Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Smiley’s domestic realism may recall the stories of John Updike and other writers concerned with subtleties of relationships. Smiley, however, specializes in the portrayal of connections not made, communications not completed, because her protagonist lacks the depth of character and courage needed to complete them. These protagonists have an intellectual sophistication that makes them feel superior, but they are emotionally underdeveloped.

Smiley also has a characteristic structure in many of her short stories: a character who cannot feel or react honestly to life, who is in some sense an outsider unable to be intimate with another, is shown his or her limitation by exposure to someone who can. Sometimes the outsider is unmasked by his or her attempt to intervene in the life of another without knowing what that life is and means.

Smiley’s dialogue carries much of the weight of her themes. In “Long Distance,” it is direct and realistic, yet multilayered and subtle. Each speech sounds perfectly natural, yet communicates a wealth of information about the relationships and advances the action as well. Rather than placing her characters in the usual situations of their ordinary lives, saying their usual things, Smiley manages to imply the typical content of a life through contrast with a present, unusually strained situation in which characters step out of their usual roles and speak differently but fully in character.

The description is subtle and functional. Smiley’s suburban home is presented as a wonderfully ambiguous place. It is a tidy little domestic hell, with all the standardized attitudes, activities, and equipment that her outsider character can mock, yet it may be the only real testing ground for character and values.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Japanese Culture in the 1980s
In the story Mieko starts weeping when she’s on the phone with Kirby, after they both realize...

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
Smiley chooses to use a form of narration known as third-person-limited point of view in ‘‘Long...

(The entire section is 757 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1980s: Thirty percent of Japanese women in their twenties are not married.

Today: Fifty percent of Japanese women...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

During his road trip, Kirby thinks about several instances in which people have been caught unaware in snowstorms. Research some real-life...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Smiley’s title novella from The Age of Grief was adapted in 2002 as a feature film titled The Secret Lives of Dentists. The...

(The entire section is 125 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

In Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (1997), editors Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer collect essays from several...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bernays, Anne, ‘‘Toward More Perfect Unions,’’ in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 92, September 6, 1987,...

(The entire section is 427 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Adventures of Jane Smiley.” Atlantic Unbound 28 (May, 1998).

Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Jane Smiley.” Missouri Review 21, no. 3 (1998): 89-108.

Fletcher, Ron. “Bringing a Timeless Humanity to Writing.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1998, B2.

Frumkes, Lewis Burke. “A Conversation with . . . Jane Smiley.” Writer 112 (May, 1999): 20+.

Kessel, Tyler. “Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Explicator 62, no. 4 (Summer, 2004): 242-245.

Nakadate, Neil. Understanding Jane Smiley. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Simmons, Ryan. “The Problem of Politics in Feminist Literary Criticism: Contending Voices in Two Contemporary Novels.” Critique 41, no. 4 (Summer, 2000): 319-336.

Strehle, Susan. “The Daughter’s Subversion in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Critique 41, no. 3 (Spring, 2000): 211-217.

Urquhart, James. “Talking About a Revolution: Feminism, Horses, Sex, and Slavery—Jane Smiley’s Novels Are a Potent Mixture of All of Them.” The Independent (London), October 16, 1998.