Show Boat Themes
by Edna Ferber

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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

All Ferber’s works carry social history along with social criticism, centering on middle-class values of midwestern Americans under the pressure of social and economic change. Show Boat, for example, gives a panoramic view of three women confronting the rivers of change in American society. Parthenia and Captain Andy instill the virtues of hard work and loyalty in their daughter, who, in turn, encourages her own daughter Kim to be the best actress she can be. Since theater itself is based on illusion and deception, Ferber’s characters are romanticized, escapist, and overly sentimental, even to the point of melodrama. When Magnolia meets the love of her life in Ravenal, she follows her father’s tolerant and romantic nature and blinds herself to his faults. However, when she understands the true nature of their relationship, she calls on her mother’s strength to survive.

Ferber’s importance is twofold: She preserves a lost view of American life and theater that might be easily forgotten, and she also presents the problems of the working class beset by economic change. Just as the Mississippi shifts its sandbars, so also do Ravenal’s and Magnolia’s fortunes ebb and wane; as the Mississippi continues to flow toward the sea, so also does the love and passion between the main characters continue to grow until Ravenal leaves. This passion is mirrored in the heightened sense of excitement that the live performances on the showboat bring to the farmers and farmhands in the small river towns, a moment of sparkle in their dull lives. It romanticizes a part of American culture never before highlighted and illuminates the development from showboat to variety hall to vaudeville to legitimate theater.

The actors themselves are a predictable mélange of literary stereotypes—Magnolia, the beautiful and sensitive heroine; Ravenal, the dashingly handsome lover and rogue; Frank, the villain...

(The entire section is 467 words.)