Ship of Fools has been called a novel and has been castigated for lacking the plan and coherence of a novel. It has also been called an allegory and a moral fable (apologue). Begun during the rise of Nazism in Germany and published seventeen years after the end of World War II, the work eludes classification as a universal, allegorical comment only because it is so apparently specific to the evils that were gestating in Germany in 1931. With the exception of the uninvolved Dr. Schumann and the children, hardly a German whose mind is revealed to the reader by the omniscient narrator is not a virulent bigot.
Porter’s conscious reference to Brant’s allegory is, nevertheless, a clear indicator of what she had in mind. Friendly critics have defended her work by referring to earlier literary metaphors such as Ahab and the white whale in Moby Dick. Even more apt—and contemporary—comparisons may be made to novels by Günter Grass and the prose and stage works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch, in which recognizable human traits mingle with allegory, satire, parody, the grotesque, and postwar cynicism in a text that may be taken either as specific to Germany in the 1940’s and/or to the succeeding competition of the Cold War, or as a far more universal and pessimistic comment on the human condition and social institutions. On Porter’s ship, the inept and the intolerant encounter the indecorous, the immoral, and the amoral.
The omniscient author allows the reader access to the thoughts of these semi-allegorical figures, where one encounters the recognizable hopes and fears of the young or the disappointed side by side with intolerance, indifference, hatred, bigotry, religious megalomania, and lust. Minds into which the reader is allowed no access are those of the pimps, prostitutes, and thieves of the Spanish troupe—sometimes called gypsies by others or themselves, who are singly or as a group responsible for many of the personal crises experienced by the other passengers. Even the young minds of Ric and Rac are closed to the reader, as they plan their ruinous mischief, suffer barbarous punishment by their parents for unknowingly thwarting a planned theft, and—apparently—explore each other sexually while hidden in a lifeboat. The thoughts of the Spanish troupe need not be elucidated, because the...
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