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So Big by Edna Ferber: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

''So Big'' is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edna Ferber published in 1924. This lesson will provide a brief summary of the plot and look at some of the analytical themes and issues Ferber addresses.

Historical Background

Edna Ferber, novelist and playwright, is well-know for larger-than-life stories that follow a set of characters over a long period of their lives. Ferber's novel So Big is set in 1920s Chicago and the nearby rural community of South Holland. Historical figure and farming pioneer Antje Wagemeester Paarlberg, a widowed immigrant and determined woman, was reportedly Ferber's inspiration for the protagonist of So Big.

One selling point of the novel as a must-read for modern day students of literature is the detailed picture of a particular time and place that Ferber shows in So Big. In addition to the novel, there are two movie versions, one in 1932 and another in 1953.

publicity poster for 1932 film version
film poster

Plot Summary

The female character inspired by Paarlberg is named Selina Peake DeJong, the daughter of a gambler. Selina's childhood has the unstable finances of a gambler, but her education is always a priority. She is away at boarding school when she gets the news that her father has been shot dead.

The young girl inherits a small nest egg from her father, but determines to try her hand at teaching in a rural farm community. Her plan is to stay for two years or so and then teach back in the city. This plan fades when she marries local farmer, Pervus DeJong. Sometimes, as you know, our plans can change with changing circumstances that can't be predicted.

Selina soon discovers that farm life is very hard, and that even the most diligent effort doesn't always bring success. Moreover, she encounters a good bit of gender bias in the local community.

Farm life is an adjustment for Selina
Farm Life

However, she and Pervus have a son named Dirk, called So Big as a nickname. Life is hard, and Selina ends up working in the fields along with her husband. When Pervus dies, she realizes that she must run the farm herself in order to provide for herself and Dirk.

She goes into Chicago to sell some of her produce, and runs into her childhood friend Julie. Julie, now married, is able to help Selina get funding for some of her ideas for improving the farm.

This success allows her to send Dirk to college and architectural school. Unfortunately, Dirk doesn't have the patience or motivation for the slow rise in fame and fortune of an architect, and goes in the stock market instead.

He is hugely successful and is dating a young up-and-coming artist, Dallas O'Mara. Oddly, both Dallas and Dirk's mother want him to see the beauty in life and not just the material side. For the reader, knowing what history will bring for those in the investment world in only a few short years - the Stock Market Crash that creates the Great Depression - Dirk's decision of which values to pursue becomes even more profound.

Just at the novel's end, as Dallas prepares to go abroad without him, Dirk begins to see what his mother has been talking about all along. He is left alone in an empty, though sumptuous, city apartment.

Dirk comes to some hard realizations
Dirk and his New Attitude

Analysis

First let's look at Ferber's writing style. Of course, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1925, so it must have had a wide circulation and positive critical reception. One small negative is that the book is rather divided in focus. The first part is all about Selina and her attempt to find success, whatever that might mean for a woman in the early 20th century.

The second part is more about Dirk and his successes and disappointments in love and career. The issue of values in life is very much tied to Selina and her influence over her only son. Yet the reader does for a time lose track of Selina, making Dirk the protagonist for this section of the novel.

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