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Covert Control in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

Covert Control in A Thousand Acres

Though there are instances of overt control and destruction performed by the patriarchy upon both women and nature, the most pervasive forms the Apollonian controlling impulse takes, are covert. What Ginny says about Larry, also goes for the system of which he is the ultimate signifier: “I feel like there’s treacherous undercurrents all the time. I think I’m standing on solid ground, but then I discover that there’s something moving underneath it, shifting from place to place.”(104).

The most striking example of this, is of course the secret of the incest. But throughout the novel, there is an interplay of social imperatives and individual expression, a power struggle of discourses. This struggle is hidden under a shiny hard surface maintained by patriarchal control, as when Jess left for Canada to avoid the draft and “slipped into the category of the unmentionable” (6), or in Ty’s own desires having to be “camouflaged with smiles and hopes and patience” until he becomes his own mask; “casting no shadow, radiating no heat” (306).

As signified by the motif of the tiles, and its many metaphoric implications, the community that Ginny lives in, especially her family, is ruled by a network of masks concealing the real motivations of people. For Ginny, this is even internalized into her understanding of her own body as layered with meaning:

I seemed, on the surface, to be continually talking to myself, giving myself instructions or admonishments, asking myself what I really wanted, making comparisons, busily working my rational faculties over every aspect of Jess and my feelings for him as if there were actually something to decide. Beneath this voice, flowing more sweetly, was t…

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… semiotic, even that has been contaminated by the poison of Apollonian control.

This covert control -in farming, capitalism, and discourse- is part and parcel of the land and its people, and it always has been: “You [Ty, but by implication everybody in this system] see this grand history, but I see blows. I see taking what you want because you want it, then making something up that justifies what you did. I see getting others to pay the price, then covering up and forgetting what the price was. Do I think Daddy came up with beating and fucking us on his own?[…] No. I think he had lessons, and those lesons were part of the package, along with the land and the lust to run things exactly the way he wanted to no matter what, poisoning the water and destroying the topsoil and buying bigger and bigger machinery…” (342-343)

Destroying the poison jar may be futile.

Ginny’s as a Barren Whore in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

Ginny’s as a Barren Whore in A Thousand Acres

Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her.
(King Lear, I.iv. 285-288)

Within the logic of the novel, it is soon established that Ginny understands and feels external reality through her body, and the most important instance of this is her bodily urge to have children. The sight of Rose’s daughters, contrasted with her own miscarriages, Ginny says, “affected me like a poison. All my tissues hurt when I saw them, when I saw Rose with them, as if my capillaries were carrying acid into the furthest reaches of my system”(8).

The body of any subject, it can be argued, is also a social body, not only a site of signification for the subject her- or himself, but for other people and society in general. In her despair and jealousy after losing Jess to Rose, Ginny expresses the problematic belief that having children somehow is a universal marker of human worth. This view of her own body as a failure both biologically and socially; that her body “had failed to sustain Jess Clark’s interest, to sustain a pregnancy”(307), signals that she is still within the confines of a patriarchal system that sees women as property on a line with animals and the earth. The system, of which Larry Cook is the King, is able to criticize a childless woman, especially when she is “old for a breeder”(13).

It is no wonder, then, that Ginny goes on trying to have children even after Ty egotistically wants to stop trying because he can’t take the disappointment. It becomes a way for Ginny to reclaim control over her body, a secret project through which she can live a second life that is free from social imperatives that ultimately originate with the transcendental signifier, the great “I AM”(211) of Larry Cook. It is telling that her reflections upon her “secret world”, full of “secret, passionate wishes” are interrupted by a sudden reminder that her past and present life is dominated by her father’s world and her father’s wishes (26-27).

This secret world and these secret wishes are thwarted, in fact it turns out that they have always been illusions because nitrates in the water have caused her infertility. A Thousand Acres continually makes connections between patriarchy and capitalism, critiquing exploitation of women and nature in industrial farming alike.

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