Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

Incest in a Thousand Acres: Cheap Trick or Feminist Re-Vision?

Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

Incest in a Thousand Acres: Cheap Trick or Feminist Re-Vision?

Article excerpt

You are entitled to have your story told in your language...or the law is failing.1

I. Introduction

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres,2 Jane Smiley rewrites King Lear3 from the older daughters' perspectives, because "[b]eginning with [her] first readings of the play in high school and contin

uing through college and graduate school," she had "been cool to both Cordelia and Lear"; rather, she was attracted to Regan and Goneril, the "older sisters, figures of pure evil according to conventional wisdom."4 Smiley relates that Regan and Goneril "sounded familiar, especially in the scene where they talk between themselves about Lear's actions, and later, when they have to deal with his unruly knights."5

In describing her composition of A Thousand Acres, Smiley explains that in "wrestl[ing]" with "Mr. Shakespeare's" Machiavellian vision, she became a "lawyer for Goneril and Regan":

I proposed a different narrative of their motives and actions that cast doubts on the case Mr. Shakespeare was making for his client, King Lear. I made Goneril my star witness, and she told her story with care. I made sure that, insofar as I was able to swing it, she was an appealing witness as well-cautious, judicious, ambivalent, straightforward .... The goal of the trial was not to try or condemn the father, but to gain an acquittal for the daughters. The desired verdict was not "innocent," but rather "not guilty," or at least, "not proven."6

As Smiley points out, A Thousand Acres is "a response to the play,"7 a "rewriting," "my own King Lear,"8 which was influenced by feminist, Marxist, and environmental concerns.9 Her purpose in re-telling Lear was to "cut [Mr. Shakespeare] down to size a little bit."10 One of her feminist hopes was that "the minds of adolescent girls would encounter A Thousand Acres first, and that it would serve them as a prophylactic against the guilt about proper daughterhood that I knew King Lear could induce."11

In judging whether Smiley succeeded in fulfilling her purposes, the primary hurdle the reader must overcome is whether Smiley's rewriting to include Larry's (Lear's) incestuous relationship with Rose (Regan) and Ginny (Goneril) and the daughters' longing for the dead mother exceeds the bounds of the storyline to such an extent that the plot changes create a completely different story, or whether, as Smiley says she intended, the novel is a feminist rewriting of Lear. Is Smiley's incest plot a cheap trick that manipulates the reader's emotions, or a feminist re-vision that chal

lenges patriarchal structures and provides a discourse for suppressed feminine voices?

This article ultimately argues that the plot changes are not a cheap trick intended to manipulate the reader's emotions, but a feminist re-vision, which succeeds or not depending on the reader's critical feminist perspective. Thus, Part Two delineates several feminist stances, such as liberal feminism, radical feminism, social feminism, and postmodern feminism, and summarizes the plot changes Smiley has imposed on King Lear. Part Three considers one major plot change - the longing for the mother - in terms of patriarchy's suppression of a maternal genealogy and feminine language. This part argues that the novel successfully demonstrates the difficulty in overthrowing patriarchal suppression in order to create the woman-centered experience that feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Adrienne Rich describe.

Part Four considers another major plot change - the incest by the father - in terms of patriarchy's suppression of feminine reality. Smiley's re-vision succeeds by providing a voice for silenced feminine perspectives, and although some readers might consider the incest theme a cheap trick because it manipulates readers' emotions, this part provides several responses to that accusation. On one hand, Smiley's re-vision is not unlike Shakespeare's own re-vision of the folklore motif and historical Leir story. …

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