A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres


Jane Smiley

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A Thousand Acres Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Missouri. She studied English literature at Vassar College, and graduated with a B.A. in 1971. Smiley spent the rest of the decade obtaining a number of degrees in literature and creative writing: an M.A. in 1975, an MFA in 1976, and a Ph.D. in 1978, all from the University of Iowa, arguably the most prestigious school for creative writing in the United States. Smiley published her first novel, Blind Barn, in 1980, when she was 31 years old. Smiley had begun working on the novel while she was an MFA student at Iowa; it was a critical success, but not a commercial one. The same was the case for Smiley’s next three novels, At Paradise Gate (1991), Duplicate Keys (1984), and The Greenlanders (1988). Smiley’s greatest critical and commercial success was A Thousand Acres, published in 1991. This novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, two of the three most prestigious prizes for fiction offered to American novelists (the third is the National Book Award, for which Smiley has been nominated on several occasions). Since 1991, Smiley has published 11 novels, four nonfiction books, and five children’s books. She resides in California.
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Historical Context of A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres is mostly set in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was the president of the United States. Carter was seen by many as an incompetent, ineffectual leader, and perhaps the novel’s themes of impotence and infertility, and its frustrated tone are meant to mirror the famous “malaise” of the Carter era. The novel also alludes to some of the milestones of the feminist movement of the late 50s and 60s, led by activists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Thanks to the success of the women’s rights movement, women in the late 70s had more opportunities for financial and sexual independence than their mothers, even if they continued to battle sexism and the “soft” bigotry of low expectations.

Other Books Related to A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres is designed as a modernization of William Shakespeare’s 1606 play King Lear, sometimes called the greatest play (or even the greatest work of literature) ever written. Almost every major character in the novel has a direct counterpart in King Lear; where Shakespeare tells the story of an elderly king who divides up his kingdom between three daughters, one of whom refuses the gift, Smiley tells the story of a powerful farmer who divides up his land between three daughters, one of whom refuses to accept. Smiley was also influenced by Pearl Buck’s 1931 opus The Good Earth, which is set in Chinese farmland, and follows a family across multiple generations. While the plot of Smiley’s book has little to do with Buck’s, their lyrical descriptions of soil and land are remarkably similar. Finally, Smiley has praised the novels of Willa Cather, particularly My Antonia (1918). Cather’s books are frequently set in Midwest farming communities (My Antonia takes place mostly in Nebraska, for instance), and tackle many of the same themes as A Thousand Acres, including gender dynamics and inheritance.
Key Facts about A Thousand Acres
  • Full Title:A Thousand Acres
  • Where Written:California
  • When Published:October 23, 1991
  • Literary Period:90s realism
  • Genre: Domestic realism, American novel
  • Setting:Zebulon Country (Midwestern United States)
  • Climax:The hearing
  • Antagonist:There are many: Larry Cook, Ginny Cook, Rose Cook, and Jess Clark could each be considered the true villain of the book.
  • Point of View:First person (Ginny)

Extra Credit for A Thousand Acres

Hollywood does it again: A Thousand Acres was both one of the most critically claimed novels of the early 1990s, and a sweeping family epic. In other words, the movie adaptation was inevitable. It came in 1997, starring Jason Robards, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jessica Lange. Despite the all-star cast and excellent story, the film bombed critically and commercially, making back less than a third of its budget. The famous critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The screenplay is based on a novel by Jane Smiley, unread by me, which won the Pulitzer Prize, which means that either the novel or the prize has been done a great injustice." (Spoiler: it’s the novel.)

A woman of many interests: Jane Smiley’s most famous novels are rich and beautifully written, and often revolve around a family in the American Midwest. But some of her most interesting books haven’t been novels at all. In 2010, she published The Man Who Invented the Computer, a biography of John Vincent Atanasoff, the man often credited with inventing the digital computer. She’s also published four other works of nonfiction, including a widely praised biography of Charles Dickens.