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Body and Visibility in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

Body and Visibility in A Thousand Acres

The west insists on the discrete identity of objects. To name is to know; to know is to control. (Paglia, p.5)

[Woman’s beauty] gives the eye the comforting illusion of intellectual control over nature. (Paglia, p.17)

If the male gaze is a tool to conceptualize reality, then -like an axe- it can also be used as a weapon. The Paglia quotes above refer not only to matters of epistemology or even ontology (“This is what we see; therefore, this is what exists”), it is equally fitting to describe concrete powerrelations in a social system constructed on the basis of Apollonian control.

Larry has complete control of his little kingdom and its subjects, and one of the ways in which this is enforced, is through the visibility of the land and of the body. The Apollonian eye works by objectifying, and that is what happens to Ginny when her father abuses her: she turns into an object that he can use; whose only form of resistance is “desperate limp inertia” (280). She gets dissociated from her body, a body that reminds her of the powerlessness she feels.

This explains the “contradictory little rituals” of sex with Ty: “There had to be some light in the room, if only from the hall. Daytime was better than nighttime, and no surprises. I always wore a nightgown, I closed my eyes.[…] I hated for him to turn away or look down.” (278) Light, especially daylight, hinders associations of her father’s nightly visits, but, on the other hand, she can’t stand Ty or herself to see her body. Instinctively, she knows the power of the gaze.

When she and Rose compare recurring nightmares, Rose’s are about grabbing things that hurt her, symbolizing the rage and greed that will destroy her. Ginny’s are about being naked, under the cold light of the eye. Thus, it foreshadows the most important instance of Larry’s power games, when she has forgotten to bring him eggs for breakfast and must run home to get them: “The whole way I was conscious of my body -graceless and hurrying, unfit, panting, ridiculous in its very femininity. It seemed like my father could just look out of his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable.” (114-115). She has internalized the connection between her body, by definition graceless and powerless; without dignity, and her father’s exertion of power and Apollonian conceptualization/control by sight.

Overt Control in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

[N]ature is a festering hornet’s nest of aggression and overkill. (Paglia p.28)

In a patriarchal and capitalist society grounded in the rape of the land, it is crucial that men should be able to tame both the female body and nature. This most often takes the forms of covert control, naturalizing the imperatives of the patriarchy into the whole of social interaction on one level, and the exploitation and gradual poisoning of the earth on another. But there are examples of overt control, too, in the power games of Larry Cook and in Pete’s physical abuse of Rose, climaxing in the breaking of her arm. The incest is a border case, hidden to everybody (even suppressed by Ginny) in the beginning, but eventually a very central issue.

Following the essentialist logic of the novel, this is paralleled by the killing of animals and plants that seems to be inherent to all farmers (not to farming as such). Respectively, the especially brutal image of using machines (i.e. industrial farming) to kill animals, “Once Harold was driving the cornpicker, when Jess was a boy, an…

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