A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres

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Inheritance, Land, and Memory 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.
Inheritance, Land, and Memory Theme Icon

A Thousand Acres studies inheritance: the passage of property, especially from one generation to the next. Sometimes, the “property” in question is literal: as the novel begins, Larry Cook signs the papers that turn over his thousand acres of farmland to his two eldest daughters, Ginny and Rose. But in reality, the characters’ most importance inheritance is abstract: the memories and influences passed on from parents to children, and the way such memories and influences are often inextricably connected to concrete inheritances like land and money.

The tragedy of Ginny and Rose’s lives is that they want to inherit certain aspects of their father’s legacy, such as his land and his money, but don't want to inherit other aspects of his legacy (they don’t want to remember their father’s cruelty and abusiveness—in fact, they don’t really want to remember their father at all). Ginny and Rose talk about moving away from their farmland altogether and becoming waitresses in Saint Paul, thus freeing themselves from the memory of their father. But because of Ginny and Rose’s strong desire for wealth and independence, and their sense of having a legitimate claim to their father’s property, they remain on and take over running the farm.

Because Ginny and Rose choose to inherit their father’s property, they must also “inherit” memories of their father, traumatic though some of the memories are. As the novel goes on, Ginny and Rose try to maintain their new property and forget about their father, but nothing they try works. Their property is so closely connected to Larry’s life and career that to live on the farm is to remember Larry. Smiley demonstrates the link between Larry and his property throughout her novel, most directly in the scene where Ginny walks through her father’s house; the sight of specific rooms, especially her own, triggers her to vividly remember her father raping her. In the end, Ginny seems to realize the futility of her struggle: as long as she keeps her father’s old property, her father will be “with” her. Her decision, toward the end of the novel, to leave the farm and move to the city suggests that her desire to be free of the traumatic familial legacy, her family’s emotional inheritance, outweighs her desire for the potential wealth that ownership of the farm, her physical inheritance, offers.

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Inheritance, Land, and Memory Quotes in A Thousand Acres

Below you will find the important quotes in A Thousand Acres related to the theme of Inheritance, Land, and Memory.
Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

There was no way to tell by looking that the land beneath my childish feet wasn’t the primeval mold I read about in school, but it was new, created by magic lines of tile my father would talk about with pleasure and reverence. Tile “drew” the water, warmed the soil, and made it easy to work, enabled him to get into the field with his machinery a mere 24 hours after the heaviest storm.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Smiley sketches out a “creation myth” for the Cooks’ portion of the Midwestern United States. Ginny, the narrator of the novel, describes how her great-grandparents, and later her grandparents, built an elaborate agricultural system using “tiles” (mechanisms that filter the soil and make it easy to control). Larry inherited his ancestors’ tiles—not unlike a king inheriting a kingdom from his father. The passage lends a majestic, semi-mythological tone to the novel: Ginny feels tied to the farmland of her community, because it’s been in her family for a long, long time, and because her family actually changed the farmland at an almost geological level. If anybody has a claim to owning the land, it’s a Cook.

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Book 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

We’ll stop making allowances tomorrow. This is important. He’s handing over his whole life, don’t you understand that? We have to receive it in the right spirit. And Rose and Pete and even Ty are ready to receive it. Just do it this once. Last time, I promise.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis , Caroline Cook , Laurence Cook , Tyler “Ty” Smith , Pete Lewis
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ginny tries to convince her sister, Caroline, to go along with Larry’s plan to divide up his property between his three daughters. Previously, Caroline has been the only daughter to question her father’s sudden decision. Larry is getting older, he drinks a lot, and there are legitimate reasons to believe that he’s not in the right state of mind to voluntarily give up his own land and money. And yet Ginny and Rose go along with Larry’s decision—they want his property, even if they don’t admit it. Caroline, who, Ginny notes, has always loved Larry most dearly, is the only one to question Larry’s decision: an act that, on the surface of things, might seem disobedient, but is actually a sign of respect. It’s also important to note that Caroline is more financially independent than either of her siblings (she’s a lawyer) and less closely tied to her father’s farmland (unlike her siblings, she lives in Des Moines). It’s easier for Caroline to speak about the farmland frankly, because she’s not as biased by financial motives or by an emotional connection to the land.

The passage also implies some of Ginny’s latent guilt at accepting her father’s property so eagerly: she wants Caroline to accept her father’s generosity because of her own guilty conscience. Ginny tries to trick Caroline into accepting the money out of a sense of duty to her father—when in reality (as Caroline seems to know), the truly “dutiful” thing to do is probably to turn down the property altogether, or at least advise Larry to wait before making a rash decision.

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 9 Quotes

I have this recurring nightmare about grabbing things that might hurt me, like that straight razor Daddy used to have, or a jar of some poison that spills on my hands. I know I shouldn’t and I watch myself, but I can’t resist.

Related Characters: Rose Cook Lewis (speaker), Ginny Cook Smith , Laurence Cook
Related Symbols: The Jar of Sausages
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Rose differs from her sister in many important ways; one of these is her acquisitiveness. Rose has no illusions about her personality: she was always a greedy person, even when she was a young child (or dreaming, as here). Whenever she saw something she liked, she had to have it immediately—even if the item in question was bad for her. Rose knows perfectly well that her greediness is a flaw: she recognizes that sometimes, she desires things that are bad for her; hence her nightmare about grabbing razor blades and poison. And yet Rose is powerless to change who she is.

The passage is important because it foreshadows the events of the rest of the novel. Rose will soon be seduced by her own wealth and power, to the point where she’ll be “chained” to her own farmland, even though she knows that it’s bad for her soul. (Also notice the subtle foreshadowing: Rose mentions a “poisoned jar’ much like the one Ginny will later use in an attempt to kill her.)

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 3, Chapter 23 Quotes

I flattered you when I called you a bitch! What do you want to reduce me to? I’ll stop this building! I’ll get the land back! I’ll throw you whores off this place. You’ll learn what it means to treat your father like this. I curse you!

Related Characters: Laurence Cook (speaker), Ginny Cook Smith , Rose Cook Lewis
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a direct homage to King Lear, Larry Cook accosts his two eldest daughters in the middle of a wild storm. Larry is furious that his daughters have mistreated him and disrespected him. It’s hard to say exactly what Larry’s children have done to offend him, however; they take care of him and invite him to spend more time with them. And yet, by Ginny’s own admission, the Cook daughters have also taken some pleasure in belittling their father—treating him like a child—and perhaps Larry is reacting to his children’s barely-concealed (and, in light of his abuse and rape, justified) contempt. Moreover, Larry is angry with himself for rejecting Caroline, and he takes out his frustration on Rose and Ginny.

As a result, Larry yells at Rose and Ginny, accusing them of being bad daughters and bad people. He even claims that he should never have given up his land, and that he’s going to try to get it back. The passage reiterates what an important part of Larry’s identity his land was: now that Larry has signed away his property, he’s “naked,” stripped of his identity and power. (Notice also that Larry calls his daughters “bitches” and “whores,” both exposing his deep sexism and foreshadowing the events of the next few chapters.)

Book 3, Chapter 24 Quotes

“He didn’t rape me, Ginny. He seduced me. He said it was okay, that it was good to please me, that he needed it, that I was special. He said he loved me.”
I said, “I can’t listen to this.”

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

In this horrifying passage, Rose confesses that Larry had sex with her when she was only a teenager. Curiously, Rose refuses to admit that Larry raped her—even thought it’s pretty clear that, for all intents and purposes, he did. The way Rose puts it, she was “seduced” by Larry—suggesting that, on some level, she feels responsible for her own father’s incestuous crimes (“raped” would suggest that Rose had no control in the matter; “seduced” would suggest that on some level she chose to have sex with Larry).

The passage is a good example of the irrational guilt that survivors of rape and incest often feel: they believe that they themselves are responsible for their own abuse. Rose’s explanation is not logical; she was a child, and can hardly be blamed for not fighting back against her intimidating, frightening father. But her guilt explains why she’s wrestled with her traumatic memories for so long. Also notice that Ginny refuses to listen to the truth about her father; she’s in denial about Rose’s mistreatment because she’s also in denial of her own.

Book 3, Chapter 28 Quotes

Since then I’ve often thought we could have taken our own advice, driven to the Twin Cities and found jobs as waitresses, measured out our days together in a garden apartment, the girls in one bedroom, Rose and I in the other, anonymous, ducking forever a destiny that we never asked for, that was our father’s gift to us.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis , Laurence Cook , Pamela , Linda
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ginny expresses her desire to escape from the farmland where she’s spent most of her life and go to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul). Ginny recognizes that she’ll never be entirely happy on the farm: there are too many bad memories. The farmland itself is a symbol of her family and her family’s legacy (the tiles themselves were laid by Larry’s ancestors), so Ginny can’t live on the farm and also forget about Larry and Larry’s crimes. As long as she accepts his property, she has to accept his influence and her memories of him. The alternative to accepting Larry’s influence is to “escape” the influence of Larry’s property by moving to a city. This is why the thousand acres is both a blessing and a curse to the Cook daughters.

But even if working as a waitress in the city would be a welcome release from Larry’s overbearing, intimidating presence, Ginny isn’t strong enough to leave (yet). She wants her father’s land and money, and she feels a legitimate family connection to the land. (She also feels she deserves it, and wants to get back at Larry by taking his power and wealth.) Like Rose in her nightmares, Ginny feels drawn to the things that slowly kill her.

Book 5, Chapter 40 Quotes

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.

Book 5, Chapter 41 Quotes

Ty yelled, “I gave my life to this place!”
Without looking around at him, I yelled back, “Now it’s yours!”

Related Characters: Tyler “Ty” Smith (speaker), Ginny Cook Smith
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ginny makes the choice to turn her back on her husband and her own farmland. She’s won a victory in court by defeating her father, and yet it seems to bring her little pleasure. Instead, her court victory seems to remind her how toxic her farmland really is: it’s corrupting her soul. Instead of staying around to run the farm, Ginny gives it up to her husband in the middle of a fight, and impulsively leaves for the city (to become a waitress, just as she and Rose had vaguely planned).

The irony of the passage is that Ginny is finally escaping from her old life in the country—but too late. Ginny and Rose had talked about getting away from their father and starting fresh, but their greed and guilt kept them around. Now, Ginny has finally summoned the courage to move away from her childhood home—but only after she’s plotted to murder her sister and is cutting ties with her husband. Ginny can’t truly escape her past, because the possibility that Rose will “drop dead” will always be hanging over her head.

Book 6, Chapter 45 Quotes

“Look at Daddy! He knew he’d treated me unfairly, but that we really felt love for each other. He made amends. We got really close at the end.”

“How did he mistreat you?”
“Well, by getting mad and cutting me out of the farm.”

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Caroline Cook (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 362-363
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ginny comes ever so close to telling Caroline the truth about their father. Caroline claims that she found the strength to forgive Larry for how he “mistreated” her—but she seemingly has no idea that her father was an incestuous rapist, and thinks that his “mistreatment” was merely cutting her out of inheriting the farm. At this point, Ginny seems poised to tell Caroline the truth about Larry. But she never does.

The passage is full of ambiguities: Caroline ended up having the best relationship with Larry (she even helped him sue Rose and Ginny), but only because she had the shallowest understanding of who he really was. Smiley leaves open the possibility that Caroline was also raped by Larry (neither Ginny nor Rose knows to a certainty whether or not she was, though they tried to protect her from being abused) and repressed it, or even forgave him. Because Caroline and Ginny never open up to one another, we never know the truth. Smiley suggests that Caroline’s supposed “goodness” might be nothing more than ignorance of her father’s horrific crimes. (It’s also worth noting that Caroline calls Larry “Daddy” here, something she refused to do at the beginning of the book.)

I had a burden lift off me that I hadn’t even felt the heaviness of until then, and it was the burden of having to wait and see what was going to happen…

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 367
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ginny gets rid of the poisoned sausages that she’s just rediscovered in Rose’s basement. Years before, Ginny cooked the sausages with hemlock, in an attempt to murder her sister as punishment for sleeping with Jess, her lover. Ginny has spent the last decade with the burden of her sister’s impending death hanging over her. Now, she’s gotten rid of that burden by throwing the sausages away.

The irony of the passage, of course, is that Ginny relieves herself of guilt and responsibility too late. If she’d thrown away the sausages years ago, before she ran away from her old home, she possibly could have preserved her relationship with Rose. As it stands, Ginny loses her property, her husband, and her sisters because she has a bad habit of doing the right thing too late.

Epilogue Quotes

I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose never to remember—the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house late at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shaft I safeguard above all the others.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 371
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to an end, Ginny finds herself in a dark place. One of her sisters is dead; the other one barely talks to her. Her parents are dead, and her property is gone—indeed, almost all memories of the Cooks’ former glory are gone (except, in a brutal irony, the community’s memory of Larry as a kind of “saint”). As Ginny contemplates her life, she thinks back to her father, the man who raped her, setting in motion the cycle of guilt, regret, and revenge that has made her adult life so hard.

Ginny’s recollections of her father are important for a number of reasons. First, it would seem that, understandably, Ginny is no less traumatized by her father’s actions than she was years before: she’s tried to enact revenge on him, but she’s ended up destroying her own life in the process. Larry’s incest continues to darken her life—it’s “lodged” in her mind, impossible to remove. Second, the passage suggests a sinister connection between Larry and Ginny. After so many years of greed, domination, and revenge, Ginny s no longer a good, virtuous person; one could even argue that she’s become a lot like her father in some ways. Notice how easily Ginny puts herself in her father’s place—disturbingly, she claims to understand the motives that led Larry to rape her; the innate darkness and sinful urges that can impel a human being to do evil (the same sinful urges that impelled Ginny to try to murder her own sister). If there’s a theme to this passage (and maybe to the book as a whole), it’s that evil begets more evil. Here, Smiley implies that Larry’s horrible, incestuous crimes have both permanently scarred Ginny and pushed her to become a dark, jealous, and in some senses, evil person.