A Thousand Acres: The Danger of Temptation and Unnatural Behavior

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres follows the novel’s narrator, Ginny Smith, as she struggles with temptation and the mental and physical repercussions of being a victim of unnatural behavior. Larry, Ginny’s father, practices chemical-based farming and breaks the natural bonds with his family by raping both his daughters, disrupting natural order. Biblical imagery and symbols such as contaminated water, Jess Clark’s Christ and Devil allegory, and a dump mirroring the Garden of Eden enhance this theme of sexual enticement, and the consequences that result from opposing natural order. Tainted water transforms a natural element intended to baptize and help life flourish into a life-threatening element. Jess Clark and the aftermath of the dump that he brings Ginny to mirror the Garden of Eden, and the loss of self and loved ones that comes from succumbing to temptation. Through character’s mental and physical responses to these symbols and their negative impact on their lives, Smiley suggests that giving in to unnatural behavior and temptation is easily done, but destructive.

Natural water that has been tampered with and contained by man with the intention of benefiting themselves transforms from a source of life to a poison. When Larry contaminates the water with chemical nitrates to enhance crop growth on his farm, instead of supporting life as intended, the water causes Ginny to suffer serial miscarriages. Larry has destroyed any chance of Ginny bearing any form of life by tampering with nature, instead of using water for salvation and life as God intended it to be. Harold, a neighboring farmer, also suffers from tainted water. Harold is blinded by the chemically enhanced water and, because there is no natural, pure water to wash out his eyes, he has no chance of regaining his eyesight. As a farmer, Harold’s natural place in society is taken away from him since he can no longer see to perform his duties. Pete’s death most dramatically emphasizes this idea of water’s turning from a source of life to a threat. Pete drowns himself in the quarry, a man-made pond, as a result of drinking too much alcohol, water that has been altered (and tampered) with by other substances by man. Additionally, Pete abuses the natural bonds that he has with Rose by physically abusing her in an unnatural state of mind due to alcohol, the same state of mind that eventually kills him. Defying natural order has obvious physical consequences for Pete, Harold, and Ginny, but affects the female characters mentally as well. Water is typically used for baptism, connoting cleansing or a fresh start, but the societal pressures that the pool Ginny and the girls visit cause them to act negatively and superficially. Rather than offering a relief as water is intended, the girls feel pressured to fit in and put on a false sense of confidence, acting unnaturally.

Smiley uses Jess Clark, who initially seems to serve as an innocent Christ archetype but quickly seduces Ginny, to emphasize the presence of the devil and temptation in innocence and intimacy. Jess Clark, who shares the same initials as Jesus Christ, brings a heat wave with him to Zebulon County suggesting that, while he may initially appear to symbolize a Christ character, Jess is just as hot and fiery as the devil himself. His homecoming is celebrated in the same fashion as the prodigal son’s with his returning after 13 years, the biblical number for rebellion against the Eternal in favor of Satan (Mid-America Christian University). Jess returns seemingly innocent, and in touch with nature as Christ was, taking up vegetarianism and trying to adopt a kinder farming method for the environment. He brings Ginny to the dump, his own Garden of Eden, where he seduces her and tempts her to have an affair. Snakes, symbols of the devil, slither around the dump, a man-made waste planted in the middle of poisonous flowers, suggesting that even what appears to be beautiful and innocent can be deadly. Jess demonstrates the dangers of temptation; the competition for his affection divides Ginny and her sister, and leads to her separation with Ty. Ginny loses her family, and her sense of who she is is completely destroyed.

Rebelling against the natural order of things, whether due to temptation or other incentives, has consequences. In A Thousand Acres, Ginny lets Jess’s sex appeal get the better of her, while suffering alongside the other characters from the repercussions of tainted water. Her unnatural relationship with Jess and water destroys her relationship with her family and sterilizes her. The initial appeal of giving into temptation and unnatural behavior is what eventually results in the Ginny and the other characters’ inevitable downfall.

Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres viewed as a feminist revising of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear recounts a tale of a father and his three daughters as he decides to divide up his kingdom based on who loves him the most. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a modern day King Lear farm with Larry Cook’s three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres can be viewed as an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. More specifically, Smiley’s novel can be seen as a feminist criticism upon Shakespeare’s King Lear by in turn criticizing the male dominated roles that overpower the play. This is evident in a variety of parallels present between the two texts such as the whole of the novel being presented through Ginny’s eyes but also questions as to whether Smiley’s novel actually being considered feminist. One of the theories that I will be focusing on is Edmonson and Holbrook’s book of Shakespeare’s Creative Legacies (2016) which highlights the potential of modern authors rewriting Shakespeare. Such ideas include marginalized voices being given more prominence in a modern setting for examples in King Lear females do not have a dominant voice throughout the play due to social hierarchies.

In contrast, Jane Smiley presents a far more female dominated voice throughout her novel therefore showing how marginalized voices are reinvented. Another theory that can be applied here is Genette’s (1997) theory of hyper textuality which discusses the relationship between the hypertext and the hypotext. This relates to A Thousand Acres and King Lear as the plot of the novel is based off of Shakespeare’s play however another term of Genette’s (1997) that can be applied here which is ‘revaluation’ whereby a character is made to be seen more positively in the hypertext. In this case, Goneril is seen to be more of a positive character in the form of Ginny which overall supports the argument that Smiley’s novel is a feminist revising of King Lear. Within Smiley’s novel, a connection can be made between the natural world and the female body. This is highlighted by Diana Lombardic (2014, pg.7) as the treatment of Larry Cook’s land ‘parallels the treatment of his daughters’. This is further cemented in Smiley’s novel whereby Rose makes the bold statement of “We were just his (…) like the pond or the houses or the hogs or the crops” (Smiley, 1992, pg. 191). Through this stance, we can say that the female body is viewed as purely something for males to have ownership of and to tame which is a result of male farming techniques.

In the same way, King Lear also has this idea of female ownership as each of the respective daughters are owned by their respective husbands. However, it could be said that this exploitation of Ginny is what leads to her eventual regeneration as a character which Book 6 of A Thousand Acres focuses on. It can be described that Ginny is ‘given a second chance’ (Lombardic, 2014, pg.10). Ginny says that in the city “nothing is time bound”, this shows how Ginny is given an independence that she has never been able to experience before and arguably, all of the events on the farm have made her stronger as a character and have enabled her to escape her life on the farm which completely argues against the idea that the female body is something for males to tame and to have ownership of. In this sense, Ginny could perhaps be seen as figure of feminism in this novel because even though she hasn’t had any contact or interaction with feminism, this makes her even stronger as a character as she has made this discovery of independence on her own, without the support of anybody else. This therefore supports the idea that this is a feminist revising of King Lear. Edmonson and Holbrook (2016) present the idea that many authors make the decision to rewrite Shakespeare as many of the marginalized voices can be reinvented and be given more importance. Lombardic (2014, pg.22) states that presenting the whole novel ‘through Ginny’s eyes makes A Thousand Acres a powerful tale of inequality and of victimhood’. This is further reinforced by where Rose boldly declares to Ginny “We had sex in my bed” (Smiley, 1992, pg. 190). By having the whole novel told through Ginny’s perspective not only gives power to Ginny but gives power to the female voice in general and so reinforces Edmonson and Holbrook’s idea of having marginalized voices reimagined and being more suited towards a modern audience.

Not only does Smiley reinforce Edmonson and Holbrook’s ideas but also implements Genette’s (1997) idea of ‘revaluation’ whereby, as a response to the hypertext, Smiley takes advantage of the lack of a female voice instead giving it a greater and more positive prominence to it, supporting the argument that Smiley’s novel can be considered feminist. This use of a female voice is completely contrasted in King Lear where it is a heavily male dominated play where the majority of the dialogue is spoken by males. Smiley uses this and reinvents the overall character of Goneril as she allows the character to give her perspective on the events unfolding automatically giving power to the female voice, therefore supporting the idea of the text being feminist. Conversely, there are many people who would argue that A Thousand Acres is not a feminist text and that the character of the Ginny and Rose stick to traditional stereotypes, those that were present in Shakespeare’s time. One user by the name of Violet Wells on Goodreads (2015) described Ginny as being ‘self-effacing, subservient’ and being ‘submissive to both her father and husband’. By taking this stance, we could say that this could be considered non-feminist Ginny describes settings out ‘sausage, fried eggs, hash brown potatoes, cornflakes, English muffins and toast, coffee and orange juice.’ (Smiley, 1992, pg. 28). The length of this sentence is long and separated by commas, showing it is a list and is something that is done on a regular basis however the nonchalant tone of which she says this could suggest that she does not mind doing these tasks. Through this interpretation, it is therefore questionable as to whether this is truly a feminist novel as she displays typical female stereotypes such as being submissive to the males in her life. This is similar to King Lear as all of the daughters are subservient to their father and their husbands. Therefore, we could say that Smiley certainly incorporates elements of Shakespeare’s work into her own. However, on the other hand, Jennifer Bolmefalk (2012, pg. 5) argues that A Thousand Acres takes place ‘right at the end of the second wave of feminism’ and suggests that due to the farms isolation and its lack of interaction with the city, it ‘remains unchanged by the progress of second wave feminism’ (2015,pg. 6). By taking this stance, we can therefore explain the behaviors of both Ginny and Rose because, they have not been able to experience these changes that society was going through at the time. In this sense, there is a more justifiable reason for Ginny and Rose being subservient to Larry.

However, in King Lear, there doesn’t seem to be this same acknowledgment towards the daughters as even towards the end they seem to remain as one-dimensional characters. To conclude, A Thousand Acres could be certainly be read as a feminist revising of King Lear through the empowerment of the female voice in the form on Ginny meaning that this could be a lot more applicable to the modern world. As opposed to King Lear where there are many gaps and spaces but Smiley uses this to her advantage and completely reinvents it by filling in the spaces that Shakespeare fails to acknowledge.