A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres

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King Lear and Good vs. Evil 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.
King Lear and Good vs. Evil Theme Icon

It’s no secret that A Thousand Acres is based on William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy King Lear. Where Shakespeare’s work is about an elderly king who tries to divide up his property between his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, Smiley’s novel is about an elderly farmer, Larry Cook, who tries to divide up his property between his three daughters, Rose, Ginny, and Caroline. There are long passages in A Thousand Acres that are intended as homages to famous speeches from King Lear, and many of the secondary and even smaller characters have direct counterparts in Lear. It’s certainly important to keep the parallels between Smiley’s novel and Shakespeare’s play in mind while reading A Thousand Acres. But Smiley’s goal isn’t just to re-tell King Lear in a modern setting. Rather, she uses the original play as a source that she then plays with and revises, offering her own interpretation and critique of Shakespeare’s themes.

Lear, as its title suggests, puts the king at its center and explores its story around that central focus. A Thousand Acres, with a title that focuses on the land being divided rather than on any one character, takes a broader view, and in particular spends more time on the daughters’ side of the story: Ginny (the counterpart to Goneril, who in Lear is power-hungry and greedy above all else) is the narrator of the novel. By focusing on Ginny’s perspective, the novel presents her with real complexity. It isn’t that she’s presented as purely virtuous or good in the novel – she’s at times power-hungry, greedy, and vengeful, to name a few traits – but the novel does present her choices and actions within a broader context, and in doing so shows how so-called “evil” women might themselves be the victims of societal evils like sexism and abuse.

More broadly speaking, Smiley retells Lear in such a way that the characters in Lear who seemed more overtly evil (such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan) are now presented as neither entirely sympathetic nor completely evil (Ginny, Jess Clark, Rose). Ginny initially seems to be a decent, moral person, and believes herself to be a decent person even after her actions grow increasingly greedy and cruel, making it more difficult for readers to condemn or condone these actions. Even a character like Larry Cook, who’s guilty of an unambiguously evil crime, rape, may himself be the victim of other people’s evil deeds later in life. In general, A Thousand Acres uses its Lear allusions to suggest that labels like “good” and “evil” often can’t be so firmly applied in the real world.

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King Lear and Good vs. Evil Quotes in A Thousand Acres

Below you will find the important quotes in A Thousand Acres related to the theme of King Lear and Good vs. Evil.
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.)

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Book 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

“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 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 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 28 Quotes

It was incredible to hear Rose speak like this, but it was intoxicating, too, as sweet and forbidden as anything I had ever done.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel goes on, Rose and Ginny become more overtly villainous, confirming, perhaps, Ginny’s observation that she has a habit of taking on the antagonism people attribute to her. At the church potluck, Rose confides to Ginny that she wants to humiliate Larry—show him how far he’s fallen from his former glory and prestige. Ginny, who’s always thought of herself as a kind, loyal daughter, is a little shocked by Rose’s cruelty. But as she says here, she’s also “intoxicated,” knowing that Larry deserves whatever humiliation and punishment he might receive because of his past crimes, and relishing the shift in the family’s power dynamic.

The passage, at the simplest level, is about evil and how evil perpetuates itself. Ginny might not be an “evil” person, but she finds herself seduced by evil in trying to punish her father’s evil. While Regan and Goneril, the counterparts to Rose and Ginny in King Lear, are presented as more overtly and unambiguously villainous, Smiley wants to treat Rose and Ginny’s seemingly “wicked” actions with more nuance, particularly by identifying their source (Larry’s past abuse). Rose and Ginny both commit some horrible crimes of their own during the novel, but at the same time, they are the victims of their monstrous father; they’re trying to escape the traumatic past, but are trapped in a cycle of suffering and vengeance.

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 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.)

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.