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A Thousand Acres | Symbols



Land, particularly the titular "thousand acres," forms a central symbol in the novel. Land is almost synonymous with the ideas of family, status, and power. All the farmers in Zebulon County judge one another based on both their acreage and the quality and yield of their crops, and Larry Cook is generally considered, by his own family and the rest of the county, to be the pinnacle of farming achievement. However, his image as an ideal farmer and man is deceptive: his intimidation and exploitation of others, both family and neighbors, ultimately leads to the disintegration of his legacy as his daughters repudiate him and the farm. The land is sold to a corporate farm, an example of poetic justice enacted posthumously.


Ginny frequently refers to the drainage system her great-grandparents built and her father still maintains in order to keep their land dry enough to farm. She expresses an almost religious reverence for the system, evincing more respect for the family that dug it than for the deity she worships in church every Sunday. But her pride about the drainage system is disturbed by the image of the water that flows through it, a constant undercurrent of unease. Her conscious fear is either the water will rise up through the open drainage grates and swamp the farm, or a child will fall through the grates and drown in it.

Substitute the word memory for water, and it is possible to interpret these fears of real physical danger as symbols of Ginny's deep-seated anxiety about the memories she is suppressing. Just as the water runs ceaselessly beneath the land she walks on, whether she is aware of it or not, so too do her memories move stealthily in her unconscious. They are always threatening to rise up and swamp her.

There are also hints, however, memory can heal as well as harm. Ginny craves the cleansing and refreshing coolness of the water in the county swimming pool during the oppressively hot summer days. Perhaps part of her recognizes how immersing herself in the memories she fears could ultimately save her.


One of the major concerns of the novel is the severe environmental damage wrought by the multitude of potent agricultural chemicals used by farmers. The toxins that leach into the soil and water are a source of grave concern to some of the characters, especially Jess and Rose, but eventually Ginny as well. At the end of the book it is one of the charges Ginny flings at Ty when he comes to ask her for a divorce, that he embraces farming as some "grand" mission without acknowledging the harm it causes, such as "poisoning the water and destroying the topsoil."

Beyond the great physical harm this poses to people, from cancer to miscarriage, poison has a symbolic meaning in the book as well. The chemicals in the farm's well water not only physically prevent Ginny and Ty from having a family, they are also emblematic of the poisonous effect farm life has on their marriage.

It is no accident the only characters who suffer from the cancerous effects of drinking the contaminated well water are women. Thus Jane Smiley underlines her thematic statement about the disproportionate toll farm life takes on women. Poison symbolizes the suppression of women on the farm. That is why only wives and mothers die from cancer while the men manage to escape the lethal consequences of the poisons they spread.

Finally, when characters are moved beyond their endurance to lash out at someone who has injured them, they choose poisons they can find on the farm to do their dirty work. Pete Lewis uses a toxic liquid fertilizer in an attempt to kill his father-in-law Larry, blinding Harold Clark by accident instead. Ginny considers many different agricultural chemicals when she wants to kill her sister Rose but settles on water hemlock, a poisonous plant that grows wild on their land. Once again, poison is symbolic of the destructive effect the farming way of life can have on those who lead it.

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