So Big Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: Illinois

Characters DiscussedSelina Peake DeJong

Selina So BigPeake DeJong, a female schoolteacher turned truck farmer outside Chicago. To support herself after her gambler father is murdered, nineteen-year-old Selina accepts a teaching job in the Dutch community of High Prairie. Her exclamation that the fields of cabbages are beautiful elicits guffaws from the pragmatic, work-worn Dutch, but her ability to seek and find beauty in the most unlikely of circumstances pervades her entire life, bringing zest and adventure to her and success to the dilapidated farm she inherits from her husband. Becoming physically scarred by the backbreaking farm work does not eradicate Selina’s fun-loving spirit, indomitable courage, and shrewd ability to judge character and values. Even as an old woman, her son Dirk’s secretary claims, she has an air about her that is better than style. Although she loves Dirk above all else, she considers herself a failure because he has compromised his desire to become an architect for more immediate financial success as a banker. She is not despondent over the partial blame she accepts for her son’s choices. She receives joy from life on the farm itself and from the work of a former student, Roelf Pool, an artist and son of the first family with whom she lived. She experiences life as “velvet,” the legacy her father gave her by encouraging her to live life richly whether it brought good or bad.

Dirk “So Big” DeJong

Dirk “So Big” DeJong, nicknamed as a baby, the son of Pervus and Selina DeJong. He is intelligent, charming, and appreciative of those around him. Unlike his mother, however, whose character never wavers, Dirk makes choices within relatively easy circumstances that determine who he will become. He leaves the new university in Chicago, where he had given up a natural friendship with a farm girl for fraternity life, to study architecture at Cornell because he despises the buildings the newly moneyed were able to build. When he cannot make a living at his new trade shortly before World War I, he turns to selling bonds and adopts the lifestyle of the rich, which he had formerly questioned. Later, unable to give up his habits, he will not return to architecture. It is then that his mother can argue that he has sold the love of beauty that he had inherited from her for a mess of pottage-success measured only by money. He must also settle for a liaison with the fabulously wealthy married daughter of his mother’s old friend instead of the love he would have preferred, that of Dallas O’Mara, an artist who is much like his mother. His choices stunt his life to only “so big.”

Pervus DeJong

Pervus DeJong, a kindly but ineffective Dutch farmer who marries Selina. He buys the beautifully arranged but scanty boxed supper that Selina prepared for an auction, paying an exorbitant ten dollars he cannot afford. Pervus then asks Selina to teach him to read and figure. His is the least successful farm in the community, but even so Selina falls in love with the gentle giant. He refuses to initiate any of the farming changes she suggests, however, and in his own stubborn way persists in doing things as they had always been done, hastening his death from pneumonia.

Paula Arnold Storm

Paula Arnold Storm, the granddaughter of a meatpacking magnate, August Hemple; daughter of Selina’s schoolfriend, Julie; and wife of a Chicago businessman far older than she. She also is in love with Dirk. Paula knows Dirk from their teenage days, but when it looks like he will only be a struggling architect, unable to give her the lifestyle she craves, she marries an extremely wealthy man instead. Later, she controls Dirk’s financial career by possessive manipulation. She is a slim, dark, vivacious, slinky socialite. Her unhappiness is betrayed by her hot, nervous, twisty hands. She is a natural contrast both to Selina and to Dallas O’Mara, the artist with whom Dirk falls in love to no avail.

BibliographyField, Louise Maunsell. “From Gopher Prairie on to High Prairie: In a Novel Just Published Edna Ferber Invades the Small Town.” The New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1924, 9. Reviews So Big favorably as a novel about values to read and to remember.Gilbert, Julia Goldsmith. Edna Ferber. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Ferber’s great-niece sets the context for Ferber’s novels within her life and is not afraid to ask why the famous Americanist has gone into eclipse.Gould, Gerald. “New Fiction So Big.” The Saturday Review of Literature 137, no. 3572 (April 12, 1924): 392. A more critical review that suggests that Ferber has created a false dichotomy between art and achievement.Reed, Paula. “Edna Ferber.” In American Novelists, 1910-1945. Vol. 9 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Discusses the most important of Ferber’s works in the context of her life. Concludes that Ferber’s writings are significant for their “recognition of the contributions of women to the growth and development of America.”Shaughnessey, Mary Rose. Women and Success in American Society in the Works of Edna Ferber. New York: Gordon Press, 1977. This most thorough examination of Ferber’s works claims that women and America are the novelist’s two major themes. Ferber believed that “if women ever wake up to their potentialities . . . the world would be a better place.”
Categories: Characters