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.
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility ThemeTracker
Women, Sexual Abuse, and Fertility Quotes in A Thousand Acres
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.
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.
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!
“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.”
“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.”
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.