Friday, December 09, 2005

Shakespeare in Twentieth-Century Iowa

Rural Iowa is the picturesque setting for Jane Smiley’s reinvention of Shakespeare’s King Lear. A Thousand Acres tells the tragic tale of a family with a disturbing past who watches their lives crumble around them as this twisted Shakespearean tragedy unfolds. Although it would be easy to simply critique this novel as it relates to King Lear, this imaginative piece of literature is a work all its own.

Jane Smiley attended the University of Iowa as a graduate student and later worked at Iowa State University for fifteen years. She published A Thousand Acres in 1991, while working at the university. Smiley’s extensive experience living in Iowa and working with students and professors who had grown up in the area no doubt had an influence on her choice of setting for this novel.

In an interview concerning the writing of A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley said she believed she had thoughts to offer concerning the play of King Lear and how it related to American farm life. However the actual writing turned out to be a terribly draining process for Smiley because of the depressing subject matter. She names Shakespeare as one of her influences in writing, but says in trying to emulate his story of King Lear she felt exhausted, and was mainly propelled by her anger for the story.

A Thousand Acres starts off with an introduction to the land, and some family history surrounding the novel’s characters. A father, his two daughters and their husbands all live on an expansive farm consisting of a thousand acres of fertile land. The farm has been passed down through the family for generations and was originally swamp land until an extensive tile-piping drainage system was constructed by the main character’s grandfather and his guardian.

The narrator Ginny is a sheltered young woman who has lived on the farm her entire life. After years of giving his life to the success of the farm, Ginny’s father, Larry, decides to retire his farm to the care of his daughters and their husbands. However, Ginny’s youngest sister Caroline objects to her father’s decision, believing it is not a smart move for him. Caroline represents what Ginny and her other sister Rose have always hoped for in their own lives. They raised Caroline from a young age after their mother’s death, and supported her in pursuing her dreams of leaving the farm and becoming a lawyer. While Ginny and Rose are trapped by their situations (living on the farm, being in unhappy marriages, succumbing to their father’s dominance, and sharing secrets from the past) Caroline has escaped all that brings them down.

Other characters besides the central family unit also provide insightful experiences and cause some tumultuous events. Especially important characters are the Cook’s neighbors Harold and Jess Clark. Harold owns the neighboring farm and is constantly competing with Larry to prove who the better farmer is. Jess has just come back to Zebulon County after being gone for fifteen years or so. At first everyone who meets Jess is enamored and intrigued by him. The women find him attractive, and the men value him as a friend and fellow farmer. Jess’s worldly outlook on life enlightens mainly Ginny, and gives her reason to reflect on her own ideas.

While depicting a vivid example of Midwestern farm life Smiley also introduces modern problems affecting families in any geographic region. She discusses alcoholism, cancer, abuse, and incest in a way that is brutally honest. However, her sincerity in writing on these topics promotes public awareness and proves the importance of dealing with these serious issues.

As the novel progresses, Smiley wraps you into the lives of her characters and gives you the feeling of familiarity with them. It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Ginny as she discovers parts of herself she had never previously taken notice of. She begins to see problems in her marriage as well as unhappiness in her life overall. Ginny has complex emotions that have been suppressed over time for fear of her father’s oppression, and from the ignorance of not knowing any other way to deal. Rose is a contrast to Ginny’s quietness. She is aggressive, straightforward, and completely open with her actions and feelings. Rose believes that a woman deserves self-respect even though her and Ginny have been placed in a patriarchal family and degraded as females from the time they were kids. Rose always stands up for her beliefs to an extreme level. This creates problems for her and the men competing with her. Ginny is jealous of Rose’s life in many ways even though Rose has been diagnosed with cancer. Ginny longs for the strength Rose has and the children she has given birth to. Despite Rose’s admirable character, she is left as the sole caretaker of the farm when everyone else moves away. She never escapes the place that has haunted her and been such an important part of her life.

Rose’s cancer is a continuing theme throughout A Thousand Acres. Her mother died of cancer, and neighbors have developed cancers as well. At the end of the novel Ginny attributes the cause of the cancers to the contaminated water system running through Zebulon County, Iowa. Smiley slyly introduces this idea, but it resonates in the mind even after the story has finished. Cancer has become such a widespread epidemic with the causes still mostly unknown. Smiley shows how a family deals with this disease, and the perspective of the cancer patient herself. Rose compares her cancer to a garage sale of all the precious memories she has accumulated in life. Ginny relates to the experience as an out of control car ride in which she is a passenger in the car spinning out of control. These are wonderful metaphors that provide an insightful perspective on a problem many have trouble understanding.

About the time a novel should be reaching its climax, Smiley begins the resolution of her story. A Thousand Acres is not about building plot excitement and then resolving some explosive scene in which the whole story makes sense and everything after that just seals the envelope. Smiley’s character development and complex relationships are so deep and enthralling that this novel is hard to put down.

Larry Cook becomes estranged from Ginny, Rose, and their husbands as his place in the family structure is slowly changing by the shift in farm ownership. Larry is a strong-willed man and his respect from the community has reinforced his ideas of himself. He never realizes the wrongs he has committed against his family members, especially Ginny and Rose. Rose never forgives him for this, and holds her anger and resentment for things as a precious reminder of life. Ginny feels this type of lasting anger towards Rose at one stage in her life; however she reconciles her feelings with her sister in the end. Anger, resentment, and forgiveness are all themes that the characters in Smiley’s novel exhibit.

Smiley uses a female narrator for her depiction of King Lear which adds a feminist twist to this modern story. Smiley talks about the female body, marriage, births, and a woman’s role as mother, daughter, sister, and wife through Ginny and Rose. Traditional gender roles are represented as the female characters maintain their domestic duties within the house, and the male characters work in the fields outside of the house. The gender differences are also seen in the way the female characters handle emotions, and in the way the men try to compete with each other, exhibit violence and anger, and exude their dominance over the women. Smiley shows this patriarchal society as a characteristic of farm life, and warns women against the dangers of entrapment in this lifestyle.

I originally wanted to focus on the father-daughter relationships depicted in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. However, this novel is wrapped in so many layers of different concepts and themes, that it would have been an insult to only focus on one aspect of Smiley’s writing. Although based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, A Thousand Acres is more than a remake of an old story. There are similar events and plot sequence, but Smiley’s novel represents an in depth analysis of American farm life and complex family relationships. One of Smiley's greatest achievements as a writer is creating a novel that transcends time leaving a novel for future generations to read and enjoy. Smiley's ability to draw the reader into her characters' lives is effortless, and the story unravels smoothly. This is a sad story, but an honest account of real issues that are important to understand. Its depressing subjects will grab you and hold tight until you think you just can’t take anymore. Than Smiley lets go with a bittersweet ending carrying relief that the tragedy has finally ended, but also fueling the mind for contemplation over the events that have occurred.

Works Cited
Carlson, Ron. “King Lear in Zebulon County.” Books. 3 Nov. 1991. The New York Times on the
Web. 08 Dec. 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/05/specials/smiley-acres.html.

Goldstein, Bill. “Every Time You’re Free, You’re Lonely.” Books. 4 Apr. 1998. The New York Times on the Web. 08 Dec. 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/05/specials/smiley-interview.html.

Hall, Kelley J. Putting the Pieces Together: Using Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” in Sociology of Families. Teaching Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp. 370-378.http://www.jstor.org.content.lib.utexas.edu:2048/view/0092055x/ap040103/04a00090/0?config=jstor&frame=noframe&dpi=3&userID=80533f6f@utexas.edu/01cce440370050194c850&cmReturnLink=1.

Siciliano, Jana. Author: Jane Smiley. 12 May 2000. Book Reporter. 08 Dec. 2005. http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-smiley-jane.asp.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.
Fiction as a Sociological Teaching Tool
Fiction can be a useful way to teach important sociological themes in a classroom setting. Specifically, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres has been used to put concepts together in Kelley Hall’s Sociology of Families course at DePauw University. A Thousand Acres is a story in which a father decides to divide his farm between his two daughters and their husbands. This change in family structure causes the father to begin acting very strangely and the daughters reflect on pieces of their past they have tried to forget. Hall teaches her sociology class from a feminist perspective and uses the themes of separate spheres, gender, and domestic violence and incest to tie into Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Hall focuses on public versus private images of the Cook family. It is important for the Cook’s to keep up appearances on the outside while hiding their own inner secrets. There is also a gender division of labor with the men working the fields and the women doing things around the house. This idea of separate spheres of labor ties into the issue of gender as well. The women are domestic and possess feminine traits, while the male characters show their masculinity through examples of competition, ambition, violence, hard work, and determination. Larry fulfills the role of dominating patriarch. Male dominance in public and private spheres hides the violence and incest occurring within the household. Hall warns that because A Thousand Acres discusses sexual abuse it could be offensive or upsetting to some students. Hall used group work and a final paper as the assignments for this novel. A movie adaptation of A Thousand Acres is available; however Hall discourages using this as a substitute for reading the actual novel. Hall values Smiley’s A Thousand Acres as useful for applying themes from her class, and an evaluation of the assignment shows that her students enjoyed the project as well. I found this article a good source for sociology teachers.

Hall, Kelley J. Putting the Pieces Together: Using Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” in Sociology of Families. Teaching Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp. 370-378.
http://www.jstor.org.content.lib.utexas.edu:2048/view/0092055x/ap040103/04a00090/0?config=jstor&frame=noframe&dpi=3&userID=80533f6f@utexas.edu/01cce440370050194c850&cmReturnLink=1.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


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A Thousand Acres ends with an eventful tragic downfall in Books 5 and 6. Although I have never read Shakespeare's King Lear, I can see the tragedy noticeable in Shakespeare's works in Smiley's loose adaptation of King Lear. Although not very climatic in plot, the resolution of the climax is amazing to watch unravel. A series of tragic events occur that eventually ends in the dissolution of the Cook's farm and the family completely separated by death or geography. Each of the characters become a part of Ginny and she includes them in her finally discovered sense of self. I found this novel pretty depressing, but it was extremely well written and never bored me once. Although the story is tragic, there are a lot of important themes and lessons to learn from Smiley's work. Issues of feminism are brought up including the female body, a woman's rights to individuality, self-respect, motherhood, and the duties and responsibilities of being a daughter, a sister, and a wife. Other themes mentioned are that of truth, justice, love, pride, isolation, alcoholism, cancer, and freedom. Each character has a different perspective on these themes, and while Ginny doesn't agree with all of them, she learns to accept them anyways. Anger is a common emotion in this book, and all of the characters experience it at some point. Along with anger is also the theme of forgiveness. Rose never forgives her father for his trangressions, and we believe he never forgives Rose and Ginny for their actions towards him on the farm. Smiley gives us some hope for a bright future in the lives of Pammy and Linda. They are still innocent and have been shielded in a lot of ways from the tragedy of the Cook farm. They have the opportunities to have a life away from the farm, and this is seen as hopeful in Ginny and Rose's eyes. Although I do not know much about farm life, I wonder what Smiley is trying to say of the United States Agricultural Industry. Obviously it has changed a lot from the time that the novel is set in, but I think the themes of isolation and responsibility, and the feeling of being trapped in a particular lifestyle are something that some farmers may feel, and that others can apply in their routine lives as well. One of Smiley's greatest achievements as a writer is creating a novel that any reader can relate to no matter what age, place, or time they are living in. The themes and problems the characters face are timeless and therefore this novel will be one for future generations to read and enjoy. Overall, I thought Smiley's ability to draw the reader into her characters' lives was effortless, and the story unraveled smoothly. This is a sad story, but it is an honest account of real issues that are important to learn.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Book Four was pretty short compared to the other books, and nothing different in writing style or themes was noticeable. Smiley continues to give depth to her characters, and she introduces so many issues with the duty and loyalty of marraige, embarrasment and shame of adultery, strained family relations, emotional scars of past grievances, loss, isolation, and general farm life and culture. I find it interesting that Ginny is so concerned with how the others in Zebulon County gossip about her family. As a character, Ginny is very complex, and I think Smiley is trying to represent the average woman. Feminism is a strong theme resonating in this book. Harold and Larry are always blaming Rose and Ginny, and saying that if they were sons no problems would have arisen. Rose continually represents strength and comfort for Ginny. She stands up to the men in her life, and values self respect and an individual separate life. Ginny hasn't thoroughly explored all of her emotions and is just now starting to discover who she really is through all of the events happening to her. I can't figure out Larry's feelings, motives, and actions. He is not a very forgiving person when it comes to Rose and Ginny, yet he forgave Caroline and is relying soley on her now. I think he is fooling himself into thinking that he is doing the right thing by sueing the girls for the farm. All in all Smiley writes of a very disfunctional family with many secrets and harbored feelings. However, this family can be related to by anyone all over the world, which is key to Smiley's success as a writer. Although the setting of rural farm life is critical to other themes in the novel, Smiley has developed the characters and their relations in such a way that could be taken out of context and applied anywhere at anytime. Two notable metaphors relating to concurrent themes can be found on pages 229 and 262. On page 229, Ginny describes her fear as "plastic explosives or radioactive wastes" that could explode and destroy everything in her brain. On page 262, Smiley brings up the female body and Ginny's awareness of herself again when Ginny says she feels like a three-legged woman, awkward and difficult to move foward.
Book Three of A Thousand Acres was quite shocking. I didn't expect Ginny to have an affair with Jess, and I was actually disappointed that it happened. I'm not sure if Ty has figured it out yet, but he's been acting estranged from Ginny ever since it happened, so I'm thinking he probably knows what she did. Book Three deals a lot more with the father-daughter relationships I was hoping to encounter. Both Rose and Ginny have different relationships with their father, and different outlooks on how to deal with him. I also found it disturbing that Larry, the father, had sex with Rose and Ginny when they were teenagers. It's interesting that Ginny doesn't remember any of it. I've heard of people erasing troubling experiences from their memories, but it's seems strange to not have any recollection of an event like that. These chapters also dealt with the woman body a lot, and Ginny's awareness of her own body. On pages 161 and 162 Ginny relates her body to that of a female pig. She says, "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". This statement seems degrading to the female body and I think Ginny degrades herself by sleeping with Jess, and by the way she allows herself to be treated by her father. She is fearful and anxious of impending problems. She rarely sticks up for herself, and says "When my father asserted his point of view, mine vanished. Not even I could remember it" (p. 176). Ginny does make a decision to change the way she handles things, and although she tries to stand up to the men in her life more, it is a slow process to change old habits. Another reference to herself as an animal is made on page 198. Ginny describes herself as a horse, trapped in a pen, wearing herself out beating on the floor and stall walls. Another mention of deservance was made on page 137. Ginny says, "The lesson my father might say they prove is that a man gets what he deserves by creating his own good luck". The themes of isolation, responsibility, and work are mentioned on page 136.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Book Two ends with an exciting, and perhaps ominous foreshadowing of a romance between Ginny and Jess. Throughout Book Two, Smiley continues to develop the characters and their setting, as well as adding more to the plot summary. The climax of the novel is hard to determine at this point, and so far the novel doesn't seem to have a specific direction. These chapters were still interesting though, because of the dynamic character interactions Smiley has developed. She does a wonderful job of connecting the reader to her characters. I can really relate to Ginny, the oldest daughter, as well as the narrator of the story. I was initially drawn to reading this book because I wanted to study the father-daughter relationships it portrayed. The father is actually the least developed character of the novel, which Smiley could have done purposefully. Ginny cannot see her father as an individual, with his own life separate from the role he plays to her and her sisters. Therefore, we as readers really only get to see him from this perspective. I noticed a couple of important sentences and recurring themes in these chapters, that can connect to Book One and most likely the rest of the book as well. The theme of cancer is brought up again when Rose goes to get her three month examination. She compares the period of time when she was receiving cancer treatments to a garage sale of the precious memories of her life. This statement is compared to Ginny's view of the cancer treatment, which is that of being a passenger in an out of control car. I thought these were both great metaphors for such a serious condition affecting multiple members of a family. Another theme mentioned is freedom. On page 109 Ginny says, "It was such a lovely word, that last word, "freedom," a word that always startled and refreshed me when I heard it. I didn't think of it as having much to do with my life, or the life of anyone I knew--and yet maybe Harold was having some, feeling some". I wonder why Ginny doesn't feel like she or anyone she knows has freedom. Doesn't Caroline have the freedom to leave the farm and live her own life as a lawyer. Or is she implying that no one is free from her father. When Jess referred to Harold as having freedom he was talking about freedom from the pressure and watchful eyes of Zebulon County. The freedom to do whatever he wanted with his farm, and not feel liable to anyone. I think this concept of freedom is going to come up again, and I'm interested to see if we get more explanations for Ginny's feelings.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

In Book One, Jane Smiley introduces the setting of her novel, provides background to the characters' family history, and foreshadows an arising conflict in A Thousand Acres. Throughout these chapters Smiley emphasizes the importance of land, and I'm sure she will greater develop the land's meaning to each of the characters. Some interesting comparisons Smiley makes about land can be found on pages 4, 15, and 16. On page 4, Smiley's narrator, Ginny, says "Acreage and financing were facts as basic as name and gender in Zebulon County". Ginny's perspective is that of a young woman who has lived on a farm in the midwest her entire life. She is sheltered in her own environment, but explains that the others living in Zebulon County are mostly as sheltered as she is, therefore they view land and farming in a unique way. In chapter 3 on pages 15 and 16, Ginny tells us of the tile trenching system her family built in order to keep their land drier than it naturally was, and discusses how the early settlers compared expanses of grass to the sea or ocean. Smiley connects the land to water, explaining the interrelation of both, and comparing them to each other. In chapters 4 and 5, I noticed the word "deserving" came up a few times. Ginny says that "Ty deserved to realize some of his wishes", and on page 35 she explains the interesting concept of deserving when applied to her father. Smiley also introduces the theme of alcoholism, saying how Ginny's father drinks every night, and how Pete started drinking as well. Smiley briefly mentions the concepts of right and wrong as it relates to Caroline and her morals, profession, and personality. Lastly, I noticed the comment Ginny makes on page 35 that Zebulon county is full of old grievances. I think this could be important to look at as the story progresses, as well as the other themes and concepts Smiley has introduced so far.