30 November 2014

A Thousand Acres

I’ve been trying to recall what so intrigued me late last evening in Chapter 18 of Jane Smiley’s novel, A Thousand Acres. Her story is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and as Ruven and I have noted, I’d rather just read King Lear.
But there is something about Chapter 18, narrated by Ginny, the older of the story’s three sisters. She tells the story of the land: land worked hard not by big corporations, or huge landowners, but by “poor people who got lucky, who were sold a bill of goods by speculators and discovered they had received a gift of riches beyond the speculators’ wildest lies, land whose fertility surpassed hope.” Yes, they were lucky!
And the land was enriched by the generations upon generations of plants and animals whose bodies and scales, bones and feathers, seeds and leaves, settles to saturate the soil below. Ginny imagines the land unpeopled by all but the birds and the fish whose lives and deaths enriched the soil that the farmers would plant and from which they would receive great yield.
And she tells the history of how the land¾the thousand acres¾came into the possession of her family, “details to mull over but not to speak about.” There are secrets attached to all possession! And Ginny imagines the conversations and the negotiations by which one family’s land became the property of another family through purchase, through mismanagement, through failure and abandonment. There was not the sense that all was acquired through clean dealings untainted by pretense and hypocritical offers of succor. Ginny says, ‘But I now wonder if there was an element of shame to Daddy’s refusal ever to speak of [the means of the acquisition of the thousand acres!]. I wonder if it had really landed in his lap, or if there were moments of planning, of manipulation and using a man’s incompetence and poverty against him that soured the whole transaction.” It seems that the achievement of all material goods occurs amidst taint and some duplicity. Thoreau says somewhere that a man should be able to earn the bread for his table without having to oppress his fellow.  We have not followed this ethic with much concern.

And Ginny seems to acknowledge and accept this reality of life—maybe that is why the game of Monopoly figures so centrally in the narrative¾Monopoly is a game of acquisition, of bankrupting ones opponents by legally charging them for encroaching on their properties. And so as Ginny watches the tractor work the fields whose ownership she has been considering, she experiences a “feeling of forgiveness when I hadn’t consciously been harboring any annoyance.” And she considers that to accept what is, is just fine; this is the best of all possible worlds, although as she considers the flow of land from farmer to farmer and family to family, she considers with some concern the lesson “my father might say as the lands transfers ownership: a man gets what he deserves by creating his own good luck.” But of course, the entire notion of luck precludes intentionality—one becomes not lucky but clever and devious, and to assuage the guilty conscience one refers to the gain the result of luck. But it is not luck at all, I think: at its base it is the gains of exploitation and privilege. And in her heart I think Ginny understand this, and the novel will work this idea through to what I suspect (after Lear) must be a tragic end.


Post a Comment

<< Home