A Thousand Acres | Study Guide

Jane Smiley

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A Thousand Acres | Character Analysis

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Ginny Cook Smith

Ginny Cook Smith has always gone along with what her family wants—especially her father Larry. Intimidated by him, she is so accustomed to suppressing her feelings she interprets this fear as a dutiful kind of love. Larry's surprise decision to divide his thousand-acre farm between Ginny and her two sisters disrupts everything Ginny thought she knew about herself and her family. As her husband Ty is busy expanding the farm, Ginny has an affair with neighbor Jess Clark. When sister Caroline files a lawsuit to take back the farm, Rose reveals she and Ginny were sexually abused by their father. Ginny has buried her memories, but eventually images of Larry on top of her in bed resurface. She struggles to handle the torrent of anger that wells up, like the groundwater that must be constantly drained beneath their farm. Although she and Rose win the lawsuit and keep the farm, Ginny loses Jess to her sister Rose, and then walks out on her marriage. She tries to poison Rose but they reconcile before Rose's death from breast cancer. Ginny never comes to terms with her father, who, before his death, is too senile to confront about the incest. Although she can never forgive him, Ginny realizes she too has experienced the emotional darkness that leads people to do terrible things. Ginny corresponds to Goneril in King Lear.

Rose Cook Lewis

Rose Cook Lewis is the strong-willed second daughter of Larry Cook whom many family members call selfish because she stands up for herself. But Rose considers selfishness and anger necessary survival skills. After her mother dies when she is 12, she and her older sister Ginny are forced to fill the gap in their father's life, both by raising their younger sister Caroline, and by fulfilling his sexual needs. Although Ginny represses these memories and remains a dutiful daughter, Rose tries to escape by marrying Pete Lewis who aspires to be a musician. But both of them wind up under her father's thumb, farming right next door. Wary of her father, Rose sends her two daughters off to boarding school to shield them from him. Rose remains indomitable through two bouts with breast cancer, her sister Caroline's lawsuit to take back the farm, the rupture with Ginny after they both have affairs with the same man, and her husband Pete's suicide. Rose remains focused on two things: protecting her daughters, and forcing her father to face what he had done to her and Ginny. As Rose lies dying in a hospital bed after her second mastectomy, she is able to arrange things with Ginny so she achieves her goal with her daughters. But she laments that she failed in her goal with her father. Rose takes bitter comfort in the fact at least she never forgave him. Rose corresponds to Regan in King Lear.

Larry Cook

Larry Cook is the most successful farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, using both his farming skills and his willingness to take advantage of his neighbors' bad fortune to add to the land his father bequeathed him and create a thousand-acre domain. Proud and overconfident, Larry is competitive even with his friend Harold Clark. When Harold is influenced by the local banker to invest his profits into an expensive new tractor, Larry allows himself to be persuaded by the same banker to incorporate his farm as a business and to give an equal share to each of his three daughters and their husbands. The plan immediately backfires, causing a rift between Larry and his favorite daughter Caroline. Retirement doesn't sit well with Larry either. His behavior immediately becomes erratic and irrational. He is arrested for drunk driving and then stubbornly sets off one night into a thunderstorm. This is the turning point. It reconciles Caroline with Larry, leading to her lawsuit to wrest the farm back from her sisters. It also sets local opinion firmly against his daughters Ginny and Rose. Larry descends into senility, or madness, made painfully obvious by his irrational testimony in court. He loses the lawsuit, loses his farm, and loses what remains of his mental faculties. Living with Caroline in Des Moines, he retains only one thing: his good name. He dies before Rose and Ginny can confront him about his abuse of them. Larry corresponds to the character of King Lear in the play King Lear.

Caroline Cook

Caroline Cook is the independent youngest daughter of Larry Cook. Raised by her sisters Ginny and Rose after their mother dies, her youth and their efforts assure Caroline is never abused by him. They sacrifice to make sure she is happy and will feel free to make full use of her intelligence. Caroline shows no appreciation to her sisters for raising her. She does return home every three weeks to spend time with her father, but doesn't visit her sisters. Yet when Larry announces he intends to give her a share in the farm, she says, "I don't know." Furious, he retracts the offer, but ultimately it is Caroline who comes to his aid when he becomes senile. She invites him to live with her and they grow close. She files a lawsuit against Ginny and Rose to regain his farm. After her father and Rose die, Caroline has one final meeting with Ginny before the farm is auctioned off to pay debts. Angry, Caroline says she knows Ginny wants to tell her something about her father that will destroy her good memories of him. When Ginny holds back, Caroline drives off forever, incensed with Ginny but secure in her ignorance of her father's deeds. Caroline corresponds to Cordelia in King Lear.

Ty Smith

Ty Smith is the placid, even-tempered husband of Ginny Cook Smith. Having inherited 160 acres from his father at age 22, he marries Ginny two years later and they move into a farm right across the road from the one owned by his father-in-law. Ty respects Larry's advice on farming and always follows it, although he itches to expand his hog-raising operation, which he isn't free to do until Larry cedes control of this farm to his daughters and sons-in-law. Deeply uncomfortable with conflict or negativity, Ty is happy in his marriage to Ginny as long as she, like him, tries to keep the peace by remaining quiet and positive about everything. He even asks that they start using birth control after her third miscarriage because he cannot face another loss. He is oblivious to her unhappiness, never realizing she had an affair and failing to support her emotionally during the lawsuit with her father. It is Ginny, not Ty, who walks out on the marriage after an argument in which he chastises her for "following" her sister Rose and becoming a selfish and angry person. Ty continues to run the family farm with Rose after Ginny's departure, but it accumulates so much debt it fails and he goes to Texas to find work on a corporate-run hog operation. His final act is to stop at the restaurant where Ginny waitresses and ask for a divorce. Ty corresponds to the Duke of Albany, Goneril's husband, in King Lear.

Jess Clark

Jess Clark turned his back on his family and their 500-acre farm 13 years ago. Drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, Jess reported for basic training but fled to Canada after witnessing the death of a fellow trainee. Although his father Harold was so angry at Jess he refused to let his dying wife contact Jess to say goodbye, Harold is now overjoyed at his return. Nevertheless, Jess returns from Canada with a lot of ideas that don't sit well with his father, such as foregoing chemical pesticides and fertilizers in favor of organic farming methods. Jess even tells Ginny her miscarriages and the many cases of breast cancer in local farm wives are due to toxic chemical contamination of their well water. Jess embarks on a short affair with Ginny but ends it when he cannot return her love. He tries to be kind to her afterward, but this doesn't stop him from beginning a longer affair with her sister Rose, moving in with her soon after her husband Pete's death and trying to run the farm organically. But after reconciling with his blinded father Harold, Jess feels he can no longer live with the widow of the man who blinded him. He leaves for Canada without a note and never comes back. Jess corresponds to the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund in King Lear.

Pete Lewis

When Pete Lewis marries Rose Cook, they plan to make a life out West. Pete is a musician who has begun to make a few dollars playing in small clubs. But his temper and paranoia cost him the better-paying gigs on which he could make a real living. When Rose gets pregnant with their first child, they move back home and accept a farm from his father-in-law. Larry never approves of Pete, who in turn simmers with resentment toward him. Dissatisfaction is never far from the surface with Pete, and it frequently flares into anger, such as the time he broke Rose's arm. Since then he has stopped drinking, and seems almost happy when he is able to start making his own decisions after Larry gives the farm to his daughters and their husbands. But Pete's anger returns and spirals out of control after local opinion turns against them for "mistreating" Larry. Pete even concocts a plan to kill him by sabotaging Harold's tractor at a time when Pete believes Larry will be driving it. The plan goes tragically awry when Harold gets in the tractor instead and is blinded by ammonia. Soon after Rose tells him she is having an affair with Harold's son Jess. Pete gets drunk and dies after driving his truck into the local quarry. Pete corresponds to the Duke of Cornwall, Regan's husband, in King Lear.

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