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...
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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...
(The entire section is 705 words.)