Show Boat Summary
by Edna Ferber

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 Gaylord Ravenal, a dashing gambler who takes up an acting career on the boat after he glimpses Magnolia. The charmingly irresponsible Gaylord is presented as an even greater contrast with Parthy than her husband was; it is as if Ferber is setting up two polar opposites, each with its flaws. Gaylord is fun and inspires passion but cannot be relied on. Parthy is reliable but a killjoy.

At this point, Ferber indulges in some of her characteristic time shifting: She makes the story jump forward to the adulthood of Magnolia’s daughter Kim and has Kim remember her early years on the show boat, including the unfortunate death of her grandfather, Captain Andy. Though she often complained of the goings-on aboard the show boat, Parthy stays on it after the death of her husband. She puts herself in charge and eventually makes the boat more prosperous than ever, somewhat as Selina DeJong made her farm more prosperous after her husband died.

However, Magnolia and Gaylord cannot stand being on a boat run by Parthy and move to Chicago, where Gaylord returns to the precarious life of a professional gambler. Magnolia gets frustrated with this life, which causes them to move into cheap lodgings and pawn their jewelry every time Gaylord has bad luck. Magnolia is especially interested in finding a more stable source of income at this time because she needs to provide for her daughter’s education. She thus decides to return to acting, which she had given up when she left the show boat.

Gaylord is unsympathetic to Magnolia’s planned return to the stage, and she is able to carry it out only after he takes his leave of her, which he does soon afterward, abandoning his family, never to see them again. Ferber makes this out to be an irresponsible act of desertion and yet at the same time something that liberates Magnolia to pursue a career.

Kim, in the meantime, though she ends up following her mother into the acting profession, mostly takes after her stern grandmother. One curious result of this is that Magnolia remains the fun-loving child till the end, while her daughter takes on more and more of...

(The entire section is 1,369 words.)