Edna Ferber Essay - Critical Essays

Edna Ferber American Literature Analysis

An interesting but seldom remarked upon aspect of Ferber’s fiction is her supple way with chronology. Her stories effortlessly leap forward and backward in time, so that one moment the reader is following the young Sobig DeJong and the next is back twenty years reading about the childhood of Sobig’s mother.

One of the few commentators to note this technique, Ellen Serlen Uffen in her article “Edna Ferber and the ’Theatricalization’ of American Mythology,” says it is a means of reassuring the reader. By leaping forward and letting the reader glimpse a character’s future, as she often does, Ferber is letting her readers know that the character will survive. Surely, however, there is more to the technique than that. Although it is done effortlessly in novels like So Big, Show Boat, and Cimarron, the reader eventually notices the time lapses and begins to wonder what they signify. Perhaps they are connected to the idea of repetition also found in Ferber’s novels, for instance in Kim Ravenal turning out to be so much like her grandmother in Show Boat. They could merely indicate the broad sweep of Ferber’s canvas, covering several generations in every novel. They may also signify something about the nature of time in Ferber’s universe, that past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously for her, or that destiny is something fixed for her characters. It is all very suggestive and yet tantalizingly uncertain.

Another prominent aspect of Ferber’s fiction is her emphasis on strong, hardworking women. Selina DeJong in So Big and Sabra Cravat in Cimarron both work incredibly hard, Selina as a farmer, Sabra as a newspaper editor. Even Magnolia Ravenal in Show Boat, once she is free of her husband’s influence, works diligently at becoming an actress. For that matter, her mother, Parthy, also works hard at running the show boat, especially after her husband dies.

It is noteworthy that all these women are best able to flourish after their husbands die or desert them. With Pervus DeJong dead, Selina can introduce the innovations that turn a failing farm into a prosperous one. With Yancey Cravat away on his adventures, Sabra can develop her powers and become a leading figure in her town. Ferber almost seems to be saying that women are better off without men or at least that if a woman wants to pursue a career, as the unmarried Ferber did, she must in some way get free of her husband. A negative example, an exception which proves this rule, is Leslie in Giant, who remains in a loving marriage close to her husband for the whole book—and never develops a career at all.

If her women are strong, Ferber’s men tend to be weak—charming, romantic, idealistic, but weak and irresponsible. Gaylord Ravenal, the dashing Show Boat gambler, cannot reliably provide for his family and eventually deserts them. Yancey Cravat, though another dashing and romantic figure, is constantly deserting his wife and children. Pervus DeJong is weak in another way: too stubborn and unimaginative to see how to improve his farm. Captain Andy in Show Boat is the quintessential henpecked husband, bossed around by his wife, Parthy, though often contriving to get around her commands.

Captain Andy is an interesting case, raising another issue in Ferber’s works: the conflict between responsibility and fun. Captain Andy is fun-loving and lighthearted, enjoying the life of producing shows on his show boat. In contrast, Parthy is such a great believer in order and responsibility that she often becomes a killjoy. It is easy for the reader to take Captain Andy’s side against Parthy.

It is less easy to take sides against Sabra Cravat in Cimarron. Like Parthy, Sabra seems opposed to all things joyful, from saloons to gambling. She is also bigoted against Indians. At the same time, she commands the reader’s respect because of her hard work in the wilderness of Oklahoma, while her adventure-loving husband is neglecting his family. Whereas in Show Boat Ferber’s point seems to be to favor Captain Andy’s lightheartedness over Parthy’s Puritanism, in Cimarron Ferber seems to prefer Sabra’s seriousness, despite its killjoy aspects, to the irresponsible lightheartedness of her husband.

It is a fine line, in Ferber’s fiction, between an admirable appreciation of the joyful side of life and an irresponsible abandonment of one’s duty, and it is a rare character in Ferber who is able to combine joyfulness and duty as Selina does in So Big. More often in Ferber’s fiction, dedication to duty comes, as it does with Parthy, Sabra, and also Pervus, with an inability to take joy in life. Even worse, these dutiful characters seem intent on denying joy to others and on controlling the other characters’ lives.

Controlling others’ lives is another recurrent theme in Ferber’s works. Even the virtuous Selina is guilty of this, trying to turn her son into an artist when he is actually more interested in conventional forms of success and making money. The nature of true success is also an issue for Ferber; she seems clearly on the side of pursuing self-fulfillment rather than monetary gain, but this attitude ends up conflicting with her dislike of controlling others when the artistic Selina tries to force an artistic life on Sobig. People have to be allowed to pursue their own lives and make their own mistakes, more than one Ferber character says. This seems to be Ferber’s view as well, but the result is a certain despair when people choose in favor of materialism instead of art.

So Big

First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

A young woman struggles to survive and raise a son on an Illinois farm.

So Big, a sensitive portrayal of the struggles of Selina Peake (later Selina DeJong), is best in its first half, when its focus is on Selina; it loses some of its edge later when the focus shifts to Selina’s son, Dirk (nicknamed So Big or Sobig).

The novel begins with the ten-year-old Sobig fighting other children who mock him for his nickname but, in a manner characteristic of Ferber, the story almost immediately jumps back in time to when Sobig was two and just receiving the nickname. Then it looks ahead to the successes of the adult Dirk, and then, still within the opening chapter, it leaps back to Selina’s childhood.

Most of Selina’s childhood is spent with her widower father, Simeon Peake, a gambler whose philosophy is that life is a big show in which the aim is to experience as much as possible. Selina is able to be both creative and responsible with her father and much prefers living with him to living with her prim and proper maiden aunts in New England. However, her father is killed when Selina is nineteen, and she is forced to take a job as a schoolteacher in the Illinois countryside, teaching the children of Dutch farmers.

Selina is quite frightened at first to be on her own and to be such a small figure in a large world. She feels very much like an outsider. When she admires the look of the countryside and says that cabbages are beautiful, the farmers laugh...

(The entire section is 2974 words.)