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Literature / So Big

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So Big is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1924 novel by Edna Ferber.

The story follows several decades in the lives of a mother and son. Selina Peake is the spirited young daughter of a widowed gambler in late-19th-century Chicago. After her father is shot and killed, Selina is left alone in the world at the age of 19. She leaves the city and gets a job teaching in the Dutch farming village of High Prairie, Illinois (nowadays, the Roseland neighborhood of a larger Chicago). She marries a stolid but decent farmer, Pervus DeJong, and seemingly settles for life in grim poverty and hopelessness. But after tragedy intervenes, Selina makes a success out of her husband's little farm.

The second part of the novel follows her son Dirk. Selina sends Dirk off to college, and he studies to be an architect. His mother, who still has an appreciation for art and beauty despite spending decades scratching out a living as a farmer, is proud of her son for picking a noble profession. But after World War I leaves Dirk feeling more cynical about the world, he decides to make money as a bond trader, much to Selina's disappointment.

There have been several screen adaptations, most notably a 1932 film directed by William A. Wellman and starring Barbara Stanwyck as Selina (with a pre-stardom Bette Davis appearing as Dirk's Love Interest Dallas O'Meara), and a 1953 film directed by Robert Wise and starring Jane Wyman as Selina.


  • Born Unlucky: Pervus. The narration talks about how things never work out for him. His wife died in childbirth and the baby died soon after. If he plants in anticipation of a wet summer they get drought and if he plants in anticipation of a dry summer they get rain. Somewhat subverted when the story makes clear that Pervus's failures are in part because of his general dullness and his unwillingness to follow Selina's advice and try new farming methods; she eventually becomes a much more successful farmer than he was.
  • Death by Childbirth:
    • Why Pervus is a widower, after being married less than two years. The baby died as well.
    • As does Selina's only friend in High Prairie, Maartje Pool, along with her child also, "as was so often the case in this region where a Gampish midwife acted as obstetrician."
  • Down on the Farm: Selina marries a poor farmer, and they struggle to survive in rural High Prairie.
  • Fish out of Water: Selina, formerly the daughter of a high-living Professional Gambler, has a lot of culture shock when she comes to rural, poor High Prairie. She is thrown for a loop by all the ignorant farm folk with their lack of culture and hteir thick Dutch accents and their fondness for eating inordinate amounts of pork.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • "Gay" and "queer" are both used appropriately for 1924. The book talks about Selina's "gay, adventurous spirit."
    • Selina beds down for the night in the vegetable cart, then considers unhappily she is "sleeping in a wagon, in the straw, like a bitch with my puppy snuggled beside me."
    • Here's how Dallas speculates that she'll probably marry a manual laborer: "Some day I'll probably marry a horny-handed son of toil and if I do it'll be the horny hands that will win me."
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • Dirk confidently predicts that High Prairie will stay rural, saying "Chicago'll never grow this way." He is wrong.
    • "Father says himself that unless a war breaks, or something, which isn't at all likely, the packing industry is going to spring a leak."
  • Japanese Ranguage: A little racism out of nowhere in the last scene of the novel, in which Dirk's "Jap" housekeeper tells him that "Missy Stlom" ("Storm") has arrived.
  • Meet Cute: Selina meets Pervus when she literally has to shove him to get him out of the way at the charity auction.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Selina's life is changed forever when her father is shot and killed by a bullet that wasn't even meant for him.
  • Professional Gambler: Selina's father, Simeon Peake, made his living this way. When his luck was good they lived in fancy hotels and ate at fancy restaurants, but at the time of his death his luck was poor and they were living in a rooming house. Selina found life with her father fun and exciting, which factors into her culture shock when he's killed and she's forced to live Down on the Farm.
  • Streetwalker: When Selina and Dirk make their first trip to Chicago after the death of Pervus to sell vegetables, Selina returns from setting up the cart and is surprised to find her 9-year-old son talking to two street hookers. They're friendly.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Paula Arnold is on the "couch-swing" on the front porch of the DeJong farmhouse. Dirk is sweet on her. This sets up the scene immediately afterward where Paula tells Dirk that she won't marry him because he isn't rich enough.
  • Taking Up the Mantle: Selina, continuing to work her husband's farm after his unexpected death, and eventually making a success out of it. All the ignorant peasants of High Prairie are shocked and horrified when Selina, a woman, takes her produce to Haymarket herself for sale.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World:
    • Simeon urges his daughter to live life to the fullest. She agrees and says she wouldn't want to be one of the Moral Guardians like her Aunt Sarah and Aunt Abbie. Simeon says "Well—yes. There are only two kinds of people in the world that really count. One kind's wheat and the other kind's emeralds."
    • Later, Paula wants to send Dirk some things to liven up his room. Dirk declines, saying "Two kinds of women in the world....Those who send men things for their rooms and those that don't."
  • Title Drop: The first paragraph of the novel explains how Dirk was called "So Big" and then "Sobig" as a child due to his mother's habit of asking how big he was, to which the boy would respond "so big!"

Tropes unique to the 1932 film:

  • Gross-Up Close-Up: Selina the Fish out of Water is grossed out at her first dinner in High Prairie. This is demonstrated by a Gross Up Close Up of Klass Pool and Jacob shoveling huge chunks of pork and cabbage into their stubbly faces.
  • Maybe Ever After: The film ends with Roelf Pool kissing Selina's hand.