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Rubber Stamp: Legacy And Individuality In "So Big"

1503 words - 6 pages

By the 1920s, the concept of an autonomous working woman was at the vanguard of both literature and social thought. The tenets of New Womanhood hold that this new breed was concerned with "self-development as contrasted to self-sacrifice or submergence in the family" (Batker 84). Naturally, this unconventional shift in gender roles became the focus of female writers like Edna Ferber. Within her novel, So Big, Ferber eloquently places Selina DeJong at the intersection of an innovative culture and traditional roles, as her youthful desire to embrace variety does not prove to be compatible with her entrapment in the banality of agrarian life. Based on biographical evidence regarding the discussion topics of Ferber’s tight–knit circle of Jewish women writers, as well as her use of a female protagonist in other works, it is likely that Ferber did not deviate from her usual tendencies in the writing of So Big, in which, contrary to the deceptive title, the protagonist is a woman (Batker 81).
So Big does diverge from Ferber’s other works, however, in that the female protagonist fades into the background to be replaced by her son, Dirk. Given the author’s proven interest with the New Woman as well as her past use of women as the heroines of her stories, it is unlikely that this shift is to serve as a means to introduce a parallel protagonist. Rather, Dirk “So Big” DeJong initially functions as a continuation of Selina’s life, which appears to have become stagnant on her High Meadow farm. Surrounded by women beyond the boundaries of the aforementioned cultural revolution, it is inevitable that Selina would become victim to the same fate. Ferber begins to give the illusion that Selina’s time to pursue her own goals has passed, forcing her to live her life through her son. Thus, the impact made by Dirk would not only secure his legacy, or lack thereof, but would determine his mother’s, as well. Ferber’s focus on the courage and work ethic of New Womanhood, concurrently addressed alongside the concept of legacy, indicates that her intent was to develop a thesis combining the two. So Big utilizes Dirk’s status as a “rubber stamp” to contrast emeralds and wheat as well as Selina’s painting. Placing Dirk opposite these symbols and designations of success highlights the significance of creating something unique and enduring as well as facing adversity undaunted in order to secure such a legacy.
So Big reiterates that success by measure of wealth is far inferior to that which comes from leaving a lasting impact. Ferber’s commentary on the nature of success is first revealed early in the novel through a casual conversation between Selina and her father. Simeon Peake tells his daughter that “there are only two kinds of people in the world that really count. One kind’s wheat and the other kind’s emeralds” (Ferber 7). Selina quickly designates August Hempel as wheat and Fanny Davenport as emerald. August Hempel, once a Clark Street butcher, pulled himself up by...

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