Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" tells a dark tale of a corrupt patriarchal
society which operates through concealment. It is a story in which the characters
attempt to manipulate one another through the secrets they possess and the
subsequent revelation of those secrets. In her novel, Smiley gives us a very
simple moral regarding this patriarchal society: women who remain financially and
emotionally dependent on men decay; those able to break the economic and emotional
chains develop as women and as hum ans.
Roots of "A Thousand Acres" can be seen in numerous novels and plays, the
most obvious of which is King Lear. The parallels are too great to ignore.
Smiley is successful because she fills in so many of the gaps left open in the
play. She gives us new an d different perspectives.
One of the particular strengths of the novel lies in its depiction of the
place of women in a predominantly patriarchal culture.
In this male dominated
culture, the values privileged in women include silence and subordination. Ginny
is acceptable as a woman as long as she remains "oblivious" (121). She is allowed
to disagree with men, contingent upon her doing so without fighting (104).
Ultimately, her opinion as a woman remains irrelevant. Ginny remarks, "of course
it was silly to talk about 'my po int of view.' When my father asserted his point
of view, mine vanished" (176). When she makes the "mistake" of crossing her
father, she is referred to as a "bitch," "whore," and "slut" (181, 185).
It could be argued that many of the male characters in the novel are
suffering from a type of virgin/whore syndrome. As long as the women remain
docile receptacles they are "good"; when they resist or even question masculine
authority, they are "bad." Rose complains, "When we are good girls and accept our
circumstances, we're glad about it....When we are bad girls, it drives us crazy"
(99). The women have been indoctrinated to the point that they initially buy into
and accept these standards of judgem ent. The type of patriarchy described by
Smiley simply serves to show the inscription of the marginalization of women by
men in the novel and in our society.
Another strength of the novel is its treatment of secrets and appearances.
Like characters in a Lewis or Bellow novel, the characters in "A Thousand Acres" are
more concerned with maintaining a veneer of social respectability than with
Life, for them, becomes some kind of facade. Nearly everyone has a secret and
nothing is as it seems. Our narrator tell us, "They all looked happy" (38); and
later, "Most issues on a farm return to the issue of keeping up appearances"
Amid all of the sub-plots and mini-themes (and there are many) in "A
Thousand Acres", the one recurring theme which stands out is Smiley's criticism of
a masculine-dominated culture. The one element clearly valued in a woman by this
patriarchal society is silence. "The girls sat quietly" (95) and they are good
girls. For a woman to express her own feelings in the novel can lead to harmful
repressions. So it is that Ginny suppresses her voice. Her inability and
unwillingness to stand up to her father, and even to Ty (in reference to the
babies especially), shows that she allows herself to remain marginalized
throughout much of the novel.
In "A Thousand Acres", Smiley tries to capture the tensions of real everyday
living in her representation of a dysfunctional rural family steeped in a
patriarchal tradition. She shows the effects of the unreasonableness of our
patriarchal society and indicts it in the process. Ginny is defined within a
double set of cultural constraints. She is confined not only by prevailing
expectations regarding social behavior but also by those governing the proper
behavior of women. Reticence is an essential part of the code of feminine decorum
based on the idea of woman's inherent weakness and the need to defer to and rely
upon masculine strength and protection. By allowing Ginny to break the chains of
reticence and flee, literally, to a new life, Smiley turns weakness into strength
as she envisions a more reasonable (and perhaps more feminized) social order. She
forces us to ask what ideals we are being sacrificed to... patriotism?
Maintaining appearances? Maintaining patriarchal standards? Smiley speaks for
all who have been marginalized when she states (through Jess), "Maybe to you it
looked like I just vanished, but I was out there" (55)!
Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991.