Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Fever,” with its unresolved ending, probes deeply into the philosophical mystery of goodness and evil in human nature. Specifically, the author explores the history of racism in the United States, as it affects not only African Americans but also all immigrants who, themselves initially despised, climb the social ladder to oppress those who follow. Richard Allen is the principal figure giving cohesion to the fragmented narrative. In the midst of his errands of mercy, he questions his own motives. Why does he willingly serve the community that refuses to acknowledge his humanity? One voice, using extreme racial insults, calls him a fool, taunting him with the accusation that he cannot see the futility of his choice and should leave the country. Allen, however, driven to heroism by his firm Christian faith and an inexplicable love of humanity, continues his mission despite his near despair and exhaustion.

Other voices reveal their blind, unreasoning hatred of African Americans. In contrast to the extreme examples of human goodness and evil, the autopsy report shows that the exposed brains of fever victims cannot be identified as black or white. In death, all are equal. In this story, human nature, which is capable of both good and evil, remains a mystery.

A more startling statement comes in the voice of the omniscient narrator, speaking out of history to conflate physical disease with spiritual affliction: “We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted when one of us decided to sell one of us to another.”

Ultimately Wideman, in juxtaposing the conflicting voices of the various narrators, is questioning the validity of traditional historical accounts that claim to speak truth.


(Short Stories for Students)

Prejudice and Racism
One of the prevailing themes found in ‘‘Fever’’ is that of prejudice. The white Philadelphians...

(The entire section is 769 words.)