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Things Are Getting Away: Edna Ferber’s Giant

After watching the film adaptation of Giant recently, I found myself with a hardback copy of the novel in my hand, wading through its 447 rather flabby pages. Many of the elements in the film can be clearly seen in the book, while many other significant elements, for example the source of Jett Rink’s initial plot of land, turn out completely differently.

Giant is a novel of giant ambitions, the attempts of men to gain, expand, and maintain power, wealth, and influence. In Ferber’s view, power corrupts, turning virtuous people into manipulative churls and granting evil people the power to spread their harm much more widely.

For all his faults, the character of Jordan “Bick” Benedict cannot be simply dismissed or hated. Bick possesses a genuine love not just for his wife but for the enormous ranch that over which he exercises almost absolute control. Bick wants to do right to the legacy of the Benedict family. He seeks not just to cash in on the monetary advantages offered by the cattle business but to improve the herd through an aggressive program of breeding. Bick resists the offer of an oil lease not just because that offer comes from a company fronted by the odious Jett Rink but because he feels it will disrupt the world that he values so highly. That said, he doesn’t resist cashing the checks when the oil payments begin to roll in.

Jordan seeks to exert control, yet in the end things run away from him. His non-resident family members out-vote him on the matter of oil development. His son has not only rejected his place as the next leader of the cattle operation in favor of medical school but has married a Mexican woman. Jordan’s daughter, Luz, seems drawn, alternately, to Jett Rink in one moment and the small-dreaming Bob Dietz.  Jordan mentions the loss of a million acres of the Reata ranch at one point. Things change, a fact that clearly troubles him.

Things are getting away from me. Kind of slipping from under me, like a loose saddle. I swear to GOd I sometimes feel like a failure. Bick Benedict a failure. The whole Benedict family a failure.

On another front, the Jett Rink story, established in the early chapters and always lurking in the background represents the establishment of an incredible fortune–one far greater than the Benedict fortune–and the sort of influence that can accompany such wealth. Still, Jett clearly has not achieved the object of his dreams, still longing for the unattainable Leslie Benedict twenty-five years after she has come to Texas.

In their own separate ways, both Jordan and Jett evoke the rich fool of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:13-21. These men have not only put their hope in their wealth, but they seek to exercise ever-increasing control over that wealth to preserve it. The rich fool intends to build larger barns, thus preserving his harvest into the distant future. Jordan aims to keep the ranch operating as it has for generations, despite the march of time and the drastic expansion of the family. Jett seeks to translate his financial success into the realm of romance and relationship, something he has proved wholly unsuited to manage.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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