Aestheticism and practicality are often at odds. Beauty and creativity are contained in aestheticism, while practicality is purely “down to earth.” These two philosophies come head to head, in the form of mother and son, between the covers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “So Big,” by Appleton author Edna Ferber. “So Big” is a coming of age novel in regards not only to its characters, but to the nation. The story is rife with social commentaries on sexism, art, poverty and class that are still poignant today.
Orphaned and alone in turn-of-the-century Chicago at the age of nineteen, Selina Peake becomes a rural teacher, a farmer, a mother and then a widow within a few short years. Growing up between boarding homes and riches due to her father’s gambling, Selina garners a taste for the finer things in life. After her father’s death, and being left only a few hundred dollars, Selina’s prospects look grim at best. She decides to become a teacher and eventually marries. Widowed soon after, and left to care for her young son, her troubles persist. Her son Dirk, whom she nicknames So Big, is the opposite of his mother. He comes from humble farmer means and eventually becomes an architect, but later leaves that job for a more profitable position as a stockbroker. Dirk essentially gives up his art for ambition, which causes tension between him and his mother. His girlfriend eventually leaves him for a sculptor because she sees Dirk as a sellout.
Dirk’s motivation for changing jobs is honorable. He wants to provide for his mother and girlfriend. However, this isolates him, as he is going against the two women’s idealism. To them, art, creation and connections with people are the things that make life beautiful. They look down on what they see as Dirk’s corporate greed. This is where the divide between Dirk and the women in his life finds its roots.
The timelessness of the story makes up for all the antiquated colloquialisms. The beautiful writing and vibrant descriptions help the book transcend time by transporting the reader. While it takes place mainly in the city of Chicago and on a nearby local farm, the divide between rural and urban– between rich and poor– exists all over. It did then, and still does today, which could be a testament to the deep cultural roots of the divide, or simply to the inability of people to solve the problem. Just as this overarching divide persists, so is there no true resolution for Dirk and Selina.
At its heart, Ferber’s story is about what people sacrifice on their way to success. The values people have are often dictated by upbringing and location. The geographical distance between people creates echo chambers, resulting in the metaphorical distance between them only becoming greater.