A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres

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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.
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Theme Icon

In King Lear, female characters tend to fall into two camps: purely good (such as Cordelia, the “good” daughter”) and purely evil (Regan and Goneril, the “bad” daughters). It’s the men of Lear – Lear, Edmund, Edgar, even Gloucester and Kent – who get the most time on stage, and who have the most psychological depth. As Smiley has stated in interviews and essays, part of her intention in writing One Thousand Acres was to offer the Lear story from a female perspective, a perspective that didn’t have as firm a place in literature during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Further, by setting Lear in late-1970s America, Smiley is able to examine the lives of women in a more recognizably contemporary environment that offers them more economic and sexual freedom. At the same time, Smiley shows how modern women are still burdened by sexism, and how the promise of being able to “have it all” is more perilous than it appears.

Thanks to feminist activists of the 1950s and 60s, women in America in the 1970s –such as Ginny, Rose, and Caroline – had more social, economic, and sexual freedom than their parents enjoyed. Caroline is a successful attorney, and Larry Cook entrusts his valuable farmland to Ginny and Rose. And yet in spite of the advantages women enjoy in the novel, their actions and decisions are still greeted with skepticism and often ridicule by the mostly male-dominated society around them. At one point Larry calls his daughters “bitches” and “whores” and says that he would have been better off with sons—proving that even as gender equality has improved, it is by no means complete, and women continue to suffer from deep-seeded misogyny and sexism.

Arguably the most important example of how misogyny continues to shape the female characters’ lives is sexual abuse. Halfway through the novel, we learn that Larry Cook is an incestuous rapist: after the death of his wife, Larry began to sleep with his two eldest daughters, Ginny and Rose. Even though Larry’s sexual abuse ended a long time ago, Ginny and Rose are still traumatized by their pasts—a fact that is both a realistic depiction of most sexual trauma and one that can be read as symbolizing the way that America’s misogynist, disempowering, and often violent past – in which women were essentially the property of first their fathers and then their husbands – continues to limit modern women’s freedom and happiness, even when they are, by all appearances, free to do whatever they choose.

Smiley further explores the relationship between female freedom and misogyny through the concept of fertility, both literal and metaphorical. On a literal level, the novel examines the fertility of the human body – a woman’s ability to have children. Smiley parallels female fertility with the fertility of farmland itself; “fertile” land is capable of bearing healthy crops, and fertile women are capable of bearing children. After their father gives him their land, Ginny and Rose are expected to be “fertile” in both senses of the word: they’re expected to be good farmers, and, because of their culture’s sexist assumptions, they’re also expected to bear children and be good mothers to them. Indeed, not only are Rose and Ginny expected to have children, but they also expect it of themselves because they’ve internalized society’s norms and ideas. Ginny, for instance, is convinced that her own life will be incomplete until she has children of her own.

Smiley also shows how the two senses of “fertility” can conflict with one another. Ginny, who’s had five miscarriages, suspects that the farmland itself keeps her infertile. The very water she drinks is tainted with chemicals like DDT to ward off pests — what’s good for fertile crops is bad for her body. Put simply, Ginny not only struggles to be a good farmer and a good mother, but the novel suggests that the effort to be a good farmer (to excel at work) is sometimes at odds with the effort to be a good mother. By the same token, Smiley implies that the literal, financial freedom of women in the 70s (and even today) has been undercut by persistent sexist ideas, particularly the idea that a woman’s purpose in life is to have a baby. The women of A Thousand Acres are expected to “be both” — to be successful, “modern” women with jobs and businesses, but also traditionally submissive, childbearing wives — even when doing both is almost impossible.

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Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Quotes in A Thousand Acres

Below you will find the important quotes in A Thousand Acres related to the theme of Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility.
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.

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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 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 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 19 Quotes

She wore a cast for eight weeks, and she made a sleeve for it with the words PETE DID THIS, glued on it in felt letters.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Rose Cook Lewis , Pete Lewis
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that Pete Lewis beat his wife, Rose, until he eventually he broke her arm. Rose was so furious about Pete’s actions that when she wore a cast, she wrote, “Pete did this” on it. The cast acted as a reminder to everybody in the community that Pete wasn’t the good, easygoing man he pretended to be: Rose refused to give Pete the luxury of hiding from his crimes.

As we’ll eventually learn, though, Rose’s actions have a deeper meaning. Rose advertises Pete’s abuse because she refuses to let someone else get away with mistreating her, after Larry. Larry raped Rose repeatedly when she was a teenager, and Rose has been living with the trauma for decades. She refuses to let anyone take advantage of her ever again—hence the sleeve on the cast. Rose’s willingness to publicize Pete’s abusiveness contrasts with her reluctance to tell anyone about her father’s actions. In part, the difference is that, in the case of Larry’s abuse, there is no “this”—in other words, there is no physical mark that Rose can point to as a sign of her father’s cruelty. (See quotes from Chapter 24 for more on Rose’s reaction to Larry’s abuse.)

Book 3, Chapter 20 Quotes

It was exhilarating, talking to my father as if he were my child, more than exhilarating to see him as my child.

Related Characters: Ginny Cook Smith (speaker), Laurence Cook
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another sign that Ginny isn’t quite as virtuous as she often believes herself to be. After Larry drinks and drives, he winds up in the hospital. As Ginny drives Larry home, she gets a little thrill from asserting so much power over her own father, of whom she was frightened for many years. Now that Larry is old and growing senile, Rose and Ginny have become the powerful people in the Cook family: Larry is practically their child (they have to support him and provide for him in almost every material way).

Ginny, while she thinks of herself as a good, responsible caretaker, is actually more vengeful and assertive than she lets on. She doesn’t take care of Larry just out of the goodness of her heart; she takes care of Larry partly because she likes feeling powerful. Rose and Ginny assert their power over their father in two ways: Rose does so by bullying him, while Ginny does so more subtly, by babying him.

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.

“He won’t get away with it, Ginny. I won’t let him get away with it. I just won’t.”

Related Characters: Rose Cook Lewis (speaker), Ginny Cook Smith , Laurence Cook
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

One question hangs over the second half of the novel: why doesn’t Rose go to the police or make Larry’s crimes public? Why can’t she just tell the authorities and townspeople that her father is a criminal, an incestuous rapist? What we gather, based on this chapter, is that Rose feels partly responsible for her own rape—an irrational, but all-too common response among traumatized rape victims. Furthermore, there’s no indication that anybody would believe Rose if she said that Larry raped her years ago (as is often the case in situations like this, unfortunately). Finally, as the quote suggests, Rose would never be satisfied with merely a legal punishment for her father: she wants to destroy her father completely, expunging her own sense of guilt in the process.

The only way for Rose to totally destroy her father, Smiley implies, is to control everything he owns, including the farm. Rose’s plan is to humiliate her father until the day he dies: reshaping his farmland into a hog farm, and never showing compassion or love of any kind for him. By asserting her ownership of the farmland, Rose hopes to purge all memory of Larry from her surroundings, and therefore from her own mind. The problem, however, is that such an obsession with revenge usually leads to more pain and corruption for the person seeking vengeance than punishment for the original offender.

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 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.