In her novel, Smiley gives us a verysimple moral regarding this patriarchal society: women who remain financially andemotionally dependent on men decay; those able to break the economic and emotionalchains develop as women and as hum ans. Roots of A Thousand Acres can be seen in numerous novels and plays, themost obvious of which is King Lear. The parallels are too great to ignore. Smiley is successful because she fills in so many of the gaps left open in theplay.
She gives us new an d different perspectives. One of the particular strengths of the novel lies in its depiction of theplace of women in a predominantly patriarchal culture. In this male dominatedculture, the values privileged in women include silence and subordination. Ginnyis acceptable as a woman as long as she remains “oblivious” (121).
She is allowedto disagree with men, contingent upon her doing so without fighting (104). Ultimately, her opinion as a woman remains irrelevant. Ginny remarks, “of courseit was silly to talk about ‘my po int of view. ‘ When my father asserted his pointof view, mine vanished” (176). When she makes the “mistake” of crossing herfather, she is referred to as a “bitch,” “whore,” and “slut” (181, 185).
It could be argued that many of the male characters in the novel aresuffering from a type of virgin/whore syndrome. As long as the women remaindocile receptacles they are “good”; when they resist or even question masculineauthority, they are “bad. ” Rose complains, “When we are good girls and accept ourcircumstances, we’re glad about it. .
. . When we are bad girls, it drives us crazy”(99). The women have been indoctrinated to the point that they initially buy intoand accept these standards of judgem ent.
The type of patriarchy described bySmiley simply serves to show the inscription of the marginalization of women bymen in the novel and in our society. Another strength of the novel is its treatment of secrets and appearances. Like characters in a Lewis or Bellow novel, the characters in A Thousand Acres aremore concerned with maintaining a veneer of social respectability than withaddressing reality. Life, for them, becomes some kind of facade.
Nearly everyone has a secret andnothing is as it seems. Our narrator tell us, “They all looked happy” (38); andlater, “Most issues on a farm return to the issue of keeping up appearances”(199). Amid all of the sub-plots and mini-themes (and there are many) in AThousand Acres, the one recurring theme which stands out is Smiley’s criticism ofa masculine-dominated culture. The one element clearly valued in a woman by thispatriarchal society is silence.
“The girls sat quietly” (95) and they are goodgirls. For a woman to express her own feelings in the novel can lead to harmfulrepressions. So it is that Ginny suppresses her voice. Her inability andunwillingness to stand up to her father, and even to Ty (in reference to thebabies especially), shows that she allows herself to remain marginalizedthroughout much of the novel.
In A Thousand Acres, Smiley tries to capture the tensions of real everydayliving in her representation of a dysfunctional rural family steeped in apatriarchal tradition. She shows the effects of the unreasonableness of ourpatriarchal society and indi cts it in the process. Ginny is defined within adouble set of cultural constraints. She is confined not only by prevailingexpectations regarding social behavior but also by those governing the properbehavior of women. Reticence is an essential part of the code of feminine decorumbased on the idea of woman’s inherent weakness and the need to defer to and relyupon masculine strength and protection.
By allowing Ginny to break the chains ofreticence and flee, literally, to a new life, Smiley turns w eakness into strengthas she envisions a more reasonable (and perhaps more feminized) social order. Sheforces us to ask what ideals we are being sacrificed to. . . patriotism? Maintaining appearances? Maintaining patriarchal standards? Smiley speaks forall who have been marginalized when she states (through Jess), “Maybe to you itlooked like I just vanished, but I was out there” (55)!