The Nature of Relationships in King Lear and A Thousand Acres





In her novel A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley takes the conflict between the natural and the unnatural in King Lear one step farther than Shakespeare. Using many of the same elements in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Smiley shows the deeper complexities of human relationships and experiences by expanding this theme.


Shakespeare’s most important use of the theme of the natural and the unnatural is in reference to Edmund. Several times, Gloucester calls him an unnatural child. This is clearly derogatory, and has two important implications in this case. First of all, Edmund is Gloucester’s illegitimate son, meaning that no matter how much fun Gloucester had at his conception, he is not the child of natural wedlock, and therefore not his legal heir. Gloucester is quick to point out however, that because of his affection for Edmund’s mother, he does love both of his sons, Edgar and Edmund, equally. The second implication of unnatural in Edmunds case refers to the developing relationship with his father. Edmund decides that it is not enough to have his father’s love; he wants his power as well. He turns his father against his brother and betrays both of them to form an alliance with the kings daughters. Shakespeare uses Edmund to do all of the things a natural son wouldn’t do. He lies, he manipulates, and he forms an alliance with the woman who put out his father’s eyes. We find Edmund’s polar opposite in Edgar, the natural son. Edgar loves, honors, and obeys his father. He even goes so far as to disguise himself in order to follow his blind, helpless father about after Gloucester banishes him on Edmunds evidence of his brother’s treason. So, we find in the two brothers Shakespeare’s definition of the natural and the unnatural child.


With this definition in place, it is easy to distinguish between Lear’s natural and unnatural daughters, although, for Lear, not as easy as it should be. The opening scene has him trading Cordelia’s natural, unconditional love for him for Goneril and Reagan’s empty promises of faithful love to hold Lear higher than anyone or anything else in their lives. Cordelia insists that she loves Lear no more and no less than his position implies. This love turns out to be much stronger than either of her sisters. Lear doesn’t see this until too late however, when he has disowned Cordelia and given her inheritance to her wordier sisters. These sisters, like Ginny and Rose, leave their aging father out in the rain, which leads Lear to exclaim, “The are not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof.”(Act4,Sc.6,ll122-124). He finally realizes that all of their agreeing and disagreeing with everything he agrees and disagrees with does not show good judgment or moral character on their part, but merely empty flattery in place of Cordelia’s brave honesty.


Just before this last observation, right after his two unfaithful daughters leave him out in the storm, he asks the question, “Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?”(Act3,Sc.6,ll 81-82). Shakespeare leaves this rhetorical question alone, but Smiley uses it as the starting point for her novel. She provides the motives for Goneril and Reagan’s behavior toward their father by exposing the hidden layers of Ginny and Rose’s relationship with their father. The turning point in the novel, the one that leads to all the revelations that excuse the girls behavior, is the storm scene. Smiley makes it hard to take Larry’s side in this confrontation anyway just through his characters actions that lead up to this scene. She also throws in the twist that he walks out on them, instead of having them kick him out. More importantly however, she goes on to use this scene to reveal the unnatural relationship Larry has had with his daughters. She shows that the dissension and anger in their relationship actually comes from years of sexual and physical abuse the girls suffered at Larry’s hands. She turns Lear’s question back on Larry, thus presenting a new side to the natural verses unnatural conflict by asking what happens when it’s the parent who is behaving unnaturally.


The storm scene is the catalyst in