A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres

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A Thousand Acres Book 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Harold Clark’s house, according to Ginny, is more or less identical to her own father’s. Clark’s property is smaller and less impressive than Ginny’s father’s, though he manages to farm it cleverly and efficiently, thereby making a large profit for himself. The year before the pig roast celebrating Jess’s return, Harold irritated Ginny’s father (Larry Cook) by purchasing an air-conditioned tractor that could play tape cassettes. Ginny’s father wasn’t annoyed about the tractor itself; he was annoyed that Harold didn’t tell him how he’d paid for it. If Harold paid with his own money, that meant Harold was becoming richer than Ginny’s father. If, on the other hand, Harold had to go to the bank to procure the funds, it meant that Ginny’s father was still the wealthier man.
We get a sense for the petty rivalries between farmers: Harold Clark (the counterpart to Gloucester in King Lear) is seemingly less successful than Larry Cook, but they compete with one another nonetheless. Larry expects to know everything about everybody—the fact that Harold keeps a secret from him, even if it’s a fairly insignificant secret, irritates Larry. Larry needs to know that he’s the top dog in the county, and therefore, he needs to keep regular tabs on Harold Clark. Larry’s behavior suggests that he’s insecure about his wealth and power—he’s always looking over his shoulder.
Themes
King Lear and Good vs. Evil Theme Icon
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Ginny comes to Harold Clark’s house, where she finds Rose, Caroline, and Larry. Larry is explaining his plan to form a corporation, in which Ginny and her sisters will each have a 33% share. While he’s still alive, Larry is dividing up his large land holdings to avoid forcing his children to pay property taxes after his death. Ginny tells Larry she likes the idea, as does Rose. Caroline, however, says she’s not so sure.
Here, in a nutshell, Smiley lays out the premise of the novel (and of King Lear)—an elderly patriarch divides up his possessions between three daughters. In the play, it’s suggested that Lear divides up his kingdom while he’s still alive because he wants to prove to himself that he has some inherit majesty, independent of his crown. In the novel, Larry divides up his farm while he’s still alive because he wants to avoid property taxes. Notice that we’re offered no explanation for why Caroline turns down the offer of so much money and power (though based on Lear, one could guess that it’s because she’s more loving and less greedy than her siblings). So far, Ginny has seemed like an even, levelheaded character, but her behavior here suggests a hidden greed for Larry’s land—a desire that’s rooted, admittedly, in her family legacy, and seems pretty legitimate (she is his heir, after all).
Themes
King Lear and Good vs. Evil Theme Icon
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Theme Icon
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon
Abruptly, Ginny turns to describing her father, Laurence Cook. From her earliest memories onward, Ginny was afraid of her father. He was big, imposing, and loud—qualities which made Ginny avoid looking at him whenever possible, but also made her glad that he could protect the family from robbers and thieves. Ginny always thought of Larry as a highly competent farmer—indeed, he was so talented that the trees and hills seemed like a part of his own body. Ginny sometimes senses that her mother died too early—carrying the mysteries of Larry Cook to her grave.
Larry is a frightening, intimidating man, albeit one who’s become a little less intimidating with old age. Larry is depicted as having an almost magical connection with his land: he can grow anything using his skill and experience. And yet there’s a mysterious side to Larry. Like everyone else so far, Larry has secrets, which he conceals beneath his larger-than-life farmer’s demeanor.
Themes
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Theme Icon
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Back in the present, Larry argues with Caroline, his youngest daughter. Caroline went to law school, and married a lawyer—she has no desire to live on her father’s farm or inherit his property. Larry, who’s drunk, angrily tells Caroline that if she doesn't want his money, she’s “out.” As Ginny witnesses this exchange, she realizes a crucial difference between Caroline and herself and Rose: Ginny and Rose are always careful to speak to their father as daughters, never as women. Caroline always speaks as a woman.
Larry is depicted as a boorish old man: in spite of his vast wealth (and, apparently, his talent), he’s a mean alcoholic. Even so, Ginny is willing to go along with Larry’s plan because of her desire for more and her strong emotional connection to the farmland. Caroline, who is both more financially independent and less biased by her emotional connection to the farmland (she works as a lawyer in Des Moines) is far more likely to speak the truth: Larry’s plan doesn’t seem very well thought-out. Because Larry values his daughters’ loyalty more highly than their honesty, he spitefully cuts Caroline out of his will.
Themes
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Theme Icon
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
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Still at the Clark house, Ginny talks with Jess Clark about Larry’s plan for the “corporation.” Ginny says that the idea feels “suspiciously levelheaded.” Jess thinks that the plan is a good idea, but promises not to tell anyone about Ginny’s misgivings. If Larry died, Ginny realizes, his children would have to sell part of his farm to pay off the large inheritance taxes. Larry’s land, which has been in his family for three generations, is now worth many millions of dollars, easily. By giving his land to his children now, the Cooks will avoid the taxes.
Ginny admits that Larry’s plan seems unusual, and not really consonant with his usual behavior. And yet she goes along with it, anyway—presumably because she feels she has a right to own the land, anyway. Jess is depicted as someone who can play both sides of the field at once: he can be friendly with Larry and Harold while also keeping Ginny’s secrets safe.
Themes
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon
In bed with Tyler later that night, Ginny thinks about her relationship with Tyler. In the past, Tyler has always been completely open with Ginny, so much so that other people seem stiff and dishonest by comparison. Tyler thinks that Ginny has had three miscarriages, but in actuality, Ginny has had five. After their third miscarriage, Tyler insisted on Ginny using birth control whenever they had sex. Instead, Ginny secretly didn’t wear a diaphragm, and went about trying to get pregnant without telling Tyler. Ginny has told Rose about her secret, and Rose has sworn not to tell anyone. Ginny enjoys keeping a secret from Tyler—she feels alive and “full of possibilities.”
Ginny keeps secrets from everyone, even Ty, whom she trusts. Ginny clearly feels guilty for being unable to have kids—her own lack of fertility is contrasted with the land her family’s life centers around, and with the expectations for women in her society. But Ginny seems to savor her secrets—because her opportunities for independence are so limited, and because she lives in a small community where everybody seems to know everybody else, she relishes any chance to escape from other people’s “surveillance,” even that of her own husband.
Themes
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon