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A Thousand Acres | Context

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King Lear

A Thousand Acres is often described as "King Lear in a cornfield." It is a 20th-century American re-imagining of British playwright William Shakespeare's 17th-century play in which a father divides his kingdom among his three daughters with tragic consequences. Although it's true Jane Smiley was inspired by King Lear, the novel is more a reaction against Shakespeare's creative vision than it is an imitation of it, much less a tribute to it. Smiley has said she doesn't understand why the audience is supposed to side with Lear against his daughters. "Lear was always a blowhard," Smiley said in a 2014 interview. "I had always been sympathetic to Goneril and Regan."

Smiley began thinking about Lear's daughters and what reason they might have had for treating him badly. It was not an easy task. "I found A Thousand Acres to be incredibly exhausting, a terrible labor that I only managed to propel myself through out of a kind of anger," Smiley explains. "Shakespeare both took me by the hand and slapped me across the face."

In the end she made many changes in transporting Shakespeare to contemporary times. First, she moved the setting from a warring kingdom in England to the fertile plains of Iowa in 1979. Smiley attended graduate school in Iowa, and grew up in Missouri, so she knew this part of the United States well.

Second, and most important, she shifted the viewpoint character. In the play Lear is the tragic hero and focus of the action. What interests Shakespeare are the relationships between Lear and each of his daughters. In the novel, by contrast, Ginny, a daughter, is the narrator and focus of the action. Although the dysfunctional relationship between the Lear-counterpart Larry Cook and his three daughters is crucial, Smiley's real interest lies in how the damage caused by Larry's actions affects the relationships among the three sisters.

Character Counterparts

  • Ginny Cook Smith is Goneril; her husband Ty Smith is the Duke of Albany.
  • Rose Cook Lewis is Regan; her husband Pete Lewis is the Duke of Cornwall.
  • Caroline Cook is Cordelia; her fiancé Frank Rasmussen is the king of France.
  • Larry Cook is King Lear.
  • Harold Clark is the Earl of Gloucester.
  • Jess Clark is Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund.
  • Loren Clark is Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar.

Larry Cook and Lear: Sex versus Love

The relationship between father and daughters is corrupted in both the novel and the play, but for different reasons. In the play Lear wants more from his daughters than the subservience he receives from his courtiers. He yearns to be loved and, in fact, asks for a declaration of love from his three daughters before choosing which one to grant his kingdom. Sometimes the language Lear uses sounds uncomfortable to modern ears, more like a lover than a father. But Shakespeare gives no clear indication in the play of an immoral relationship between Lear and his daughters.

Matters are very different in A Thousand Acres. In the novel Larry doesn't seem to care whether his daughters love him. He is an unsentimental man who shows no affection toward them. What he demands is their obedience, respect, and service. He expects they will cater to his every whim—which, in the case of the teenaged Ginny and Rose, includes providing for his sexual needs after the death of their mother.

The damage this incestuous relationship causes is a poison every bit as corrosive as the dangerous agricultural chemicals on the farm. Smiley found a compelling reason why her versions of Goneril and Regan might turn on their father, and contemporary readers of Shakespeare may never see King Lear in the same way again.

Life on a 20th-Century American Farm

The thousand-acre farm owned by Larry Cook is the biggest, most successful holding in Zebulon County. But even the smaller places tended by Harold Clark and Larry's other neighbors are all relatively large-scale business operations. A Thousand Acres concerns agricultural families who can no longer afford the luxury of running a family-type farm. In fact, the characters in the novel look down on those who keep only a couple dozen animals as hobbyists doomed to failure. Larry and Harold, their sons and sons-in-law, all must plow a lot of money into a lot of acres in order to survive. A single new tractor costs Harold $40,000, and Ginny's husband Ty borrows $300,000 in order to expand his hog farm to 6,000 animals. For the giant agricultural concerns that loom as a constant threat just offstage in the book, investments like this are a drop in the bucket. But a single farmer cannot afford such debt. All it takes is one rainy harvest, or an ill-timed drop in crop prices, to wipe him out.

The plight of farmers in late 20th-century America is one of the themes Smiley set out to explore when she wrote the novel and the reason why she set the book in rural Iowa. Although the novel looks sympathetically at the hardships faced by modern farmers, it is harshly critical of them as well. The women of the novel—the farm wives and daughters—pay a heavy price. Although the backbreaking work they do is crucial to the success or failure of a farm, the men in their lives make the decisions and tell them what to do. And the other wives are always watching, judging to see how clean the house is kept and how well the garden is tended and the food is cooked. It is a way of life that takes an emotional toll on farm families, women and children especially. As Rose says in Chapter 24, "First their wives collapse under the strain, then they take it out on their children for as long as they can."

The 1970s

Price of Gasoline

Although the book was published in 1991, it is set more than a decade earlier in 1979, and the characters frequently make reference to current events without fully explaining them. For instance, one of the things that worries Ginny and Rose about Larry's sudden habit of driving all over the county is how much gasoline this uses. In 1973 a coalition of Arab countries started increasing the cost of a barrel of oil in response to the Arab-Israeli War. Prices rose from $3 to $12 per barrel, causing gasoline prices to spike. The U.S. government even instituted gas rationing, but prices continued to escalate. By 1979 the cost of a barrel of oil had risen to $40. Since so much equipment on a farm requires large amounts of fuel to operate, the Cooks were understandably anxious about Larry using any more gas than necessary.

Vietnam War

Much is also made of Jess Clark's draft evasion. For many years the United States sent military troops into the Southeast Asian country of South Vietnam to fight the Communist regime of North Vietnam (1955–75). Young men aged 18 and older were drafted into compulsory service to fight there. Many Americans were opposed to the draft, and to the war; some fled to Canada to escape service in the army. By 1975 the United States' involvement had ended and the last troops came home. Even so, those who chose to evade the draft were often judged harshly. That is probably one reason why Jess delayed four years after the war before deciding to return home. He was afraid of his family's reaction, and rightly so, as it turns out. Although Harold joyfully welcomes Jess at first, by the end of the book he condemns his son as a coward for not fighting in the war.

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