Symbolic Poison: Toxicity in 'A Thousand Acres' and Women's Struggle

Categories: Novel

In Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”, she presents several symbols and their significance in the book. One of the symbols is poison. It is one of the major concerns in the novel so far. The severe environmental damage is formed by the mass agricultural chemicals used by farmers. It causes great harm to people living on the farm, from cancer to miscarriage and other related health issues. The chemicals in the well water affect Ginny the most preventing her and Ty from having a family.

Poison symbolizes the abolishment of women on the farm, and the destructive effect the farming life can have on those who are influenced by it and those who lead it.

Pete who is a musician and marries Rose plans to make his life out West. But his temper and paranoia cost him, when they move back home, Larry never approves of Pete, who in turn builds hate and resentment towards him. He frequently loses control and bursts into anger, such as the time when he broke Rose’s arm.

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But Pete’s anger returns and goes out of control after locals turn against their whole family for “mistreating” Larry, thinking he’s innocent. This is when he plans to kill him sabotaging Harold’s tractor when he believes Larry will be driving it. “Anhydrous ammonia isn’t drawn to the eyes because of their moisture, the way people sometimes say, it only feels that way because the moisture in the eyes reacts with the fumes and creates a powerful alkali”.

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Pete’s plan doesn’t go accordingly, instead, Harold gets in the tractor and is blinded by ammonia. This event has a ripple effect on the other characters as well. This suggests the breakdown of the family’s loyalty, their ignorance of each other’s secrets, and their weakness to feel sorrow and forgive each other.

Smiley underlines some important aspects in the novel as well, like how the toxins wash away into the soil and water, they are a huge concern to some of the characters including Rose, Jess, and Ginny. It's no coincidence that the only characters who suffer from the contaminated water and the cancerous effects are women. Ginny who is assertive and determined journeys from a passive, comfortable farm wife at the start of the novel to a wry and cynical divorcee at the end. “Her body wasn't mine. Mine had failed to sustain Jess Clark’s interest, to sustain a pregnancy. My love, which I had always believed could transcend the physical, had failed, too-failed with Ty, failed with my children and Rose’s”.

Ginny had suffered 5 miscarriages and still continues to obsess over her own fertility, she seems to think of herself as a failure because of her inability to have a baby. She also seems jealous of Rose, seeing everything Rose has that she wanted but couldn’t have due to the very water she’d been drinking that was contaminated with nitrate/chemicals which caused her to be childless. Ginny struggles to be a good farmer and a good mother. Smiley implies that a woman’s purpose in life is to have a baby. They are expected to be both “successful” and “modern” women with jobs, but also dutiful childbearing wives as well.

As the book goes on, Ginny describes the various poisons around the farm. Ever since she found out the discovery of Rose and Jess not only having an affair but are planning their whole life together is a disastrous pain for Ginny. Her hate and jealousy soon increase for Rose. Therefore she tries to find a deadly poison and eventually does and tries to poison her sister by cooking hemlock into sausage. “It not unlike the feeling you get when you are baking a birthday cake for someone. That person inhabits your mind. So I thought continuously of Rose. I also felt a sense of pleasure and pride in my planning.

Liver sausage and sauerkraut couldn’t possibly appeal to Jess and were something both girls had detested the thought of all their lives. It was too strong-tasting even for Ty, who could eat venison and rabbit and lutefisk with the best of them. The perfection of my plan was the way Rose’s own appetite would select her death. It would come as a genuine surprise even to me” (Smiley, 313). Ginny’s greatest importance in life is escaping her father’s influence and having a child. For which she thinks Rose has destroyed her possible chances for escape by sleeping with Jess, a crime for which she must die.

In conclusion, Smiley explores the relationship between female freedom and prejudice through the concept of fertility, both literal and metaphorically. Smiley compares female fertility with the fertility of farmland itself. For example, the land is capable of bearing healthy crops, and women are capable of bearing children. Smiley is able to examine the lives of women in a more recognizable environment that offers them more economic and sexual freedom. At the same time, Smiley also shows how modern women are still burdened by sexism.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Symbolic Poison: Toxicity in 'A Thousand Acres' and Women's Struggle. (2021, Dec 02). Retrieved from

Symbolic Poison: Toxicity in 'A Thousand Acres' and Women's Struggle essay
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