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Caroline in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

Caroline in A Thousand Acres

It is really striking that a novel in which bodies of people and bodies of land (and, intertextually, bodies of text) are so central, creates a character that is so distinctly “unbodied”: Caroline Cook. Nevertheless, it is in keeping with traditional and patriarchal interpretations of Cordelia’s character in King Lear: a paragon of purity and transcendence.

While her sisters’ bodies are thoroughly described and, not least, imbued with meaning, Caroline is always described in terms of her business-like ” ‘take-me-seriously-or-I’ll-sue-you’ demeanor” (13), her expensive clothes and assertive actions.

She is in fact described like a man, a trait first exposed when she as a child says that she’s not going to be a farmwife when she grows up, but a farmer (61), then when Ginny has her moment of insight toward the end, and suddenly sees everybody clearly for what they are: “her eyes darting from one face to another, calculating, always calculating. […] She climbs into Daddy’s lap, and her gaze slithers around the room, looking to see if we have noticed how he prefers her.” (306) She is still unbodied here, described in terms of eyes and mind. This is metaphorically a male domain; in Western thought, the gaze is traditionally male, categorizing external reality in order to have power over it by utilizing reason. Nor, of course, is it incidental that Caroline is the educated one, emphasizing further her belonging to the “male” realm.

Whereas Rose’s “man-ness” is based on a destructive rage, Caroline’s is based on cold calculation, therefore she is more successful playing by the rules of the patriarchy. It must be remembered, however, that she is able to use the system because she has been shielded from its negative side. Ginny and Rose have always protected her from Larry’s anger, incest, and complete suppression of their own identities. While Larry signifies so many things to the elder sisters, not least the horribly intimate -familiar- memories of incest, Caroline can say about him that he looks “as familiar as a father should look, no more, no less”. In this, as Ginny replies, she is lucky. (362)

Of course, saying that Caroline is like a man signals complicity with gender-stereotypes. She is a positive character in that she is assertive and self-contained, as when she criticizes Larry’s idea to divide the farm.

The Essence of Tragedy in The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex

The Essence of Tragedy in The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex

In the search for the essence of the tragedy, The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex are central. Each new tragic protagonist is in some degree a lesser Job or Oedipus, and each new work owes an indispensable element to the Counselors and to the Greek idea of the chorus.

The Book of Job, especially the Poet’s treatment of the suffering and searching Job, is behind Shakespeare and Milton, Melville, Dostoevski, and Kafka. Its mark is on all tragedy of alienation, from Marlowe’s Faustus to Camus’ Stranger, in which there is a sense of separation from a once known, normative, and loved deity or cosmic order or principle of conduct. In emphasizing dilemma, choice, wretchedness of soul, and guilt, it spiritualized the Promethean theme of Aeschylus and made it more acceptable to the Christianized imagination. In working into one dramatic context so great a range of mood—from pessimism and despair to bitterness, defiance, and exalted insight—it is father to all tragedy where the stress is on the inner dynamics of man’s response to destiny.

Oedipus stresses not so much man’s guilt or forsakeness as his ineluctable lot, the stark realities which are and always will be. The Greek tradition is less nostalgic and less visionary—the difference being in emphasis, not in kind. There is little pining for a lost Golden Age, or yearning for utopia, redemption, or heavenly restitution. But if it stresses man’s fate, it does not deny him freedom. Dramatic action, of course, posits freedom; without it no tragedy could be written. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Kratos (or Power) says, “None is free but Zeus,” but the whole play proves him wrong. Even the Chorus of helpless Sea Nymphs, in siding with Prometheus in the end, defy the bidding of the gods. Aeschylus’ Orestes was told by Apollo to murder his mother, but he was not compelled to. The spirit with which he acquiesced in his destiny ( a theme which Greek tragedy stresses as Job does not) is of a free man who, though fated, could have withdrawn and not acted at all. Even Euripides, who of all the Greek Tragedians had the direst view of the gods’ compulsiveness in man’s affairs, shows his Medea and Hippolytus as proud and decisive human beings. And, as Cedric Whitman says about the fate of Oedipus, the prophecy merely predicted Oedipus’ future, it did not determine it.

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