Oh, Selina. There’s a particular brand of martyrdom that she seems to specialize in—the pointless, wallow-in-self-pity, abdicate-responsibility-for-happiness kind. Selina’s hardly unique….I’m sure we’ve all encountered people who see the world in this way. I can’t deny it’s gotten her and Dirk through some rough times. But if she’s going to help her son, she can’t just reject her own happiness at every turn.
While they’re poor and starving, several people offer to help them, but Selina has too much “dignity”. Is she right that it’s undiginified? Furthermore, when you and your child need food, does it make any sense to turn down offers of help because you don’t accept “charity”? There’s a remarkable amount of pride here—her desire to do nothing but help her son herself is the sort of thing that leads to trouble, both in a larger sense of where she’ll get food, and on a deep internal level. Maybe I’m wrong, but I find that kind of self-rejecting pity a really dangerous thing.
In fact, I’d say she sets her son up for failure. By the time he reaches eighteen, she’s so cared for his every whim that he doesn’t seem fully independent. He could have been Georgie Minafer, but thank goodness Ferber pulls him back from that abyss. He’s just insensitive to the middle-aged woman student he befriends (and casts aside) at college. He doesn’t believe in himself enough to stand up to peer pressure. I worry that this latter half of the book will show a real turn for the negative—an exploration of how mild riches and comfort can spoil a young man.
There’s more to say, but it’s late. I’ll just note that there’s a lot of interesting stuff about college ca. 1910, as we follow Dirk through those bright years on campus, and that he’s headed back East to what I can only assume is the conflict that will set the last stages of the plot in motion.