Jane Smiley Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How does Jane Smiley depict the layered complexities and contradictions of the parent-child relationship? What are the special challenges of motherhood? Fatherhood? How do her child characters learn to negotiate the minefields that their parents lay, however unwittingly?

How does love function among Smiley’s couples? What role does sex play in love? What do her varied explorations of fidelity and infidelity within couples suggest about the nature of love?

How does sex play havoc with the lives of otherwise rational people in Smiley’s works? Is there any statute of limitations on sexual desire and its consequences?

What role do environmental themes play in Smiley’s depiction of contemporary American life? What does the health of the physical world say about the lives of the individuals and institutions inhabiting it (for example in A Thousand Acres or Moo)?

The 1980’s has become a particular focal point in Smiley’s fiction for its “greed is good” ethos. How does her concern with the raw appetite of consumer capitalism shape the stories that she tells in works such as A Thousand Acres, Moo, and Good Faith?

Smiley’s subjects have ranged widely over a variety of specific subcultures—university, the real estate industry, the race track. How does she bring each of these worlds to life?

Ideological intractability of any political stripe comes under scrutiny in Smiley’s fiction. How does she make it the butt of comic deflation in Moo? In what ways do its tragic consequences become clear in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton?

In what ways does Moo’s most celebrated character, the huge white boar Earl Butz, symbolize Smiley’s greatest concerns for American life at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

Smiley has justified her increasing fascination with the world of horses and horse racing in terms of her established novelistic predilections for the mysteries of personality. How does she render her animal subjects along such lines, and to what effect? What is it in the dynamic between human and horse that especially fixes her attention?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jane Smiley has published several novels as well as collections of short fiction. In addition to studies of family life, she has experimented with several novelistic subgenres, including a murder thriller (Duplicate Keys, 1984) and a historical epic (The Greenlanders, 1988). With the publication of her academic satire Moo in 1995 and the 1998 picaresque fiction The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (an exploration of the intersections of racism and violence in American history inspired in part by the 1993 Oklahoma City Bombing), Smiley completed a self-imposed task of writing fiction in the four major literary modes: epic (The Greenlanders), tragedy (A Thousand Acres), comedy (Moo), and romance (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton). In 1996 Smiley found herself unwittingly at the center of an editorial firestorm when she published an essay in Harper’s that challenged the canonized status of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by criticizing its moral dishonesty and aesthetic flaws, touting instead Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) as an underappreciated realist and morally serious masterpiece.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jane Smiley’s short fiction, for which she received a Pushcart Prize in 1977 and O. Henry Awards in 1982, 1985, and 1988, has drawn consistent praise for its linguistic economy and incisive detail in the service of the complex mysteries of American family life. The Age of Grief, which signaled a new gathering of creative force in Smiley’s writing, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. With A Thousand Acres (1991), a novel retelling the family drama of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606) in terms of an Iowa farm family, Smiley attained new levels of national and even international recognition, winning the Pulitzer Prize (1992) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (1991), in addition to a number of regional awards.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to her novels and novellas, Jane Smiley has written numerous book reviews, short stories, and nonfiction essays. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and five are included in The Age of Grief: A Novella and Stories (1987). Among the most notable of her nonfiction essays is “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ’Masterpiece,’” which first appeared in Harper’s in January, 1996; this work produced a storm of controversy, as in it Smiley questions the primacy of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in American fiction, arguing that critics have been evasive about the racism present in Twain’s work and thatHarriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) offers a more frank and open approach to racism.

Smiley has published in a variety of genres, including biography and literary history. Her nonfiction works include a collection of essays titled Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains (1988). Smiley’s lifelong interest in horses is reflected in her chronicle of the careers of two racehorses she owned in A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (2004). Her biography Charles Dickens (2002) has been widely praised for its nonpedantic approach, and in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), Smiley analyzes the novel writer’s craft by examining one hundred important novels.

Two of Smiley’s fiction works have been made into motion pictures. The film version of A Thousand Acres was released in 1997, and an adaptation of the novella The Age of Grief, titled The Secret Lives of Dentists, was released in 2002.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jane Smiley is a prolific writer with three O. Henry Awards (1982, 1985, and 1988) to her credit. The Age of Grief received a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987, and A Thousand Acres garnered several prestigious literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Midland Authors Award, and the Heartland Prize, all in 1992. Smiley has also enjoyed other honors, such as a Fulbright Fellowship, which took her to study in Iceland (1976-1977). She has twice been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978, 1987).

Critics have generally praised Smiley for the fine craftsmanship and psychological subtlety of her fiction and have noted her competence in handling complex and varied historical, sociological, and scholarly issues. In 2001, Smiley was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2006 she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bernays, Anne. “Toward More Perfect Unions.” Review of The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review (September 6, 1987): 12. Bernays praises Smiley’s powerful use of short-fictional forms to examine the contours of troubled personal relationships. Most of the commentary is devoted to the “splendid” title novella, which offers “a poignant and rich meditation on the nature of love and change.”

Carden, Mary Paniccia. “Remembering/Engendering the Heartland: Sexed Language, Embodied Space, and America’s Foundational Fictions in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 18, no. 2 (1997): 181-202. An examination of how Smiley challenges agrarian ideologies that serve to silence women.

Carlson, Ron. “King Lear in Zebulon County.” Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review (November 3, 1991): 12. Carlson examines the ways in which Smiley adopts the terrain of King Lear to explore contemporary family dynamics in rural Iowa. He praises the novel’s skill in conveying the interplay of factors—nature, business, community—that shape the farmer’s life. He also cites the powerful impact of telling the tale through the eyes of the eldest daughter of the tyrant-father at the center of the tale.

Farrell, Susan Elizabeth. Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2001. A good, close look at Smiley’s award-winning novel. It addresses such subjects as father and daughter relationships, King Lear as a legendary character, and rural families and farm life in the work. Includes bibliographical references.

Humphreys, Josephine. “Perfect Family Self-Destructs.” Review of “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will,” by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review (November 5, 1989): 1, 45. Calling the novella a fictional form “most closely resembling a troubled dream,” Humphreys discusses Smiley’s artistry in “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will” and praises her provocative investigations into the role of power, imagination, and desire in family life. The first piece in the collection explores the consequences of desire, while the second involves “imagination as an act of power,” the two...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)