A Thousand Acres

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Smiley has followed her two novellas, ORDINARY LOVE AND GOOD WILL (1989), with another story of a man who extends his possessiveness from things to people. Larry Cook, a successful farmer in his sixties, suddenly decides to form a corporation turning control of his thousand acres over to his daughters. When his youngest daughter, Caroline, opposes this, he disowns her for this sign of willfulness. When the older daughters, Ginny and Rose, with their husbands, begin developing the farm their way, Larry objects and attempts to coerce them emotionally and then to sue them to regain the farm.

While there are many calculated parallels to Shakespeare’s story, their traditional meanings are subverted when Ginny, the narrator, learns that Larry forced incest on her sister. Soon afterwards, her own repressed memories of incest with Larry return. Then the novel opens into what it moves toward from the moment Ginny begins narrating, the story of how Larry has followed the traditions of the conquerors of his land, doing what he wants to because he has power that cannot be opposed, justifying his crimes to himself and forgetting who pays the price, mainly his women.

Larry’s will to power is not just his own, but America’s, and it is ultimately self-destructive. He willfully destroys what he has made rather than see his children change it, and he participates in destroying his children physically and spiritually through his uses of them and of the land.

This moving tale of a daughter’s self-discovery is also a profound look at American culture.


Carlson, Ron. “King Lear in Zebulon County.” The New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1991, 12. Reluctant to invoke King Lear as a paradigm, Carlson analyzes A Thousand Acres as a novel about American farming, the loss of family farms, an d the power of the family. He praises the vividness and immediacy of Smiley’s rural Iowa. He contends that one of the novel’s strengths is its selection of Ginny, who is reluctantly drawn into the events and made to acknowledge stark realities, as...

(The entire section is 873 words.)