A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres

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Appearance vs. Reality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
King Lear and Good vs. Evil Theme Icon
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Theme Icon
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon
Revenge Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Thousand Acres, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon

A Thousand Acres takes place in the American Midwest in a community so small that, at times, its inhabitants seem to know everything about one another. And yet many of the novel’s characters, including some of the community’s most prominent and popular residents, have dark secrets to hide; for example, Larry Cook abused his children, Ginny and Rose, even as he pretends to be a proud, upstanding member of the community. Smiley’s novel studies the relationship between appearance and reality; particularly the appearance of innocence and goodness as it hides secret sin or evil.

For some of the novel’s characters, the separation between appearances and reality can be a source of freedom. Characters maintain a certain affect or public image, but beneath the surface, their personalities are very different. Appearance acts as a mask for reality, disguising and enabling the characters’ true thoughts and feelings. Consider Harold Clark, Larry’s neighbor and rival. Clark pretends to be an old eccentric, when in reality, he’s extremely sharp and single-minded. Because he’s so successful in affecting the appearance of eccentricity, Harold’s neighbors mostly steer clear of him; they give him a lot of privacy, and even let him get away with overcharging on farm crops. In short, Clark manipulates his public image in order to benefit himself—that is, to benefit his secret, shrewder “self.” Harold’s son, Jess Clark, represents an even more extreme example of the divide between appearance and reality. Jess spends most of his adult life “trying on” different careers and, with each career, a different personality. Whenever Jess tires of the external elements of his life, such as his job, his home, or his friends, he just moves on to somewhere else. Jess can do so because, beneath his kind, charismatic façade, he’s cold-hearted and selfish—Jess is so good at affecting the appearance of kindness that we don’t realize how cruel he really is until the end of the book.

By manipulating their own appearances, affects, and reputations, many of the characters in the novel achieve a kind of freedom. But of course, there’s a limit to how often the characters can get away with such manipulations; furthermore, many characters, particularly female characters, are forced to adhere to a certain public image instead of crafting one for themselves. While Jess Clark has the freedom to start over again and again, Ginny and Rose are “locked into” the same sexist roles year after year. They’re expected to be obedient children, to cook and care for their aging father, and to marry and have kids.

Ginny and Rose struggle to “be themselves” in private while adhering to the image that’s expected of them. Their public image doesn’t offer them freedom; on the contrary, it burdens them, to the point where, on some level, they start to believe that their public image is the truth. Ginny and Rose also have a horrible secret: Larry raped them when they were teenagers. The novel never explicitly explains why the two women never tell other people what happened. Smiley implies, however, that Ginny and Rose remain silent about their father’s horrible crimes at least in part because they’re afraid of disrupting appearances. In other words, they’re afraid of challenging Larry’s image as a pillar of the community, their own images as obedient daughters, and even their community’s “image” as a tranquil, ordinary place. In short, Smiley shows a basic disagreement between her characters’ appearances and their true natures. While some of the characters succeed in manipulating their own appearances, many of the women in the novel suffer because they internalize the image that other characters have imposed upon them.

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Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in A Thousand Acres

Below you will find the important quotes in A Thousand Acres related to the theme of Appearance vs. Reality.
Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

At the pig roast, Jess Clark and the new machinery were Harold’s twin exhibits, and guests from all over the area couldn’t resist, had no reason to resist, the way he ferried them between the two, asking for and receiving admiration with a kind of shameless innocence that he was known for.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Harold Clark , Jess Clark
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Early on, Smiley gives us a vivid sense of the competitiveness and nosiness of small-town farm life. Because the community is pretty tiny population-wise, everybody knows about everybody else—there’s a constant surveillance process going on. When Jess Clark, Harold Clark’s “prodigal son,” returns from years of draft dodging and traveling, Harold makes sure he throws a party to prove to everybody that his family is strong: whether or nor he’s actually angry with his son, he wants to demonstrate to others that he’s proud of Jess and happy to have him home. As far as other neighbors are concerned, Jess is a “prop” for Harold, equated in the passage with Harold’s prized new tractor (a mark of his wealth and sophistication as a farmer). Harold wants to prove to other people in the community that he’s a successful man and a good father—there’s no better way to do both than to host a big party and invite everybody.


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Book 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

What is a farmer?
A farmer is a man who feeds the world.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ginny reiterates some of the mythological, even religious elements of life on a farm. Larry is just a man—but he thinks of himself as doing almost holy work, providing food and nourishment for others. It’s hard to deny that Larry has a point: he does incredibly valuable work. And yet Larry’s high opinion of himself (an opinion that he’s passed onto his daughters, as evidenced by the quote, which he’s repeated many times over the years) is a kind of smokescreen. Because Larry thinks of himself as an important, powerful farmer, he can justify even his most morally dubious actions: taking advantage of his poorer neighbors, bullying his wife, and even abusing his children. By worshipping his own profession like this, Larry arguably feels justified in even his most horrible sins.

The passage is also a great example of the importance of appearances and images in Larry’s community. Larry tries to cultivate an image of benevolence and importance among his daughters and his neighbors, even though, deep down, he’s something very different altogether.

Book 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

It was a pantry cabinet, a sink, four base cabinets, and two wall cabinets, as well as eight fee of baby blue laminated countertop, … which my father had bought for a thousand dollars.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rose and Ginny have accepted their father’s generosity and taken control over his property. And yet they’re still responsible for taking care of their father—giving him food and shelter, and providing for him financially. Larry maintains some control over his own assets, as well—he still has money to spend. Here, Ginny notices that Larry has made a series of extravagant purchases, including cabinets and countertop. As before, Larry is just trying to compete with his neighbor, Harold Clark.

The difference between now and then, as Ginny seems to sense, is that Ginny and Rose don’t want to lose their own money. When he buys cabinets and other things, Larry is taking money from his children—and while Ginny never says so explicitly, Smiley makes it clear that she doesn’t like Larry doing so. Ginny is less overtly acquisitive than Rose, but she still wants land and money for herself. Notice the way she spells out the cost of Larry’s new stuff—that’s one thousand dollars that won’t be going to her. The passage’s subtle displays of Ginnys materialism and acquisitiveness foreshadow her more overt greed later on in the novel.

“He is crazy,” said Rose. Anyway, Ginny, you’re running out of money

and you have all the expensive rentals left before you get to Go.”

Related Characters: Rose Cook Lewis (speaker), Ginny Cook Smith
Related Symbols: Monopoly
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Smiley uses the symbol of Monopoly to signal her characters’ latent greed and selfishness. The characters are playing a friendly game of Monopoly, but they’re also talking about Larry, who continues to spend money on elaborate house purchases, like cabinets and countertops. Rose moves the discussion from Larry to Monopoly, but because of the syntax of the paragraph, we think that she’s talking about real life when she says, “You’re running out of money.”

Smiley’s point is that, even if they won’t say so explicitly, Rose and Ginny are afraid that Larry is going to spend all their money before he dies. Now that Rose and Ginny are in power, they don’t like the idea of their father wasting his (and their) cash on things he doesn’t need. Smiley never comes right out and says that Rose and Ginny are greedy for land and cash—one has to read between the lines to see that they are, and this passage is a great example of how Smiley uses subtle hints (and the façade of a game) to alert readers to the truth.

Book 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

Now that I remembered that little girl and that young, running man, I couldn’t imagine what had happened to them.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Ginny remembers her father at his most heroic: saving Harold Clark, his rival, from underneath a truck. The memory is vivid, and because Ginny remembers her father’s heroism so clearly, she’s moved to tears. As a child, Ginny (apparently) hero-worshipped her father, and thought of him as a larger-than-life figure. Now that Ginny and Larry are older, Ginny thinks of her father as a pathetic old man—still intimidating, but hardly the hero he used to be in her eyes.

In the near future, Ginny will begin to question everything she knows and believes about Larry. So here, it’s possible that Ginny is lying to herself—i.e., she never really thought of her father as a hero, and is just idealizing her own memories. Ginny seems to feel guilty about her role in Larry’s mental decline; she’s guilty about accepting his money and property without a second thought. Moreover, Ginny is nostalgic for a time in her life when she and the rest of her family got along perfectly. The days of idyllic childhood are long behind her: in their place are confusion, rivalry, and resentment. No wonder she’s crying as she remembers.

Book 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

“Now that I’m back, after all those years away, I’m really amazed at how good Harold is at manipulating the way people think of him.”

Related Characters: Jess Clark (speaker), Harold Clark
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Jess Clark, returned to the country after many years, notices that his father, Harold Clark has cultivated a certain image of himself: Harold presents himself as a bumbling older man, a little eccentric, and not to be taken totally seriously. As Jess points out, however, Harold is a lot shrewder than he lets on: in reality, he’s hard working, quick-witted, and insightful. Harold just pretends to be an old eccentric because he knows that such a persona is a good way to convince people to leave him alone. Harold knows that it’s hard to find privacy in a small community—and he does this by pretending to be weirder than he really is.

It’s also important to notice that it’s Jess who sees through Harold—this is probably for two reasons. First, and most obviously, Jess is Harold’s son; Jess has seen Harold when he’s not in public, and knows more about what kind of man his father really is. Second, and more interestingly, Jess might be a fellow manipulator. Smiley never gives us much of an idea what Jess is “really” like (our impressions of him are nearly always filtered through Ginny’s adoring eyes), but she leaves open the likely possibility that he’s a shrewd, manipulative, and devious person, just like his dad.

Book 2, Chapter 16 Quotes

After you’ve confided long enough in someone, he or she assumes the antagonism you might have just been trying out. It was better for now to keep this conversation to myself.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this strange passage, Ginny has just had a long, angry conversation with her sister, Caroline, in which Caroline accuses Ginny or dong a bad job of taking care of her father. Caroline suggests that Ginny and Rose are ungrateful children; in spite of everything their father has done for them, they treat him like an annoyance, to be tended to from time to time without any affection or compassion. Although Ginny denies that Caroline has a point, she declines to tell Rose about the conversation. Her stated reason for doing so is fascinating: essentially, she says that when somebody accuses you of being evil, you’ll eventually become evil. This fits with the novel’s complicated ideas about appearances and reality: sometimes appearances are a mask or diversion from reality, but sometimes one’s reality actually shifts to fit appearances.

The passage is especially ambiguous because it’s not clear if Ginny really is innocent of any maliciousness toward her father, or if, deep down, she senses that Caroline is right. If the former possibility is the case, the quote might suggest that Ginny and Rose aren’t really “villainous” at all at this point; they’re driven to mistreat their father because their father hates them and thinks of them as “whores.” If the latter possibility is true, then Ginny refuses to tell Rose about the conversation because she senses that Caroline is telling the truth.

Book 5, Chapter 36 Quotes

I was so remarkably comfortable with the discipline of making a good appearance!

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

After Larry announces his intentions to sue Ginny and Rose and get his former property back, Ginny and Rose consult a lawyer in the city. The lawyer, Jean Cartier, advises Ginny and Rose to be perfect—to do a great job tending their father’s property, and keep up an appearance of being successful farmers. Larry can only sue Ginny and Rose according to a clause of their contract that allows him to repossess his land if his daughters treat it badly. So as long as Ginny and Rose treat the farmland well, they’ll be fine—it doesn’t really matter how they treat Larry himself.

Ginny finds that she’s very good at putting on the appearance of competence, normality, and graciousness. In a way, Ginny has been practicing for such a role for most of her life—as the resident of a small town where everybody knows everybody else, she knows how to “seem” one way and secretly “be” another.

Book 5, Chapter 39 Quotes

One of the jars of sausage was close to the edge of the table. I pushed it back and looked at Jess again. For the first time in weeks what was unbearable felt bearable.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Jess Clark
Related Symbols: The Jar of Sausages
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ginny has fixed a jar of poisoned sausages, designed to kill her sister, Rose. Rose has offended Ginny by sleeping with Jess Clark, Ginny’s former lover. Ginny had thought of Jess as a symbol of escape and freedom from Larry, and had seemingly truly fallen in love with him. Now, instead of hating Jess for his manipulation and deception, Ginny takes out her sense of betrayal by hating her sister, and even going so far as to try and kill her. (Whether this plot twist is plausible or not is arguable, but it does echo the events of King Lear, where Goneril poisons Regan.) Ginny makes sausages in particular because she knows that Jess is a vegetarian; Rose is the only person in the house who’s going to die.

Interestingly, Ginny feels eerily calm as she delivers the tool of her sister’s murder. When she presents it before Jess, she finds it easy to smile back at him, even though she’s been uneasy around him ever since hearing that he and Rose slept together. It’s interesting to compare the passage to Jess’s earlier description of how Harold Clark enjoys pretending to be eccentric in order to conceal his true nature: similarly, Ginny takes genuine pleasure in hiding her true feelings. At this point, she really is acting more overtly “villainous” (like her counterpart in Lear)—she’s no longer trying to escape from or punish an abusive father, but has now been corrupted by revenge and greed to the point that she turns a murderous hatred against her sister.

Book 5, Chapter 40 Quotes

I continued to behave as if I was living in the sight of all our neighbors, as Mr. Cartier had told us to. I waited for Rose to die, but the weather was warm for sauerkraut and liver sausage—that was a winter dish.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis , Jean Cartier
Related Symbols: The Jar of Sausages
Page Number: 316
Explanation and Analysis:

The strength, but also the weakness, of Ginny’s murder plot is that it’s slow-acting and relies heavily on chance. As a result, it’s less likely that Ginny will be linked to the murder—but until Rose dies, Ginny has to twiddle her thumbs and wait. Moreover, until that time, Ginny can’t focus on anything but the murder. There’s a constant cloud of vengeance hanging over her—her life is “stalled” until the day that Rose dies.

Ginny’s murder plot is intended to free Ginny from her anxieties about life on the farmland: by killing Rose, she can (she assumes) run off with Jess and escape Larry forever. But because the sausages don’t kill Rose right away, Ginny can’t live normally; she’s always looking over her shoulder and putting on appearances of normality (as her lawyer told her to, mentioned here). As we’ll see soon enough, Ginny will spend the next decade and more with the burden of Rose’s potential murder.

One thing was surely true about going to court. It had marvelous divided us from each other and from our old lives. There could be no reconciliation now.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

Ginny seems to be seeing the truth more and more clearly. She was seduced by the promise of power, as represented by Larry’s land. But now that she’s won a victory against her father in court (determining that she and Rose really are the owners of the farmland), she can’t savor her victory. Instead, Ginny sees clearly how the farmland has torn the family apart: she and Larry will never reconcile after their disagreements in court, and Caroline has seemingly turned against her sisters to side with Larry, meaning that the family will always be fractured.

Rose has said that she accepted Larry’s property as a form of revenge—her intention was to humiliate her aging father. In other words, her goal was to tear the family apart (at least in the sense of destroying Larry—Caroline didn’t seem to factor into it). Here, Ginny recognizes, Rose has gotten her wish—the Cook clan is in ruins—but in enacting their revenge on Larry, Rose and Ginny have hurt themselves too, not just their father. Ginny has sought revenge against Rose for sleeping with Jess, and it seems unlikely that they’ll ever be close again.