Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres."

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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

addressing reality.

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.