Download Cabin Fever Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Cabin Fever Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Cabin Fever, Jolley recounts the life of a young woman named Vera Wright. Telling the story entirely from the point of view of the first-person narrator, Jolley explores the nature of memory, as she has done in many of her novels. In this book she shows her mastery of the narrative devices she has developed, as well as the natural, straightforward style that is characteristic of her writing.

The book opens in the present, with Vera Wright sitting in her room on the twenty-fourth floor of a hotel in New York, where she is scheduled to deliver a paper at a conference entitled “Perspectives on Moral Insanity.” Other papers listed in the program include “Symptoms of Panic Disorder” and “New Discoveries About Diabetes and Anorexia.” Vera appears to be suffering from some of the symptoms that she is supposed to objectively discuss at this conference of physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, and other health care workers. She knows that she should be meeting and talking with her fellow conferees, but instead she seems to be paralyzed by memories: her parents, her friends at the hospital where she trained to be a nurse, her first lover, and various people for whom she worked while trying to rear her daughter. These jobs include assisting in a home for new mothers, working in a progressive boarding school, and finally acting as a live-in housekeeper for a fifty-eight-year-old professor and his much older sister.

The foregoing summary suggests a neat, chronological succession of characters and incidents, but the story is told in the way that memory works. As Jolley herself writes: “The revival,” (of persons, places, incidents), “is not in any particular order, and one recalled picture, attaching itself to another, is not recognizably connected to another in spite of its being brought to the surface in the wake of the first recollection.” Thus the story is told in a circuitous fashion, with no semblance of chronological order, and yet, because the main components of Vera’s life are mentioned and described and dramatized through dialogue and her own musings, the story begins to be clear and the experiences she underwent are gradually made comprehensible.

Vera’s parents are major figures in her memory. Her mother is a disappointed, critical, anxious woman, while her father is gentle, loving, and kind. (Jolley described her own parents in much the same way.) Two other important people are Dr. Jonathon Metcalf and his wife Magda, who use Vera for their own perverted and selfish pleasure, though she never seems to realize this.

Aside from the remembered (and one suspects sometimes imagined) conversations, the entire story consists of interior monologue and recollections, through which the reader comes to admire Vera’s courage, determination, naïveté, and humor.

The book ends as it began, with Vera still self-imprisoned in her hotel room. She remembers (or imagines?) talking to someone coming to keep an appointment that they “take the path through the pines from the station. It is both a shortcut and a pleasant little walk. A remedy.” These are the last words in the book, leaving the reader to ponder. While much of the novel seems clear enough, many questions remain unanswered. There is, for example, an untold part to Vera’s story—how she overcame her poverty and helplessness, acquired the education necessary to become an important personage in her field, and reached the stature of one to whom “people come to consult . . . about what worries them.” Are the woman in the hotel room and the young Vera Wright the same person? In the early pages of the book, the narrator remarks, “a ruthless self-examination is needed.” This idea is not clearly connected to what precedes or follows it, yet it seems to be a related and significant clue to what the book is about.

Jolley invites the reader to participate in the story, to allow one’s own imagination and insight to operate in a collaboration with the author, adding speculation and reflection to enhance the overall effect of the novel.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Howells, Coral Ann. “In Search of Lost Mothers: Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners and Elizabeth Jolley’s Miss Peabody’s Inheritance.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 19 (January, 1988): 57-70.

Kirkby, Joan. “The Call of the Mother in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley.” SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies 26 (April, 1988): 46-63.

Kirkby, Joan. “The Spinster and the Missing Mother in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley.” In Old Maids to Radical Spinsters, edited by Laura L. Doan. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Lurie, Caroline, comp. Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolley, Her Life and Work. New York: Viking, 2006.

McCowan, Sandra. Reading and Writing Elizabeth Jolley: Contemporary Approaches. Fremantle, Wash.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995.

Riemer, A. P. New Worlds and Old: Essays on the Major Writers. New York: Garland, 1991.

Spender, Dale, ed. Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers. New York: Pandora Press, 1988.

Thomson, Helen. Bio-Fictions: Brian Matthews, Drusilla Modjeska, and Elizabeth Jolley. Townsville, Queensland: Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, 1994.

Willbanks, Ray. Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.