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...
(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...
(The entire section is 1185 words.)