Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Show Boat, an interesting portrayal of family dynamics and the conflict between romantic adventure and responsibility, begins with the birth of Kim Ravenal on the show boat known as the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre. As in So Big, the story quickly moves backward—in this case, all the way back to the courtship of Kim’s grandparents, Parthenia Ann (known as Parthy) and Captain Andy Hawks.
In Parthy, Ferber describes a stern, domineering, Puritanical mother figure who nags her husband but also provides him with home cooking, order, and comfort. Captain Andy, in contrast, is a fun-loving, good-natured type. Their daughter, Magnolia, takes after her father, and the two seem constantly in a conspiracy against Parthy. The narrator notes that the balance created by the captain’s lightheartedness and Parthy’s strictness is good for Magnolia, as if life requires both responsibility and fun.
After four or five interesting chapters exploring this family dynamic, Ferber shifts the story into a description of a life on a show boat. She describes the actors who play in the shows, the audiences that come to see them, and the vagaries of the Mississippi River. This turns the book for a while into a sort of travelogue or guidebook.
During this part of the story, Ferber introduces one of her recurrent themes: the treatment of minorities. The young Magnolia likes to spend time with the African American kitchen staff on the boat, who teach her Negro spirituals. This appalls her mother, who has a rather bigoted attitude. It also turns out that one of the actresses on board, who has been passing as white, is actually black. Because she is married to a white man, in violation of southern laws at the time, there is trouble.
Over the objections of her mother, Magnolia begins acting in the plays on the show boat. Also over her mother’s objections, Magnolia marries...
(The entire section is 787 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Show Boat re-creates the little-known phenomenon of life on a turn-of-the-century showboat as it brings theatrical entertainment to backwoods Midwestern river towns from Ohio and Illinois to New Orleans. The rivers themselves, the Mississippi especially, become live participants in the stories of the people who travel them—the actors, the steamboat operators, the cooks, the African American dock workers. The popularity of this particular development of American theater is told through three generations of hardworking middle-class people, centering on the love, marriage, and eventual desertion of Magnolia Hawks Ravenal by her gambler husband.
As the lively daughter of Captain Andy Hawks, the child Magnolia experiences the rich and varied life both on shore and within the traveling troupe of actors on board her father’s Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre showboat, despite her mother Parthenia’s puritanical objections. When the ingenue Elly deserts her adoring husband to follow another man, Magnolia becomes the leading lady in the melodramas. When southern laws against miscegenation force the biracial Julie and her white husband to leave the showboat, the impecunious gambler Gaylord Ravenal joins the troupe in New Orleans as the leading man in the plays. He soon captures Magnolia’s heart, both on stage and off, despite careful chaperoning by Parthenia and tolerant acceptance by Captain Andy. Escaping Parthenia’s suspicious eye, the...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Magnolia Ravenal is giving birth to her first child on a boat, the Cotton Blossom, on the Mississippi River in a storm. Her shrewish mother, Parthenia, or Parthy, Hawks is with her. Magnolia is the daughter of the boat’s owner and captain, Andy Hawks, and, like her father, loves the theater, the river, and her husband, Gaylord Ravenal, who plays romantic leads opposite Magnolia in the showboat’s troupe.
Magnolia’s story goes back to the time when she had been growing up on the Creole Belle during the summers and in Massachusetts during the winters. Young Maggie, the story goes, hangs out in the pilothouse with Windy, the colorful old pilot. She is a sharp observer and imitator of the variety of passengers and troupe members who travel and work on the boat. Indeed, she is entranced by the “show people.” She adores her father, the captain and king of the boat who knows every inch of the river, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; but she is rebellious toward her strict and overbearing mother.
Cap’n Andy, as the captain is also known, buys a new boat, the Cotton Blossom, and proposes to live on it year-round. However, Parthy refuses to travel on it, until young Maggie throws tantrums. Gradually, Parthy is seduced by the boat’s well-equipped kitchen and consents to live on the boat when she sees the actresses flirting with her husband. She and Maggie spend more and more time afloat and soon get used to the lifestyle: the morning band-concerts ashore when Cap’n Andy hands out playbills; afternoon rehearsals and evening performances from the troupe’s repertoire of melodramas; and talent shows, after which the cast and crew rehash the latest performance while eating a late supper. Young Maggie learns all the plays by heart, simply by listening.
One day, Julie Dozier, the troupe’s star actress, becomes too ill to perform at a town in Mississippi. Her illness, it turns out, had been feigned: She had been trying to evade the local sheriff, who had come aboard the boat with a warrant to arrest Julie and her actor husband, Steve. It soon emerges that Julie is an octoroon, that is, a person of one-eighth black ancestry. She is married to a white man—a marriage in violation of Mississippi’s antimiscegenation laws. This news sparks a frenzy of hate toward Julie from Elly Chipley, the other actress in the troupe. The sheriff orders Andy to clear his boat, and his “mixed-blood” cast, from town.
Julie and Steve leave the troupe at the next town. Shortly afterward, Elly runs off with a gambler, and her husband, Schultzy, the troupe’s director, leaves as well to find her. Eighteen-year-old Maggie then steps in to fill the actresses’ roles, playing ingenue leads.
Maggie’s first performance is so realistic that a rube in the audience pulls a gun to shoot the actor playing the villain, which...
(The entire section is 1185 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Dickinson, Rogers. Edna Ferber. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1925. Early and laudatory minibiography, with literary criticism and some valuable quotes from Ferber’s articles and autobiography.
Fennell, Tom. “Roll On, Big River: A Lavish Show Boat Christens a New Theatre.” Maclean’s 106, no. 44 (November 1, 1993): 72. Evaluation of the content and intent of the 1993 musical production, particularly with regard to racial issues.
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1978. Helpful biography that centers on the last years of Ferber’s life. Written by her niece.
Kanfer, Stefan. “The Boat That Changed Broadway.” The New Leader 77, no. 10 (October 10, 1977): 22. A critical review of the musical version of the novel as a Broadway piece, from Kerns and Hammerstein’s original to Hal Prince’s production.
Kronenberger, Louis. “Show Boat Is High Romance.” Review of Show Boat, by Edna Ferber. The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1926, p. 5. An interesting early review of the novel.