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Rose’s Breast Cancer in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

Rose’s Breast Cancer in A Thousand Acres

Pete, representing erratic male rage in the novel, has a history of abusing Rose. This climaxes when he breaks her arm. It follows a terrible logic that since male rage hurts her body, so does her own, the impetus of which is provided by the patriarchal system. Ginny’s description of Pete fits Rose equally well, with an anger that “would be quiet, but corrosive, erupting at odd times” (31).

Rose’s breast cancer symbolizes the way she is literally consumed with anger (the cancer eats at her flesh, consuming her body). Anger is the only way she knows to deal with her father, her husband, men and the system they represent: “We’re not going to be sad. We’re going to be angry until we die. It’s the only hope.”(354) She doesn’t see that anger is destructive, that anger is in fact why things have turned out the way they have.

She is continually reminded of the toll her anger takes on her body, as her arm unconsciously strays to the lost muscles under her other arm, by the lost breast. Nevertheless, she ignores the signs, anger has become a part of her body. The fact that this act resembles a posture signifying an attempt to contain her heart -her overflowing anger- suggests this, as does the fact that she especially does this when she is angry: “She pushed her hair back with her hand, then put her fist on her hip, defiant. Except that on the way down, her fingers fluttered over the vanished breast, the vanished muscles.” (151)

Her body, then, enacts her strategy. If you can’t beat them, join them. If the system is based on egocentricity, cruelty, coldness and rage, then those will be her weapons. When Jess backs out of farming their land, she says: “When it came right down to building on something that we had, it scared him to build on death and bad luck and anger and destruction” (352). The underlying assumption of her statement is that it is impossible to challenge all the death and destruction, so one might as well turn it to one’s own advantage.

This strategy, ironically, turns her into what the patriarchy has accused hers and Ginny’s intertextual counterparts -Regan and Goneril- of; an inhuman half-man. When she reigns supreme over the thousand acres, she has turned into her own worst nightmare: her father.

Incest in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

Incest in A Thousand Acres

Incest in A Thousand Acres invades all the other items: it is there, and is crucial for everything that happens, but it is hidden beneath the surface of appearances.

Tim Keppel has pointed out not only that “Smiley’s major departure […] is her decision to tell the story from the viewpoint of Ginny and explore the inner lives of the so-called ‘evil’ sisters” (Keppel, p.105), but that “Smiley makes her most dramatic re-vision of Shakespeare” (Keppel, p.109) in the storm scene. This has traditionally been the scene when the audience form a bond of sympathy with King Lear because of his pathetic insanity, while in A Thousand Acres, the focus of the narrative stays with the sisters and gives us a strong reason to form a bond of sympathy with them instead: Rose tells Ginny about the incest they both underwent, but that Ginny has suppressed from memory.

Rose inhaled, held her breath. Then she said, “He was having sex with you. […] After he stopped going in to you, he started coming in to me, and those are the things he said to me, an that’s what we did. We had sex in my bed.” (189-190)

That Larry has complete control of the lives of Rose and Ginny is already evident, and now we understand more of why. It is not only a matter of sexual abuse, but of asserting a perverted form of power. This is one of the links formed within the framework of the novel between women and nature: They are objects of property. “You were as much his as I was”, Rose says. “There was no reason for him to assert his possession of me more than his possession of you. We were just his, to do with as he pleased, like the pond or the houses or the hogs or the crops.” (191). All of this is subject to the power inscribed in Larry and the system he embodies.

This connection is given a more general relevance in the overall political project of the novel, transcending the workings of one malfunctional family. First, because Larry follows a long line of patriarchal power structures: “You see this grand history, but I see blows.[…] Do I think Daddy came up with beating and fucking us on his own?[…] No. I think he had lessons, and those were part of the package, along with the land and the lust to run things exactly the way he wanted to.

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