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.
Appearance vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in A Thousand Acres
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.