exude no sexuality and seem scarcely to inhabit their physical bodies.

The prevailing subject of Jane Smiley's more characteristic and more finely honed work has been the brave confrontation of loss; specifically, the loss of a rural American Eden and the family life bound up with it. At the conclusion of the elegiac Good Will, a tale of such loss, the protagonist recognizes himself as an individual who misunderstood the nature of the wishes he had been granted: “The moral of all wish tales is that, though wishes express power or desire, their purpose is to reveal ignorance: the more fulfilled wishes, the more realized ignorance.” This is Jane Smiley's true theme, which has evoked her considerable gifts in the past and which will surely evoke them again.

Catherine Cowen Olson (essay date Autumn 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4395

SOURCE: “You Are What You Eat: Food and Power in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1, Autumn, 1998, pp. 21–33.

[In the following essay, Olson studies the relationship between food and power in Smiley's A Thousand Acres.]

I'm the angriest person in the restaurant; I'm the only angry person in the restaurant.” So laments Jane Smiley in her 1993 article, “Reflections on a Lettuce Wedge.” In this self-described “diatribe” against the dullness of midwestern cooking, Smiley complains that she is fed up with eating at restaurants where “the salad” is a wedge of … iceberg lettuce floating in bright orange ‘French’ dressing,” where patrons gladly pay top dollar for “instant mashed potatoes” and “machine-formed turkey breast.” “Why do midwesterners hold their tastebuds in lower esteem than everyone else in the whole world, even the notorious British?,” she demands to know.

Anyone who reads A Thousand Acres cannot help asking this same question about the eating habits of the farmers who inhabit this midwestern novel. Smiley's aptly named Cook family is always cooking or eating, and much of the food sounds heavy and unappetizing. Most of us cringe to think of Midwest-Mex garbanzo bean enchiladas or pork liver sausages canned with sauerkraut (to say nothing of tuna noodle casserole), yet these are foods that her characters prepare and expect their family and friends to eat—never mind enjoy. What does Smiley mean by constantly placing her characters in front of a plate—especially when that plate is so often filled with bland, stick-to-the-ribs food? “Reflections on a Lettuce Wedge,” gives us lots of hints. Here, she argues that midwesterners don't demand better food because they have “internalized” an “‘Anything is good enough for me’ attitude.” Quoting one of Garrison Keillor's radio monologues, she says that midwesterners learn “early” the “‘Who do you think you are?’ lesson—as in, ‘Who do you think you are to aspire to something more beautiful, more exotic, or more unusual than what is put before you?’”

Every one of her characters in A Thousand Acres is well-versed in this midwestern asceticism. In fact, we can draw a direct connection between the blandness of the food the Cook family eats and the self-denying, pinched lives they live. This novel deals largely with the complications that lie beneath the calm, healthy appearances of midwestern farm life. And what could seem more harmless than bland food? The spiceless meat-and-potatoes dishes that the characters choke down are all so undisguised that we are tempted to assume that nothing could be simpler. However, as Smiley says, these meals where “ingredients” are “juxtaposed but not allowed to mingle” represent “despair incarnate” (“Reflections”). The lack of flavor suggests zestless living—a hunger for something more satisfying. Furthermore, even the raw ingredients that make up the Cook family meals are more insidious than they seem. Supposedly pure well water turns out to be laced with poisons that furtively kill off the women and cause their miscarriages; vegetables are chock full of insecticides, and meats are tainted with drugs. Also, cooking itself appears deceptively unimportant but proves to be a source of both power and oppression. Initially, the oldest daughter, Ginny, dutifully plays the role of family hash-slinger and views herself as a minor player next to the men who tend the profit-making cornfields and pigs. But as she awakens to her own self-worth—and to the realization that her father has slept with his own daughters, that her sister Rose has slept with her lover, and that the men in her family have sacrificed their integrity, their wives, and their children for their land—cooking food and serving it becomes her means of asserting power and gaining freedom. From the opening scene at Harold Clark's pig roast, to the last page of this novel, where Ginny reflects on the connection between her sin of poisoning Rose's sausages and her father's incest, food and the way it is served mirror her submission to and final rebellion against the Cook family patriarchy.

In an interview with the journal Belles Lettres, Jane Smiley says that in writing A Thousand Acres she wanted to use the plot of King Lear to make an argument against our culture's habit of treating “nature and women … as exploitable objects” (37)—as “owned things” (36). “Feminists,” she argues in another article in Time, “insist that women have intrinsic value, just as environmentalists believe that nature has its own worth, independent of its use to man” (Duffy, 92). Clearly, Larry Cook does not view his daughters as having “intrinsic worth”—nor did his father or grandfather. To Larry, his daughters are possessions. “We were just his, to do with as he pleased,” Rose tells Ginny at one point, “like the pond or the houses, or the hogs or the crops” (191). So as his possessions, their time is his, and they spend their lives in a flurry of chores that he directs.

One thing that takes up much of their time is preparing their father's food. Fearing his disapproval, Ginny and Rose cook exactly what he wants and serve his meals with military punctuality at six, twelve, and five on their appointed days of each week. As the novel opens, we learn that, because of Rose's mastectomy, Ginny has spent her spring “cooking for three households,” hers, her father's, and Rose's. She cooks breakfast in each separate kitchen every morning, in a three and a half hour schedule that “start[s] before five and [does]n't end until eight-thirty” (7). Ginny's father refuses to have his breakfast anywhere except in his own kitchen, even though Rose lives only a few feet away across the road. Furthermore, he never goes to restaurants, except “the café in town”—and even then, never after his noon meal (48). So his daughters have to cook for him, and always he demands a strictly followed menu. At breakfast, he always wants eggs. On Tuesday evenings, when it is Ginny's turn to have him over, he has the same thing every week—“pork chops baked with tomatoes, … fried potatoes, a salad, and two or three different kinds of pickles” (47). On Fridays, when Rose cooks for him, she has to make the same thing every week too. If Larry's supper is not ready exactly at five, when he expects it, he is surly and impatient. “He resisted efforts to change his habits,” Ginny says of their culinary treadmill, “chicken on Tuesdays, or a slice of cake instead of pie, or an absence of pickles meant dissatisfaction, and even resentment” (48).

In short, Larry Cook is accustomed to getting his own way and ordering his daughters about as he pleases. They do not dare question him openly but just act at his prompting. It is fitting then, that we first see him wield his psychological power at a crass pig roast. Here, he cedes control of his land—but not without vindictively cutting his daughter Caroline out of his will when she expresses even a hint of doubt. The morning after this pig roast, we get another, more disturbing glimpse of how much he throws his weight around. That morning, as Ginny goes back to her usual routine of cooking breakfast for her father, we see for the first time that every time he has her cook for him, he asserts his power to crush her self-esteem. Marv Carson, Larry's banker, joins them for breakfast on this day. Annoyed with Ginny for standing by as he and Marv eat the huge breakfast of “sausage, fried eggs, hash brown potatoes, cornflakes, English muffins, … toast, coffee and orange juice” that she has laid out for them, Larry barks, “You had anything to eat? What are you looking at?” When she replies that she has already eaten “with Ty,” her husband, he roars, “Well, then, sit down or go out” (28). He is greedily unappreciative of her efforts. At this same breakfast, Marv Carson tells Ginny about his peculiar regimen of forcing his body “to shed” its “toxins.” “I can spot someone in the toxic overload stage from a mile away,” he tells her portentously (29). Next, when he asks for “hot sauce,” preferably “Tabasco,” to help him “sweat,” her only reply is, “We don't eat much spicy food” (30). Spiceless is exactly what her life has been for so many years, and toxins are what she will soon shed as she and her sister begin to slough off their father's control and confront his incest.

Over and over, mealtime scenes like this suggest the Cook family's lifelong habit of restraining passions. Larry has such a hold on Rose and Ginny that they practice self-denial even in his absence. Even when they dream of escaping, they cannot fathom anything beyond waitressing in restaurants. And when they want to celebrate with a meal, they cannot imagine where to go. For example, not long after this breakfast with Marv, Ginny and Rose drive to Mason City for Rose's three month check-up after her mastectomy. If the news is good, their plan is to go out for lunch afterwards at the Brown Bottle, a moderately priced restaurant. When Rose's doctor tells her she is cancer-free, she is ecstatic, and declares, “Hey! Let's eat meat!” “I want to drink it all in, all the stuff I was going to miss” (58). Then she tells Ginny she wants to go somewhere more daring and “expensive.” However, her extravagant plans quickly dwindle from the “Starlight Supper Club” (a pricey eatery with “three kinds of herring on the salad bar,” 58), to the “Golden Corral” (a low-budget steak-house where they can spy on the prostitutes at the brothel next door), to Rose's finally surrendering with, “I think I'd rather go home. There's food there” (61).

Rose begins by saying she wants to do “something that would scandalize Daddy,” so why does she end up with such a practical response (59)? Is it guilt, entrenched asceticism, associations between these prostitutes, her mutilated body, and her own adolescent self having sex with her father? Any way we examine this scene, food, sex, and self-denial get intimately connected with Larry Cook. This is why Jess Clark is such an important character in this novel. He is sexy and rebellious. He traipses around without a shirt in skimpy running shorts—and he never hides what he thinks. In fact, he makes fun of the midwestern tendency to avoid delicate subjects: “The wisdom of the plains. Pretend nothing happened,” he says jokingly to Ginny at his father's pig roast (22). Furthermore, he stirs up Ginny's sexual longings and takes away the shame and dread she has always associated sex. Jess is also a vegetarian who wants to nurture the land through organic farming. He is the exact opposite of Ginny's wasteful father who gobbles down meat, overuses insecticides, and drains wetlands.

Moreover, Jess brings a leisure to their evening meals that contrasts sharply with her father's eat-and-run supper routine. When Jess comes over for supper just before Father's Day, Ginny notes that in her father's absence, “[they] ate with appetite and joked over [their] food in a way that was new for [them]” (100). With Jess there, they all laugh and tell old stories over their meal. But in a scene described on the next page of the novel—at Larry's house on Father's Day, the following Sunday—everyone is visibly tense. Ginny remembers that “the contrast” between the two meals “was clear.” Here, Larry Cook sits before a huge “crown pork roast,” snarling, “don't tell me what to do,” when Rose offers to help him carve it. “It was exhausting just to hold ourselves at the table,” says Ginny. “You felt a palpable sense of relief when you gave up and let yourself fall away … and wound up in the kitchen getting something, or in the bathroom running the water and splashing it on your face” (101).

As the novel's plot thickens, every meal with her father becomes more and more of a power struggle. In another poignant breakfast scene, after Ginny learns of Larry's reckless trip to Des Moines, his mysterious phone calls to Caroline, his new couch, and his kitchen cabinets that are rotting in the driveway outside his house, Ginny makes a “plan to let him have it” (115). She intentionally shows up after six a.m. and ignores his “accusing” glare as she walks into his yard (114). However, when she reaches the kitchen, she realizes that she has forgotten to bring him eggs (since apparently she does his shopping too). Faced with what she calls a “test”—either “to keep him waiting or … fail to give him his eggs”—she is reduced to groveling. She recalls, “My choice would show him something about me, either that I was selfish and inconsiderate (no eggs) or that I was incompetent (a flurry of activity where there should be orderly procedure)” (114). With such options, either way she fails. She ends up running back to her house to get the eggs—all the time imagining her father seeing her “naked,” with her “chest heaving, breast, thighs, and buttocks jiggling” clumsily down the road (114–15). Afterwards, she is angry with herself for being manipulated and not having the nerve to confront him. “I couldn't find a voice to speak in,” she recalls (115).

Later, though, Ginny does “find a voice,” first in the car on the way home from the hospital, and again the next day at the Pike café. The night of her father's accident, she scolds him, saying, “Rose or I will give you your breakfast at the regular time from now on, and you can just go out and work afterwards. We aren't going to let you sit around” (148). The next morning, she conspicuously leaves eggs off of his breakfast menu—something she knows he has always demanded—and tersely sends him out to work. Later that week, at lunch, Ginny and her father have the mealtime face-off that marks a turning point in the novel and ends all discussion between them. Ginny plans to keep him busy for a day by taking him “to the chiropractor,” “so he [can] be aligned after the shock of his accident,” and then out for lunch and shopping (169). At lunch she is fuming over his having forced her to wait in the hot car during his appointment. He had refused to walk the “block and a half” from the chiropractor's to the café, telling her, “You can window-shop some other time. … You wait. I want to ride” (173). Fearing the neighbor's gossip, she had backed down—but not without feeling bitter and stifled. “I hated the note of pleading that crept into my voice,” she confesses. “Where was the power I had felt only a few days before, the power of telling rather than being told?” (173). When they get to the café, even the food they order suggests her oppression. Ginny orders a “grilled cheese” sandwich, “chips,” a “pickle, and a Coke,” while her father has “roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes,” a utilitarian serving of “canned string beans, ice cream, [and] three cups of coffee” (174). His meal is hoggish, hers self-denying. He is ravenous; she has no appetite and eats only half of her sandwich.

Ginny uses the food at this meal as an excuse for “putting him in his place” (176). “You really shouldn't be eating all that. That's too much,” she scolds initially (174). Then the two of them begin a volley of accusations in which he insists the “girls” are “lazy,” power-hungry, and disrespectful now that they have control of the “farm,” and she calls him disrespectful too and argues, “I don't think you ever think about anything from our point of view” (175). By the time they leave the restaurant, he “begin[s] to huff and puff” so much that she backs down, promising to “try harder” after he urges, “You girls should listen to me” (176). He wins this argument—as he always does—but mixed with remorse over her “ungrateful thoughts” is a memory of the “deliciousness [she] had felt in putting him in his place” (176). She has spoken truth and will not turn back. That night—before he steals Pete's truck, and they all have their melee in the storm—she breaks his long-held routine and barbecues their Tuesday night pork chops, rather than baking them with tomatoes. He never shows up for this meal, though, and from this point forward, Ginny and Rose are no longer his obedient daughters.

When she sees her father five days later at the church potluck, he appears senile, almost unaware of who she is. His meal does not overpower hers anymore—in fact, their plates are matched rib for rib in their heaviness. Furthermore, he can no longer argue in his own behalf, and now Harold Clark speaks for him. This is one of the uglier, more violent scenes in the novel, where Harold tries to reclaim Larry's power by shaming his daughters at the supper table. Here, Harold strategically seats Larry's family at a table in the middle of the church hall, and then publicly proclaims Ginny and Rose “bitches” who have thrown their father “off his own farm” (218).

After this potluck supper, Ginny continues to cook and perform her farm wife's duties, but not without being aware of acting out a role for appearance's sake. Finally recalling the long-suppressed memory of her father's incest, and realizing that her husband Ty sides with the farm and not her, she questions all of the duties she has spent her life performing. Her lawyer's advice and sheer habit allow her to maintain a façade until the trial, but the day they win their suit, she cooks Ty one last supper of chops, potatoes, and brussels sprouts, and heads out the door for St. Paul—with his food still simmering on the stove. When she sees him again nearly three years later, her reaction is to “reduc[e] [her] links to the old life even more by investing in a microwave oven” (348). In leaving him, she exchanges her wife's apron for that of a waitress at a Perkins's restaurant—only now, her servitude gives her independence and self-esteem. She earns her own money, has her own apartment, and ironically discovers she is a superior waitress, good at empty small talk with customers, and better at her job than her co-workers. She even begins taking night classes in psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Ginny's solidarity with Rose as an incest victim is another thing that enables her to playact through most of the months leading up to the trial. However, once Ginny discovers Rose's affair with Jess, she turns against Rose too and plots to kill her with water hemlock-laced pork liver sausages. And what do we make of these pickled sausages anyway? Their obvious phallic associations make them laughable, despite their dark purpose. But they also have deep symbolic echoes that suggest Jane Smiley gave considerable thought to the water hemlock, pork, and liver that go into them. Let us examine these sausages more closely.

To begin, Ginny's choice of water hemlock suggests her feminine power and instinctive ties with the earth. Her poison is not manmade like the insecticides her father and husband have always used but grows wild in her part of Iowa. As she makes these sausages, she appears to be casting a spell, relishing how “Rose's own appetite [will] select her death.” “It was not unlike the feeling you get when you are baking a birthday cake for someone,” she recalls. “That person inhabits your mind. So I thought continuously of Rose” (313).

Furthermore, on the most obvious level, pigs connote filth, which in this case translates into the shame and dirtiness Ginny feels after discovering her father's incest. On a more subtle level, as food historian Magelonne Toussaint-Samat tells us, the pig has traditional associations with “lust” and “egotism” (Food, 423)—and what could be more lustful or egotistical than Rose's knowingly committing adultery with her sister's paramour? Liver also carries interesting connotations of bile and gall. In fact, “[T]he Roman poet Horace” considered the “liver” to be “the seat of the passions, particularly sensual love and anger” (Food, 434). Then there is the practical function that the liver serves in the body—as a filter for toxins—only in this case Ginny's sausages represent family poisons like incest, greed; jealousy, and emotional manipulation, “toxins” that Marv Carson had innocently alluded to earlier in the novel (29).

If, as the sausages portend, an apocalypse is coming to this farming dynasty, so is a rebirth. In her interview with Belle Lettres, Smiley says she wants the Cook family women “to not be destroyed by what [their] father has done to [them]”—but “to go into the future making lives for themselves” (37). Rose's switch to vegetarianism saves Ginny from becoming a murderer, and this is one ironic sign of hope. Also, looking more closely at the symbolism of the pig, we find that it actually suggests rebirth, in addition to filth, greed, and lust.

According to James Frazer, the pig has long been linked to regeneration myths that invoke the power of women. For example, the Egyptians linked the pig with Isis and Osiris. In one version of this myth, Osiris (a fertility god) was “slain or mangled by [his brother] Typhon [who disguised himself] in the form of a boar” (Frazer, 550). When Ginny grinds up her phallic pork sausages in her garbage disposal at the end of the novel, her actions echo Isis's resurrecting Osiris (her husband/brother) by throwing his remains—all but his penis—into the Nile. In Ginny's case, though, she resurrects not her father, but her own identity and self-esteem.

Furthermore, as Frazer tells us, the Greeks connected the pig with the myth of Demeter and Persephone. They saw “the pig [as] an embodiment of the corn goddess …, either Demeter or her daughter … Persephone.” He writes that the Greeks annually sacrificed the pig at “an autumn festival” called the “Attic Thesmophoria.” “Celebrated by women alone in October,” this festival simultaneously mourned Persephone's rape and unwilling “descent … into the lower world” as Hades's bride, and regaled “her return” in spring when she ushered in the sprouting crops. As part of this ceremony, the women would “throw pigs” into “sacred caverns or vaults,” which they called “the chasms of Demeter and Persephone.” Then at “the next annual festival,” they would fetch the “decayed remains of the pigs” and offer them at the “altar.” “Whoever got a piece of the decayed flesh … and sowed it with the seed-corn in his field,” says Frazer, “was believed to be sure of a good crop” (543–44).

Ginny leaves her husband and her sausages in October—the time of the Attic Thesmophoria—and does not return again until October three years later. Then, after Rose's death, she goes back to the farm in winter and retrieves her sausages from Rose's cellar—another underground cavern. Her life at the end of the novel is a tragic compromise similar to Demeter's arrangement to have Persephone return to earth for only part of each year. By this time, the Cook family has been transformed into a landless matriarchy with Ginny as hesitant guardian of Pam and Linda, the family's two remaining heirs. Ginny comes home reluctantly, initially feeling “galled” and “defeat[ed]” when she finds herself cooking fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy for her two nieces in her father's old “kitchen” (348). However, her resentment is short-lived, because suddenly it dawns on her that she makes the decisions now—not Rose, her father, or her husband. Cooking for the girls then becomes a nurturing act that will “bear fruit if” she is “patient” (349).

This novel closes with the sense that, however diminished Ginny's life may be, she can reclaim some remnants of love from her past and make a future for herself and her nieces. When she returns to the farm to divide “personal possessions” with her sister Caroline, she curiously leaves with nothing but her canned pickled sausages (357). That night, she dumps them down her garbage disposal, and with them go the “toxins” that weighed her down for so many years, “toxins” of repression, incest, jealousy, and greed, of unborn children, sisters, and mothers murdered by poisoned water and herbicides. In the aftermath, she may not be the ruler of a farming dynasty, as her forefathers were, but she has power over her own life and enough empathy for her father to recognize that her own dark “urge” to poison those sausages was the same “goad” that prompted him to steal his own daughters’ virginity (370–71).

“Eating is our oftenest repeated connection to our agricultural roots,” Smiley argues in “Reflections on a Lettuce Wedge.” Ironically, in Ginny's case, it is breaking her connection with her farm and her family—her agricultural roots—that makes her wake up to the environmental and familial abuses tied to the food that she and the other Cook family women have eaten and cooked all of their lives. By the end of this novel, Ginny remains a waitress who serves mostly men. Still, she and her nieces are shifting the balance of power in their relationship with food and its preparation. Ginny's psychology classes may lead to a degree that will end her life in food service, and most importantly, Pam and Linda already have more choices than Ginny and Rose did at their age. Pam has received a degree in music education, and most suggestively, Linda (the pre-business major) aspires not to cook food for her own family but to control its production from the corporate end at “General Foods” (369). As this novel closes, we sense that Ginny may not be able to protect her nieces from the greed and environmental destruction that they have inherited with their world, but she and they have both taken on a new “caution” and skepticism that will enable them to avoid repeating both the abuses of their forefathers and the helplessness of their mothers.


Duffy, Martha. “The Case for Goneril and Regan.” Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. Time, November 11, 1991, 92.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: MacMillan, 1951.

Smiley, Jane. “Belles Lettres Interview.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women. By Suzanne Berne. 7:4 (Summer 1992), 36–38.

———. “Reflections on a Lettuce Wedge.” Hungry Mind Review, 27 (Fall 1993), 13.

———. A Thousand Acres. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Toussaint-Samat, Magelonne. A History of Food. Trans. Anthea Bell. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1992.

Katie Grant (review date 24 October 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

SOURCE: “Fact or Fiction,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, October 24, 1998, p. 49.

[In the following review, Grant praises Smiley's creation of the character of Lidie Newton in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, but complains that the historical details get in the way of the story.]

Comparisons, I know, are odious. However, when a book never quite comes into its own, comparisons will, despite the best intentions, keep surfacing. According to the publisher's blurb, Lidie Newton, the heroine of Jane Smiley's latest book, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is on a par with Huck Finn or Isabel Archer in the roll of Great American Characters. Perhaps she might have been if the author had concentrated more on Lidie herself and less on a meticulously chronicled history of her time. As it is, the history gets in the way of the story. Real people, like General Lane or President Pierce, are dragged somewhat clumsily into the lives of the characters, but instead of coming to life themselves through the life of the novel, they kill some of the liveliness of the fictional characters.

Yet despite these caveats, there is no doubt that Smiley has alighted for her backdrop on a fascinating time in the unfolding of the American Dream. The period just before the Civil War, when Kansas was in turmoil over the ‘goose’ (slavery) question, when sectional violence combined with the weather to make life as uncomfortable as possible, and when towns grew or collapsed overnight, provides more than enough excitement and opportunity for a heroine whose perverse cultivation of domestic uselessness was ‘truly rare, or even unique, among the women of Quincy, Illinois’. However, Lidie's more masculine accomplishments make her the ideal mate for a ‘d … abolitionist’ who is heading west to promote the cause of free statism in KT (Kansas Territory).

Smiley is at her best describing the broadening of Lidie's consciousness and her fascination with her marriage and her man. Their deepening relationship, with its surprising pleasures and disappointments, is beautifully and unsentimentally observed. She prefaces each chapter with a quotation from a classic household handbook which reminds us how it is domestic rather than national events which, for the most part, dictate how even undomesticated women live their lives. Times may be chaotic but men must still have shirts on their backs and food in their stomachs. Smiley sympathetically shows Lidie coming to terms with her role as a wife whilst losing none of her spirit. When Lidie wonders occasionally if this is really what her life is all about, Smiley perfectly captures the uncertainties of early marriage, whether in times of peace or violence.

Sadly, after Lidie's husband is killed, the book rather collapses into a plot which seems contrived and an ending which might usefully have come sooner. Smiley's creations start behaving out of character—Lidie's wild and entrepreneurial young step-brother suddenly, at the end, becomes a model of small-town probity—and some of the dialogue between Lidie and the southern belle she falls in with feels like a poor imitation of Gone with the Wind. The book begins to lose its way almost as if Smiley suddenly lost interest and had to think up ways to finish it.

Nevertheless, even if The All-True Travels does not rank amongst the greats, Smiley's Lidie Newton provides another insight into the story that is America. It is not her fault that she is neither Scarlett O'Hara nor Isabel Archer. The only trouble is that one has a sneaking suspicion that had Smiley not been so seduced by demonstrating her extensive knowledge of 1850s American history, Lidie Newton might have had more chance of taking her proper place in the pantheon of American literature.

Barbara Mathieson (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “The Polluted Quarry: Nature and Body in A Thousand Acres,” in Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, St. Martin's Press, 1999, pp. 127–44.

[In the following essay, Mathieson discusses how Smiley presents nature and man's relationship to it in A Thousand Acres.]

The recognition of nature's shaping influence on human identity is a fundamental recognition, one that is shared by many non-Western cultures. Severing or denying human dependency on our relationship with nature is necessary only to the construction of the master identity, which lies at the center of the alienation of Western culture. …

—Greta Gaard1

“Different views on Nature,” writes John Danby, “are not differences of opinion only. They are felt as so many stubborn holds that reality has on us and we on it. They are such meanings as can become concrete people.”2 Noting the more than 40 uses of “nature” and derivative words in Shakespeare's King Lear, Danby argues that Lear can be understood as “a play dramatizing the meanings of the single word ‘Nature.’”3 In Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres, a contemporary adaptation of King Lear, the natural world of elemental forms and forces similarly provides the tapestry into which human choices and acts are woven. The epigraph from Meridel Le Sueur with which Smiley prefaces the novel insists upon the interconnections between the human organism and its physical environment: “The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other.” Smiley's landscape not only creates a backdrop for her narrator Ginny's changing sense of her own organic life but, like the great storm that parallels Lear's tempest in the mind, suffers a violation analogous to that visited upon Ginny's body.

The nature of Nature, however—its imagery, power, scale, and relationship to human life—differs vastly in the two works. Indeed, just as the shifting meanings of the term “nature” within Shakespeare's play have been explored by critics such as Danby and Robert Heilman as one key to King Lear, so, too, the developing pattern of the natural landscape in Smiley's novel unfolds a narrative of loss, alienation, and exploitation. An early signal occurs in Smiley's title, in which the land itself displaces the eponymous human protagonist of Shakespeare's play as the focal figure. The “thousand acres” of land and all that it represents in terms of power, status, place, and spirit is arguably the site of tragedy and loss in the modern novel and the true claimant for our compassionate pity and respect. The early modern tragedy of a great individual thus gives way in the late twentieth century to a tragedy of the natural world and of the interconnected lives that Nature supports.

Smiley dramatically revises King Lear’s father-daughter story by using Ginny, her Goneril character, as the narrator. She retells the Lear story with characters recognizably similar to Shakespeare's beneath their modern dress and contemporary Iowa farm setting. This cast of characters participates in a critique of social and political assumptions familiar to us from King Lear, the dominant order of their lives disintegrating as the polite lies of family love and interpersonal relationship are unmasked, and a profound sense of vulnerability emerging as comfortable myths are sandblasted away. In Smiley's most daring act of revision, she draws on suggestions made earlier by Coppélia Kahn4 and Lynda Boose5 to shape the novel around an incest story, thus creating a domestic history for the violent breach between Lear and his two oldest daughters. Though the bulk of critical attention has focused on intertextual matters and, like the recent movie version, on the impact of incest, Smiley is equally radical in linking the social, political, and personal problems of patriarchy inherent in Shakespeare's play with a twentieth-century awareness of the physical domination and economic exploitation of the natural world by industrialized human cultures.

It is on this arena of the natural realm and our human relationship to it that I want to focus, for Smiley's treatment of Nature exploited and poisoned reveals a uniquely twentieth-century tragic view. Just as Lear represents “all societies where there is a tradition of privilege” and the blind spots inherent to them,6 so the concerns underlying Smiley's popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel speak immediately to readers in this century of ecological crisis. In examining the novel and its real differences from Shakespeare's earlier vision, I will make ample use of the rich analytic tool chest offered by the burgeoning philosophical and political position known as ecofeminism. Ecofeminist writers echo Smiley's concerns both for a loss of connection between the human and natural realms and for the interrelated exploitations of women and of our natural world. If we examine the novel through the lens of current ecofeminist analysis of our cultural and ecological situation, the parallel between incest and natural abuse becomes clear. The implied future Smiley depicts is, if anything, more bleak and less hopeful than the ending of King Lear.

Uniting the approaches of feminism and ecology, ecofeminism explores the connections between anthropocentrism and patriarchy. Both Nature and women have shared a common history of objectification in the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition. Justifications for the exploitation of the natural world rest upon a conceptual hierarchy of dualisms similar to those underlying the domination of women by men. The question posed by Sherry Ortner's groundbreaking 1974 essay, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?”7 brought out of the shadows the conflation implicit in the philosophical tradition of the West. In the pairings of putatively opposed terms made familiar by 30 years of feminist commentary, the first in each pair traditionally represents a possibility construed as superior: man/woman, culture/nature, spirit/body, reason/emotion, master/slave.8 To this listing, ecofeminists add and highlight an additional pairing, human/animal, which has connected the logic of patriarchy to the broader arena of human ego-centrism at least since the advent of our mission to “subdue” the earth and to hold “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”9 In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Australian philosopher Val Plumwood interrogates the term “nature” to reveal

a field of multiple exclusion and control, not only of non-humans, but of various groups of humans and aspects of human life which are cast as nature. Thus racism, colonialism and sexism have drawn their conceptual strength from casting sexual, racial and ethnic difference as closer to the animal and the body construed as a sphere of inferiority, as a lesser form of humanity lacking the full measure of rationality or culture.10

In response to concern that the parallels scrutinized by ecofeminists reinstate the woman-nature identification used for centuries to devalue women's qualities, Plumwood observes that merely “to say that there are connections, for instance, between phallocentrism and anthropocentrism, is not to say anything at all about women in general being ‘close to nature.’”11

A number of ecofeminists have attempted to discover a common origin for the devaluations of women and Nature. In The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant suggests that until the Renaissance, “the root metaphor binding together the self, society, and the cosmos was that of an organism.”12 With increasing commercialism and industrialization, however, “new ideas, those of mechanism and of the domination and mastery of nature, became core concepts of the modern world.”13 Her argument, allied with John Danby's interpretation of the competing versions of nature in King Lear, discovers in the Scientific Revolution and the rise of industrial society a rupturing of the traditional vision of a vital nurturing force connecting the human and natural realms. In the current period of ecological crisis, Merchant continues, “Western society is once more beginning to appreciate the environmental values of the premechanical ‘world we have lost,’” with its faith in the nonhierarchical interdependency of all elements of life: male and female; human, mineral, plant, and animal.14

Just as many members of the African-American, gay, and feminist communities have long predicted that the historic oppression each group has separately experienced will be addressed effectively only by a united front, so, argue ecofeminists such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, women can never achieve fully equal status with men until the rest of the devalued terms in the pairings are also “liberated” from our hierarchical thinking. Ruether envisions a future in which “mutual interdependency replaces the hierarchies of domination as the model of relationship between men and women, between human groups, and between humans and other beings.”15 The rifts generated during long centuries of inequality and alienation between sexes, classes, and ethnic groups, and between humans and the natural world, suggests Ruether, can only be healed holistically: the alienation must be eliminated simultaneously in all classes, including human and nonhuman. From this point of view, Smiley's incorporation of the incest theme and her treatment of the natural world, with its myriad abused forms of land, water, and plant and animal life, are actually two sides of a single coin.

Contrasting a pair of images from Shakespeare's play with one from the novel reveals the extremely different manner in which each work invites the audience to view Nature and to visualize the human form within its context. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Edgar's creatively conceived perspective from the cliffs of Dover where he has led his father offers a dizzying image of vast natural spaces that dwarf human occupants of the scene:

Come on, sir, here's the place. Stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one's eyes so low.
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half-way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice, and yon tall anchoring barque
Diminished to her cock. …(16)

Although this fantasized view invented for his father's benefit is not objectively “true,” Edgar nonetheless speaks truly of the perspective generated by the looming presence of the natural world. Captured visually in the endless spaces suggested by Peter Brook's film version, Shakespeare provides a vast context that envelops individual lives within a complex continuum of meanings beyond the human and social. That context determines our human perspective; within the presence of the natural world, we human actors are able to view and assess each instance of life. Nature, as Edgar's speech reveals, is the central point of reference from which human experience acquires its relative scale. Against the immensity of Dover's cliffs, birds and fisherman diminish visibly.

Similarly, only within the context of heath and unrelenting storm does Lear's own experience acquire the meaning that we accord it. Awesome, potentially violent, and outside of human control, the great storm of Act III offers a reference point against which Lear's own drama must be measured and correctly comprehended. Initially contending with the storm, shaken by thunder and drenched in the deluge of rain, Lear finally understands the fragility of authority and power, the community of all “poor naked wretches,” the essence of the human as a “poor, bare, forked animal.” Only from within this elemental environment can Lear attain a true perspective and a genuine comprehension of his own position. Though the daughters for their transgressions are labeled “unnatural hags,” implying that to be natural would be more kind, Shakespeare's Nature is both benevolent and violent. Lear begs the raging storm essentially to destroy the world: “Strike flat the thick rotundity o'th’ world,/ Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once.”17 As Marilyn French notes, “Natural imagery is used to express the entire gamut of human experience. It describes human feelings, vices, and situations. Nature oppresses humans and animals, and sustains them.”18 In this multifaceted vision, whether Nature is bountiful or terrible, its presence provides a pervasive and powerful presence.

John Danby argues that Shakespeare's nature imagery reveals the Renaissance contention over the essential nature of Nature. Danby locates the assumptions and speeches of Gloucester, Edgar, Albany, and Lear himself in the orthodox Elizabethan view of a rational, orderly, and benevolent Nature, arranged and supported by divine will. In stark contrast stands the pre-Hobbesian view of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, for whom the natural world is a “dead mechanism,” divorced from divine meaning and susceptible to individual, rationalist manipulation and control. Thus, the unresolved question as to the degree of consciousness and creative power inhering in Nature creates an intellectual and spiritual controversy that underlies the narrative of King Lear. Nature herself, however, clearly marked by the feminine gender, is invoked by both sides as a goddess, a great and transcendent force in human life.19 Can any conceivable force negate the power and endurance of the storm and the cliff, of the goddess herself? At the end of King Lear, the raging natural elements are quiet again but have never been disarmed; similarly, human bonds, both personal and political, are reforged after enormous pain and loss. The regeneration implies a temporary victory, a cyclical reemergence from the realm of upheaval and tragic suffering that doubtless will recur innumerable times. Although the intellectual controversy remains unresolved, Nature's power remains unchanged.

In contrast to Shakespeare's natural point of reference for the human figure, Smiley's narrator, Ginny, opens the novel with her childhood remembrance of the world as seen from the rise near her farm, apparently flattened and dominated by the human presence:

From that bump, the earth was unquestionably flat, the sky unquestionably domed, and it seemed to me when I was a child in school, learning about Columbus, that in spite of what my teacher said, ancient cultures might have been onto something. No globe or map fully convinced me that Zebulon County was not the center of the universe.20

The self and the human construction of farm, home, and work provide the center to the characters in A Thousand Acres, the reference point for their perspectives, the high point of a flat world that has been successfully mapped, demarcated with roads, and rendered functional for human use.

Use of the verb “seemed” in the above passage, indicating an illusion in the past tense, allows Ginny to repudiate this naive perspective from her more mature position. Although the scale of the novel's flat landscape differs entirely from King Lear’s cliffs, the narrator unlearns her misperception of human centrality in the course of the novel and gains a core of new knowledge not unlike that which Lear achieves: human power to possess and parcel out land is as fragile and easily reversed as the stability of social and familial bonds. Ginny comes to realize the self-serving falsity of the vision that “what is, is, and what is, is fine.”21 Faith in human control over the physical world is part of the “right order” invoked with irony throughout the novel, a false confirmation of the value and inevitability of human life that is cherished for the comfort of the listeners but ultimately must be abandoned as an illusory perspective.

Greta Gaard comments upon the “shortsighted” perspective endemic to modern Western cultures that absorption in the close, the human, and the man-made carries with it:

It is a physical and metaphoric fact that most inhabitants of Western culture are shortsighted. Whether engaged in factory work or a desk job, detasseling corn or driving on a highway, the eyes of Western culture are focused on the immediate task at hand. We are more accustomed to looking for parking spaces or concealed weapons than purple finch or elk. … The visual shift to a wilderness orientation is nowhere so evident as it is upon return to the sights of Western culture. There, a kind of figure/ground shift often occurs: where one had focused only on the artifacts of culture, those artifacts become background to the figure of nature.22

Like Smiley's narrator, Gaard argues, we have lost the long view, the broader perspective that can locate the human figure clearly within nature's context, as occurs in wilderness. Unfortunately signaling the absence of new insight for Smiley's “shortsighted” characters, however, no powerful, compensatory image from the natural landscape, such as Edgar's cliffs, emerges during the course of A Thousand Acres to replace the discredited vision of a flattened world or of human centrality within it.

Within this shrinkage of the natural world, the great storm of King Lear, though still the background for a cataclysmic disintegration of family, becomes in itself merely a minor inconvenience in A Thousand Acres: television is disrupted; the electricity is temporarily lost. Smiley does not allow the reader to enter the elemental force of the storm, to feel its power or its violence firsthand. Using the background of the storm to set off Rose's revelations of childhood sexual violation, Smiley shifts the psychological analogy to the storm from Lear/Larry's inner turmoil to the daughters’. The power and dislocation of that inner emotional storm displaces the terror of the physical storm outside; the outer storm is experienced only from within the relative safety of a house that neutralizes its awesome violence.

Visualizations of the natural world in images of breathtaking beauty do proliferate in the early pages of the novel, although Smiley repeatedly presents them as a lost pastoral vision. “Nature” as a transcendent force, as a structuring element of the cosmos, as the “goddess” that various characters in King Lear apostrophize, in contrast, seems absent from the vocabulary and consciousness of Ginny, the narrator. In fact, the natural world seems powerless simply to sustain itself, and the human actors are increasingly distanced from the reference points that a powerful natural environment might provide. In A Thousand Acres, the continued vitality of the natural world itself becomes a question.

In the opening pages, Ginny walks along the Zebulon River in a stretch obscured from normal view, where the river has “made its pretty course a valley below the level of the surrounding farmlands” that is not visible from her farm and the Cabot Road junction.23 As she delights in the blue water and “limpid sunlight of mid-spring,” messengers from the past—a small flock of pelicans—surprise her:

And there was a flock of pelicans, maybe twenty-five birds, cloud white against the shine of the water. Ninety years ago, when my great-grandparents settled in Zebulon County and the whole county was wet, marshy, glistening like this, hundreds of thousands of pelicans nested in the cattails, but I hadn't seen even one since the early sixties. I watched them. The view along the Scenic, I thought, taught me a lesson about what is below the level of the visible.24

The pattern established here recurs through the novel: images of the natural world, a landscape of uncurbed beauty and pleasure, emerge as lost pleasures, lost delights, a primitive pastoral vision replaced “since the early sixties” by human control and limit. The natural world still telegraphs to Ginny a crucial conceptual lesson—the truths of life are “below the level of the visible”—yet the teacher itself, Nature, clearly is fading in immediacy and potency.

Though not labeled as female like King Lear’s goddess Nature, the natural elements in A Thousand Acres share with women's bodies the promise and then the destruction of fertility. Ginny celebrates that fertility as she considers the natural and human history of the farm:

For millennia, water lay over the land. Untold generations of water plants, birds, animals, insects, lived, shed bits of themselves, and died. I used to like to imagine how it all drifted down … and became, itself, soil. I used to like to imagine the millions of birds darkening the sunset, settling the sloughs for a night, or a breeding season. … And the sloughs would be teeming with fish: shiners, suckers, pumpkinseeds, sunfish, minnows, nothing special, but millions or billions of them. I liked to imagine them because they were the soil, and the soil was the treasure, thicker, richer, more alive with a past and future abundance of life than any soil anywhere.25

Once again, Smiley casts this passage in the past tense: “I used to like to imagine.” Now this fertile land and water have been subdued and purchased for several generations. The purpose of human activity in Zebulon County has been to shape Nature to its own use, to transform technologically the natural world for the sake of efficiency and function. The original marshland of the county has been steadily drained over the decades and diverted into tile channels (now PVC) laid by three generations of men beneath the surface of the land. The cost has been the loss of such fertility as is not immediately useful to the human enterprise.

The novel repeatedly parallels the technological invasion of the landscape with the mastery and abuse of the female characters. Ginny first connects the land with the female presence on it in the memory of her silent (or silenced) grandmother Edith, married at sixteen to her father's 33-year-old partner, John Cook, a marriage that not only united bodies but “consolidated Sam's hundred and sixty acres with John's eighty”26 and produced Larry, Ginny's father. Smiley insistently pursues the connection throughout the novel. Chemical poisoning of farmland for agricultural power not only causes but echoes the poisoning of the women's bodies in the novel, leading to cancer and a plague of miscarriages. In parallel terms, ecofeminist Lin Nelson surveys current research about contemporary biological hazards and their impact on both general and reproductive health and writes of “the damaged woman in the damaged environment.”27 Nelson quotes a 1984 Conservation Foundation Letter, “The womb is more sump than sanctuary.”28

The connection Smiley draws between incest and abuse of the land has implications far beyond the history of a single Iowa family. In her final confrontation with Ty, Ginny extends the connection between the control of women's bodies and control of the land to implicate American society as a whole:

“Do I think Daddy came up with beating and fucking us on his own?” Ty winced. “No. I think he had lessons, and those lessons were part of the package, along with the land and the lust to run things exactly the way he wanted to no matter what, poisoning the water and destroying the topsoil and buying bigger and bigger machinery, and then feeling certain that all of it was ‘right,’ as you say.”29

In addition to providing motivation for the distance between Cook and his daughters, violation of the older daughters mirrors the system's exploitation and rape of the land and water.

Far more than exploring “women's issues,” however, as Roger Ebert derisively described the film adaptation in his widely published newspaper review, Smiley's novel recounts a universal human tragedy with implications for every being on the planet.30 The images of human and natural interaction in A Thousand Acres, in contrast to the battering and enormous storm of Lear, cry the destruction of a helpless primeval world by human agents. The Cooks’ neighbor Harold deliberately mowing down a fawn in his tractor's path provides the starkest example,31 though most of the instances are unconscious and unplanned. Simply as the consequences of rapacious agricultural practices, the marshes have been drained, the pelicans driven away, the pond habitat plowed under, and the water table poisoned by fertilizers and pesticides; few in the society seem awake to the reality or disposed to mourn the destruction.

Water imagery in the novel offers a crucial index of loss in nature and in the characters’ consciousness. Set in contrast to the remembered vitality of the river is the sterile Pike swimming pool, where Ginny and her nieces seek relief from the oppressive summer heat. The crowded concrete pool triggers memories for Ginny of an earlier summer in a farm pond in which she and Rose spent languorous hours as young girls “soaking up the coolness of the water and living in the blue of the sky.”32 When intimacy with Jess reawakens forgotten yearnings in her heart, Ginny returns to search for that old refuge but cannot “find even the telltale dampness of an old pothole.”33 Natural sources of water in the life of the farm community are disappearing with the thronging pelicans in the Midwestern landscape.

In the first half of the novel at least, Ginny registers very little anger that “Daddy drained the pond and took out the trees and stumps around it so he could work that field more efficiently,”34 yet the reader clearly senses that something of value has been destroyed that occupies a different niche in the human psyche than a concrete city pool. L. Teal Willoughby writes of the archetypal resonance of water in its natural forms “as a primary element of life on earth, water as common component of both ocean and body, water as a flowing liquid element that moves and absorbs other things, water that has unknown depths and unknown origins.”35 Willoughby cites the warnings of Carl Jung that our modern world has disempowered such natural experiences that formerly enriched our psychic lives: “We have stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity; nothing is holy any longer.”36 The sense of freedom and peace, of connection with water and blue sky, the sensual experience of floating alone and unseen that Ginny's brief memory conveys, is not an experience Ginny and her nieces are able to duplicate in the city swimming pool. Dating the pond's draining as “not long before the death of our mother,”37 Smiley heightens the emotional power and, in Jung's terms, the numinous value of that small body of water so casually destroyed.

The old quarry, which Ginny later pursues for a swim that will soothe her soul when “only water, only total, refreshing immersion, could clear my mind,” embodies the fusion of natural and man-made.38 Existing in memory as blue and sparkling, Ginny finds the quarry now “brown and murky.”39 Memory clearly has been unreliable, however, for Ginny also remembers “how we had always pulled rusty objects out of the water with guileless curiosity—hubcaps, tin cans, bashed-in oil drums. Now I saw the place with a new darkened vision.”40 Thus, the pollution and poisoning has been a long event, although Ginny's early sense of “right order” protected her from the reality. That pollution becomes reality for her when the old order is shattered and unveiled by the family's disruption, contact with Jess's questions and challenges, and her evolving understanding of the farm chemicals’ effects on her own and Rose's bodies, with their resultant miscarriages and cancer.

In quite a different manner, King Lear incorporates numerous references to the “ruined piece of nature,” the “great decay,” and the apocalyptic “promised end,” yet Shakespeare's referents are human. The ruin of nature always points symbolically toward Lear himself, the kingly masterpiece of nature, or the decaying familial and social structure. In A Thousand Acres, the decay attacks the natural world itself. Like the pond of Ginny's childhood, the marshes and pelicans have been erased by progress and human intrusion. Ginny herself, numbed by the status quo, registers but barely responds to the loss.

Instead of the storm forces of nature revealing the equality, shared corruption, and mutual compassion of humankind, the leveler in A Thousand Acres is the poison of human agriculture and activity. Though the novel shares with King Lear the poison motif as a metaphor for human greed and destruction, in A Thousand Acres the poisons are literal products—pesticides and fertilizers—potentially touching all human and natural existence. Apart from Ginny's deliberate attack on Rose with poisoned sausages, the intended target is nature itself and the regulation of its processes. The resulting costs for the human agents are visible and painful: Rose's and her dead mother's cancers, Ginny's miscarriages, Pete's drowning in the quarry. Yet the natural elements themselves do not take direct revenge on the human perpetrators and apparently have no force to do so. Although it may be argued that nature will bounce back—that it has always done so—Smiley and her narrator do not offer this assurance. Ginny becomes conscious of the “loop of poison we drank from,”41 yet she finds no vision of purification; she simply abandons the vast, tainted water table for the sterilized comfort of water from a spigot in her apartment.

The nonhuman animals with whom we share the planet provide a major source of metaphor in both play and novel. Thus, Lear's humbling but authentic moment of insight as he takes refuge from the storm recognizes kinship with the nonhuman: “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal.”42 At the same time, this kinship clearly presents a “reduced” vision of human nature.43 Poor Tom's animal images, on the other hand, offer purely accusatory visions of human nature, disturbing reminders of inharmonious and untamed traits: “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.”44 In both speeches, paradoxically, human nature is like animal nature and therefore “other” than we had supposed. This mistrust of animals, rooted in their embodied natures, mirrors the play's treatment of women. To Goneril and Regan accrue a host of bestial analogies linking them to undesirable behaviors: serpent, kite, and vulture. In his “wise” madness, Lear generalizes about all women:

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they're centaurs,
Though women all above.(45)

Shakespeare's intent throughout the series of metaphors seems to be to humble Lear, demean Goneril and Regan, and chasten the audience through acknowledgment of the animal within us. The vehicles for such chastisement are female and animal.

In A Thousand Acres, a different set of metaphors emerges: images of domesticated animals controlled and rendered powerless. Though still providing a humbling recognition to human egoism, Smiley's animal metaphors generate a sense of a plight shared with nonhuman animals that demands our broader compassion. The day before her first sexual encounter with Jess, for example, Ginny helps her husband castrate newborn pigs. That night she dreams she is a sow and experiences her most exciting intercourse with her husband: “my back came to seem about as long and humped as a sow's, running in a smooth arc from my rooting, low-slung head to my little stumpy tail.”46 This erotic fantasy brings momentary pleasure to Ginny's sterile sex life, yet the parallel between her body and the thousand “breeders” being prepared for Ty's hog venture provide a disturbing undertone. After the storm and the breach with her father, Ginny discovers a new animal within herself, “a horse haltered in a tight stall, throwing its head and beating its feet against the floor, but the beams and the bars and the halter rope hold firm, and the horse wears itself out, and accepts the restraint that moments before had been an unendurable goad.”47 Here Ginny's self-association with farm animals clearly emerges in her subconscious as an image of broken will and failed energy, the possibility offered to her as a daughter or wife. “Although we often regard nonhuman animals as pure representatives of nature,” comments Greta Gaard, “most if not all the animals (human and nonhuman) living in the context of Western culture have been alienated from nature and from wilderness.”48

Like the two visions of nature at conflict in King Lear, however, two visions of nature and farming contend in Zebulon County. Most of the inhabitants apparently subscribe to the “bigger is better” school of thought, and expect human effort to yield continual progress in farming output. Documenting the long-standing Western dismissal of nature and natural workings as “unproductive,” Vandana Shiva analyzes the biases of modern farm methods toward technological intervention, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and accelerating productivity:

The assumptions are obvious. Nature is unproductive. Organic agriculture based on nature's cycles of renewability is unproductive. Women and tribal and peasant societies embedded in nature are also unproductive. Not because it has been demonstrated that in cooperation they produce fewer goods and services for needs, but because it is assumed that production only takes place when it is mediated by technologies for commodity production, even when such technologies destroy life. A stable and clean river is not a productive resource in this view. It needs to be “developed” with dams to become productive.49

Thus, Larry plows up the old swimming hole to improve bean production and satisfies, in Ginny's words, a “lust for every new method designed to swell productivity”;50 Harold's new, improved, and bigger tractor draws the envious attention of all the neighboring farmers; Ty borrows himself into bankruptcy in an effort to multiply his commodity production with a huge hog operation. A joyful family like the Ericsons, content with life, enjoying their menagerie of dogs, ponies, and other “unproductive” animal companions and indifferent to competition, is doomed to extinction.51

Only Jess's alternative vision of organic farming, of a nonintrusive human presence working in harmony with Nature, provides a hope of Paradise regained. Describing an organic farmer he has visited, Jess revels in the vision he discovered there:

He's seventy-two years old and looks fifty. They've got dairy cattle and horses and chickens for eggs, but his wife only cooks vegetarian meals. They get great yields! Just with green manures and animal manure. The vegetable garden is like a museum of nonhybrid varieties. … I mean it was like meeting Buddha.52

Here the ideal balance between human and natural envisioned by ecofeminists seems to be realized. To reject such an organic vision, Jess insists, would be “like looking paradise in the face and turning away from it,”53 yet that is precisely what the characters do. The established farmers continue their chemically intensive methods, Jess himself proves unable to bring the vision to fruition with Rose on her land and abandons the quest, and Ginny ends the novel in a thoroughly urban environment, removed from the last pelicans, soothing summer swims, and indeed from any natural elements whatsoever.

At the end of the novel, nature is vanquished on both the farm and in Ginny's life. The conglomerate Heartland Corporation owns the thousand acres, having expanded the hog operations and razed the dwellings so that now “the fields make no room for houses or barnyards or people.”54 Even the previously uneasy proximity of nature and humankind has ended, with both emerging as victims of the corporate process itself. Ginny continues to cling to the safety of human order. Her chosen new life extinguishes the natural world: in her apartment beside the freeway as in her waitress job, seasons no longer exist,55 concrete and a contained swimming pool replace the vistas and abundant water table,56 and she sinks into a welcome urban routine. Linda, one of the substitute daughters she has raised with love if not much guidance, is headed, in a final touch of irony, for a business career in the vertical food conglomerates for which landscape is merely a business opportunity. In the final lines of the novel proper, Ginny grinds up the poisoned sausages she had prepared for Rose in her apartment's garbage disposal and flushes them down the drain, relying on the city's unseen sewage treatment plant and the anonymity of urban technology, and feels a burden lift.

Students in my literature classes commonly treat the novel's ending as a relative victory for Ginny. After all, she has understood a great deal about the cultural and gendered forces that have worked upon her, she has found some empowerment in regaining her memory of incest and in saying “no” to her life as a farm wife and daughter, and she has a modicum of independence in her new life in the city. We need some caution, however, in embracing such resolutions in which a person appears to grow and become more fully “human” by ruthlessly distancing the natural world. Such a resolution

assumes that the task for both women and men is now that of becoming simply, unproblematically and fully human. But this takes as unproblematic what is not unproblematic, the concept of the human itself, which has in turn been constructed in the framework of exclusion, denial and denigration of the feminine sphere, the natural sphere and the sphere associated with subsistence. The question of what is human is itself now problematised, and one of the areas in which it is most problematic is in the relation of humans to nature.57

Ginny has attained some independence from the human relationships that have shaped and constrained her life to this point, yet her already tenuous relationship to the visceral experience of the natural world—the world of sensuously floating in a farm pond, of thrilling to the birds in the river's cut, the world of seasons—is severed completely by the end of the novel.

Thus, although the novel aligns with the concerns of ecofeminist analysis, Ginny's own trajectory evades the goal and intention of ecofeminist consciousness, which is “to heal … the artificial separation of Western culture and nature.”58 Ginny acquires a great deal of valuable insight and manages to survive the novel, but she does so only as a fragmented, urbanized, isolated individual cut off from all connection with the natural world. Lear's lament, “Thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never,” might be resurrected by Smiley to lament the loss of deep human relationship with the natural world. Such loss is integral to Smiley's rethinking of the price that human delusion and greed exact upon our world.

The novel's disturbing image of a polluted quarry does offer a true perspective, in any case: though dug out by human labor, within it is “the one place where the sea within the earth lay open to sight.”59 Smiley reminds us several times that the water persists, though now successfully hidden and contained except at the quarry: “The sea is still beneath our feet,” comments Ginny, “and we walk on it.”60 Despite the assurance of success and “right order,” the farm culture enjoys solid ground only through unrelenting will and effort, by controlling and uprooting the natural, and Ginny discovers vividly the instability of the land and the society built upon water. The polluted quarry reveals the natural element persisting but poisoned, its glories—the pelicans, fish, and children swimming—all lost. Though the water “beneath our feet” still threatens to evade human control, the water's positive fertile power has been destroyed with no apparent promise of regeneration.

Thus, any hopeful signs in the novel's end for a renewed and meaningful life for Ginny and her nieces seems drastically undercut by the abandonment and waste of the natural world. Perhaps the same ambiguous hope can be offered for Ginny's body as for the polluted quarry: it is still there; the sea of life is still visible through it, though polluted, poisoned, and rendered infertile. Can the quarry and the body regenerate themselves? Smiley offers no affirmation beyond the tenacious clinging to existence that both exhibit. Ginny herself remains childless. And as for the quarry, the fertile waters, and the land itself, now firmly under the control of food conglomerates with no memory of lost fertility or former beauty, the outlook is grim indeed.


  1. Greta Gaard, “Ecofeminism and Wilderness,” Environmental Ethics 19 (Spring 1997): 16.

  2. John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London: Faber & Faber, 1949), 16. See also Robert Heilman, This Great Stage (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963).

  3. Ibid., 15.

  4. Coppélia Kahn, “The Absent Mother in King Lear,” in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 33–49.

  5. Lynda Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” PMLA 97 (1982): 325–47.

  6. Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit, 1981), 225.

  7. Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” in Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 67–87.

  8. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1993), 42–43.

  9. Gen. 1:28.

  10. Plumwood. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 4.

  11. Ibid., 10.

  12. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 1.

  13. Ibid., 2.

  14. Ibid., 99.

  15. Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature,” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol J. Adams (New York: Continuum, 1993), 21.

  16. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Jay L. Halio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 4.6.11–19.

  17. Ibid., 3.2.7–8.

  18. French, Shakespeare's Division, 229.

  19. King Lear, 1.2.1; 1.4.230.

  20. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (New York: Ballantine, 1991), 3.

  21. Ibid., 136.

  22. Gaard, “Ecofeminism and Wilderness,” 18–19.

  23. Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 4.

  24. Ibid., 9.

  25. Ibid., 131–32.

  26. Ibid., 132.

  27. Lin Nelson, “The Place of Women in Polluted Places,” in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1990), 176.

  28. Quoted by Nelson in ibid., 177.

  29. Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 342–43.

  30. See, for example, Roger Ebert, “A Thousand Acres,” mini-review, Ashland Daily Tidings, Sept. 25, 1997, “Revels” sec. 5.

  31. See Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 234.

  32. Ibid., 95.

  33. Ibid., 206.

  34. Ibid., 85.

  35. L. Teal Willoughby, “Ecofeminist Consciousness and the Transforming Power of Symbols,” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol J. Adams (New York: Continuum, 1993), 144–45.

  36. Quoted in ibid., 142.

  37. Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 85.

  38. Ibid., 246.

  39. Ibid., 247.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Ibid., 370.

  42. King Lear, 3.4.95–96.

  43. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 123.

  44. King Lear, 3.4.84–85.

  45. King Lear, 4.6.118–121.

  46. Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 161.

  47. Ibid., 198.

  48. Gaard, “Ecofeminism and Wilderness,” 11.

  49. Vandana Shiva, “Development as a New Project of Western Patriarchy,” in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1990), 191.

  50. Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 45.

  51. Ibid., 43–47.

  52. Ibid., 217.

  53. Ibid.

  54. Ibid., 368.

  55. Ibid., 333.

  56. Ibid., 335.

  57. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 22.

  58. Gaard, “Ecofeminism and Wilderness,” 7.

  59. Smiley, A Thousand Acres, 247.

  60. Ibid., 16.


Jane Smiley Long Fiction Analysis