Throughout literature women are often depicted in either two ways: they are the weak damsel in distress that needs saving, or they’re the evil witch that misleads a hero with their devilishly good looks. Biblical characters such as Eve from Adam and Eve, and characters from plays such as Regan and Goneril from Shakespeare’s King Lear have fallen victim to this character casting. It appears that in every genre of literature the woman is portrayed in this manner, and with little explanation as to why there are not equal portrayals of men being the evil or weak one.
However, in Jane Smiley’s novel, A Thousand Acres, her female characters are the opposite of the classic definition of what a woman is supposed to be like in literature. Instead of being the pure evil sisters that their counterparts Regan and Goneril are in King Lear, Ginny and Rose are just two farm wives, trying to cater to everyone else’s needs instead of their own. They are the main protagonists of the novel, which allows us to see something that most readers have never experienced before; we get to see the so-called evil characters thoughts and feelings, and get to understand the reasons behind their actions. Instead of women being the root of all evil, it appears as though the men are in A Thousand Acres. Jane Smiley flips the stereotype by casting Larry Cook as the antagonists in A Thousand Acres. By doing so, Smiley is trying show us that it’s not always the women that are the evil ones, and that they are not always the downfall of their counterparts; but in fact, men can be the downfall of women as well, specifically how Larry Cook can be seen as the demise of his daughters, Rose and Ginny.
In A Thousand Acres Patriarch Larry Cook is the main man out of all of the men in the novel that causes the most turmoil for Ginny and Rose. Larry becomes his daughters’ demise by first taking away their option of choice. Since the beginning of their lives, Ginny and Rose have had to live by Larry’s system: your life revolves around farming and only farming, and the only option you have for your life is to become a farmer or become a farmer’s wife. With this mindset in their heads, Ginny and Rose did not have much to think about for their future. It seems as if their lives were predestined by what their father wanted for them.
Larry prevented his eldest daughters from having a childhood by making them take care of their youngest sister, Caroline, after their mother passed away. By doing so, Larry creating an obstacle for the girls growing up. Throughout the text in A Thousand Acres, we hear about how the girls sacrificed a lot for Caroline so she could have a childhood. In the beginning, Ginny reveals that she didn’t feel bitter about raising Caroline. In fact, the sisters wanted the best for their little sister:
We agreed that that she was going to have a normal high school life, with dates and dances and activities after school. She wasn’t going to be chained to the school bus. She was going to have friends, and she was going to be allowed to sleepover with them in town if she was invited. Rose, who was working at the time, gave her money for clothes.I gave her an allowance.( Smiley 64)
Ginny and Rose made sure that Caroline had more options available to her as a child. They didn’t want their baby sister to feel obligated to stay home and become a farmer, but wanted better things for Caroline. This decision by the eldest daughters is possibly the only decision that they made by themselves. By giving Caroline a childhood, Ginny and Rose were not given the choice to experience childhood themselves;they instantly became mothers. Larry took away the choice of developing a sisterhood between the girls, which in return resulted in Ginny and Rose having an awkward mother-daughter relationship with Caroline.
In addition to being forced into motherhood, and sacrificing their choice to having their own childhood, Ginny and Rose were not allowed to have a choice in their own personal lives. In A Thousand Acres, Ginny reveals that the most recent memory of her father when she was younger was how much she was afraid to go against him. This idea is essential to consider when observing how Ginny reacts when Caroline refuses to apologize to their father:
On the other hand, perhaps she hadn’t mistaken anything at all, and had simply spoken as a woman rather than as a daughter. That was something, I realized in a flash, that Rose and I were pretty careful not to do.( Smiley 21)
It is remarkable to see how Ginny separates how a woman speaks and how a daughter speaks to her father. This is because of Larry’s influence on their lives. She doesn’t even see herself as a woman that can make her own decisions, but needs to be a daughter which needs her father’s approval to make life decisions. Ginny and Rose have learned to tip-toe around Larry’s feelings, while Caroline isn’t afraid to go against their daddy.
Not only is Larry Cook evil because he took away Ginny and Roses freedom of choice for themselves, but he is also evil because he hurt Ginny and Rose physically and mentally. Larry hurts the girls physically by raping them as young teenagers. Rose has maintained her memory of being raped by her father, but Ginny has not. Ginny has developed this mechanism in her head that prevents her remembering her teenage years; they are like a blur to her. It isn’t until when Rose tells Ginny that she was raped by their father that Ginny somewhat remembers. Even after Rose tells her that she suspects daddy raped her too Ginny is in disbelief. It isn’t until Ginny lies on her old bed from her childhood that her memories of the rape come back to her. Ginny feels indifferent about the memories, while Rose has an initiative to get back at Larry.
In addition to the rape, Larry has also put his two most loyal daughters at danger with their physical health. Due to the malpractice of farming methods, Larry has destroyed his land in order to produce more crop yields. The consequence of his actions result by poisoning the well water on his land. This well water is consumed by his daughters Ginny and Rose. Rose develops breast cancer from it, resulting in more emotional scars for her. She loses a piece of her body that gives her a womanly shape. Without it, she doesn’t feel womanly. Ginny also suffers from drinking the well water. Due to the toxicity of the water that Ginny has been drinking, she has had several miscarriages. Every miscarriage has affected Ginny. Because she is unable to produce children, Ginny has emotional issues about her situation.
With Ginny being unable to produce children, one could also see this as another way Larry has brainwashed his children. Larry has embedded the idea that the women in his family aren’t valuable unless they produce offspring, preferably male. We can see this in chapter two when Ginny has a thought about her sister Caroline:
She may have been, as Daddy thought, old for a breeder, but she was young for a lawyer. ( Smiley 13)
It’s interesting to see Ginny comparing the value of her sister’s reproductive system to that of farm animal. Perhaps this further suggest that Larry has taught the girls that they are just as valuable as a farm animal or crop that could be yielded on the farm. This might explain why the girls have a complex. They aim to please the father by serving on him hand and foot. This also further explains why the girls kept quiet about their father raping them. They had no one to confide into and to tell them that it was wrong . Rose in fact actually finds the rape comforting in a way. She believes that her father did it to her because he favored her the best. She thought she was special until her father moved on to Ginny.
After the rape, Larry intentionally persuades his daughters, Ginny and Rose to marry men that are similar in characteristics to him. Ginny marries Tyler, who is incredibly quiet and expresses very little of his emotions, very much like Larry does not. Tyler is also controlling in a sense that he dictates when and how he and Ginny will procreate. He is the same as Larry in that way because like Larry, Ty has taken charge of Ginny’s body. Rose marries Pete, a very handsome and talented musician that is sometimes abusive to her. Pete is like Larry because he also controls Rose’s body as well.
Overall Larry has managed to control every aspect of Ginny and Rose’s life, leaving barely any room for them to take charge on their own. He’s taken away their freedom to choice over their lives, and their physical and mental health. Larry is definitely casted as the evil character, and he is the downfall of his children. Some may argue that Ginny and Rose did have a choice, and that they could have tried to escape the firm grasp their father had on them.The girls did try and only one succeeded.
And throughout the whole process, they were ridiculed by their husbands and fellow country members because they stood up for themselves. Larry decides to ridicule them at a church event. Because of his high status in the community, he gets away with his wrongdoings because he’s old and crazy. I can confirm that Smiley purposely placed Larry as the villain because she wanted to show that men are the downfall of women. Women such as Ginny/Goneril and Rose/ Regan aren’t always the villains as you see. There’s always more to the story than meets the eye. There’s always a reason why the bad guys turn bad, or in this case good girls go bad. This is because there was a man in their life that pushed them into that direction. In this case it was Larry for Ginny and Rose.