Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
Many people of various nationalities wait in the heat of Veracruz, Mexico, on August 22, 1931, to board the North German Lloyd S.A. Vera, scheduled to arrive at Bremerhaven, Germany, on September 17. Some have urgent errands to perform before embarkation, while others simply kill the time. An elderly professor and his wife, the Huttens, share their lunch with their fat bulldog; a shrill, obnoxious young woman, Lizzi Spkenkieker, strides about with a little pig-snouted man, Siegfred Rieber; a solitary Swede, Arne Hansen, expresses indignation over the behavior of Mexican revolutionaries; a German couple, the Baumgartners, hush their young son, dressed in a hot leather riding costume; an American girl in slacks, Jenny Brown, strolls aimlessly with her boyfriend, David Scott; four pretty Spanish girls with their young men, a small zarzuela company, prowl through the streets and shops with disobedient six-year-old twins, Ric and Rac; a middle-aged American woman, Mrs. Treadwell, incredulously considers a painful bruise on her arm, inflicted in the street by a beggarwoman.
Aboard the Vera Dr. Schumann, the ship’s elderly physician, watches passengers mount the gangplank: a hunchbacked dwarf, Herr Glocken, who sold his newsstand in Mexico City; a dying old man in a wheelchair, Herr Graf, pushed by his young nephew, Johann; a young Mexican woman with her baby and their Indian nurse; two Mexican priests; a Texan youth, William Denny, who continually leers at the Spanish girls; a German Jew, Herr Löwenthal, lugging a sample case containing Catholic religious articles; and a beautiful bride and groom on their honeymoon. When the combined freighter-and-passenger ship sets sail, the passengers examine the facilities and settle into their cramped cabins. Dinner at the captain’s table that evening, presided over by Dr. Schumann, is served to a select German group, which includes the Huttens, Lizzi and Rieber, two elderly widows traveling alone, and Wilhelm Freytag, a presentable young German in the oil business. They eat and drink with pleasure and speak joyfully of their return to their fatherland.
During the first pleasantly monotonous days of the voyage, both friendly and hostile encounters occur among the passengers as they become acquainted. Jenny’s discreet flirtation with Freytag angers David; Lizzi’s loud vulgarity annoys her cabinmate, Mrs. Treadwell; the Huttens and their dog suffer from severe seasickness; Baumgartner embarrasses his family by failing to control or to hide his chronic alcoholism; Jenny befriends her cabinmate, an unattractive Swiss teenager returning home with her parents, hoping there to marry. Löwenthal, seated apart in the dining room, cautiously seeks amicable conversations with approachable Gentiles.
When the Vera docks in Havana, many disembark to amuse themselves on shore while new passengers are taken aboard. Deported from Cuba to their native lands because of a market failure, 876 Spanish sugarfield workers are crowded into steerage, where inadequate accommodations and inhumane conditions await them. Six Cuban students make themselves conspicuous by singing “La Cucaracha” endlessly. A mysterious Spanish countess, deported as a dangerous revolutionary by Cuban authorities, arouses considerable curiosity: About fifty, she remains beautiful, dresses elegantly, and adorns herself with jewels; Dr. Schumann treats her nervous disorder with drugs that she habitually uses.
As the Vera pursues its course toward Germany, the passengers discover more about each other’s personal histories and private lives, and their early affinities and animosities deepen. Many of the Germans voice anti-Semitic attitudes; Freytag confides to Mrs. Treadwell that his wife is Jewish—a confidence she later betrays; Ric and Rac throw things overboard, including the Huttens’s bulldog (a woodcarver in steerage loses his life saving it); the quarrels of Jenny and David threaten their already unstable relationship; Dr. Schumann and the countess resign themselves to the futility of the love that arises between them; and the young bride and groom float about the ship blissfully untouched by all these matters.
To celebrate the last night of the voyage, the zarzuela troupe organizes a fiesta designed to affront and insult the fundamental dignity of all the passengers. During this grotesque masquerade, not attended by Dr. Schumann, the dancers usurp the captain’s table for themselves; Glocken sports a pink necktie bearing the words “Girls, follow me!”; and the drunken Baumgartner leads the children in a Nazi goose-stepping march. The guests disperse to seek their private pleasures and despairs in fights, amorous encounters, confrontations, or reconciliations. Johann loses his virginity to a Spanish prostitute, for a high price; Mrs. Treadwell, mistaken for a prostitute, hits a passenger in the face with the heel of her shoe. The next morning the passengers, behaving as if nothing unusual took place, face one another with indifferent and incommunicative faces, disembarking at Bremerhaven with their illusions apparently intact, fully expecting to create happiness for themselves by fashioning new lives in other countries.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705
Porter derived the title of her only novel, Ship of Fools, from a fifteenth century moral allegory by Sebastian Brant. In her brief introduction, Porter states that she had read a German translation of the work while she still vividly recalled her impressions of her first trip to Europe in 1931. The thirty-odd important characters include men and women of various ages and classes from the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Sweden. The novel opens as the passengers embark on August 22, 1931, from Veracruz, Mexico. (Part 1 is titled “Embarkation,” the middle section is named “High Sea,” and the third and final section is “The Harbors.”) The novel ends on September 17, 1931, when the ship, having stopped at several ports to allow all the passengers except the Germans and three Americans to disembark, finally reaches the last port, Bremerhaven, Germany.
The ancient and familiar image of the world as a ship on its journey to eternity provides the framework of the novel. Temporarily isolated from their normal, ordinary lives, the travelers include people of all kinds and conditions as well as the ship’s officers at one end of the ship’s social scale and 876 passengers in steerage at the other end. Thus Porter can examine a large number of her many characters in highly concentrated and revealing detail—their personalities, their principal relationships of varying duration and quality, and, by implication, her own attitudes toward the people she has collected and brought together in association with one another for a brief time.
There is no one protagonist, but two characters are notable for their singularity: Dr. Schumann, the ship’s physician, and La Condesa (the countess), a fallen noblewoman being deported for revolutionary activities from Cuba to exile in Tenerife. Addicted to drugs and adored by a group of six noisy Cuban medical students, La Condesa becomes a patient of Dr. Schumann, who falls despairingly and futilely in love with her. The physician is also suffering from a weak heart and a sense of alienation and depression.
Two American women are especially distinguishable from the crowd because of the apparent sympathy felt for them by the author, a feeling that she does not show for the other characters. The latter are pitilessly exposed in all their unlikable natures and habits, such as the elderly couple who lavish inordinate amounts of attention on their white bulldog, the alcoholic hypochondriac, the lecherous publisher of a ladies’ garment trade magazine, the abusive mother of a sickly little boy, two psychopathic children, and the company of singers and dancers who prey upon the ostensibly respectable passengers.
Instead of a plot in the usual sense, the novel consists of a series of anecdotes or scenes in which the characters appear in groups, usually as a family or a couple, with a few solitary figures. Porter’s skill as a writer of stories is evident; the novel is a collection of scenes that reveal the weaknesses, if not vices, of a large number of repellent people who can only be characterized, because of the way Porter portrays them, as hateful, destructive, and evil.
Porter presents a portrait of humanity that is characterized by a large assortment of follies and sins, unrelieved, for the most part, by any redeeming qualities. The general situation of the book is that of Western civilization heading toward Fascism and on the brink of another world war. Lacking a narrative structure that builds on developing action, conflict, and resolution, the novel instead depends for its interest on the author’s apparent theme of Western civilization’s failure. This theme must be inferred from the unattractive, even despicable characters, not from any direct or clear statement by the author, who tells her tales, as usual, with dramatic intensity, vivid characterization, and plain, direct language.
When Ship of Fools appeared, the large majority of critics were enthusiastic, if not ecstatic, in their praise, but a small percentage found the book dull, repetitive, indiscriminate, and harsh—redeemed by neither humor nor compassion. As the immediate responses to the book were followed by more considered and objective evaluations, it seemed clear that Porter’s reputation as a distinguished woman of American letters would rest on her short fiction, not her novel.