Critical Evaluation

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For more than three decades, Katherine Anne Porter was renowned for her mastery of short narrative fiction, but only toward the end of her career did she direct her artistry toward the more extended form of the novel. Impressions she retained of a voyage from Veracruz to Bremerhaven in 1931 remained vivid in her mind and, in 1942, began to assume the shape of a complex and an intricate work that would reflect her perception of the general spiritual decay of Western civilization during the twentieth century. She formulated an appropriate design for her vision after reading Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth century moral allegory Das Narrenschiff (1494). The writing progressed slowly, and the book was not completed until 1962. Her Ship of Fools enjoyed an immediate popular success and established her reputation firmly as a novelist of vision, of imagination, and of compelling virtuosity.

The theme of the work is stated in a short notice preceding the text, in which Porter explains that the Vera (meaning “truth”) represents the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity, and the passengers include all humankind on its journey through life. Ship of Fools has no conventional plot or unfolding dramatic action; there is no “story” in the traditional sense. Instead, Porter devises nearly forty almost equally vivid and unforgettable characters, of different ages and nationalities, drawn from all walks of life, whose interactions during the voyage reveal truths about the nature of human beings and the human condition and whose behavior reflects common human responses in typical everyday situations.

Porter adopts an omniscient point of view as narrator, which permits her to look directly into her characters, overhear their thoughts, and understand their motivations, urges, and humiliations. Cultivating a classical style of remarkable purity comparable to that of the novelists Henry James and Gustave Flaubert, she employs plain and simple words to formulate sentences of striking rhetorical beauty, which either are concise and direct in their thrust or reveal their meaning gradually as they flow through a series of carefully balanced and modulated dependent clauses. She achieves an extraordinary blend of subtlety and intricacy of thought with simplicity and directness of expression, without ever sacrificing her long-trusted ideal of pristine clarity.

Porter paints a bleak picture of human nature in the book, for rarely does one find instances of kindness or of compassion aboard the Vera. Base inclinations and mean desires underlie the motivations of most of the characters most of the time. Many people are shown to be merely selfish, greedy, and unconsciously indifferent to their fellows; a few seem to be fundamentally evil at heart, taking pleasure in the suffering of others and occasionally wishing them still greater ill. Animal imagery, often referring to ugly, murderous, or repulsive activities, is appropriately applied to the characters throughout the book as metaphorical judgments upon their indifferent, inhuman, or brutal behavior.

Among the thirty-odd passengers closely observed aboard the Vera , a few are more intrinsically appealing than the others, less mean-spirited, more good-hearted and pleasant. Jenny Brown (a satirical self-portrait of Porter’s own youth), entangled in a frustrating relationship with David Scott, seeks her identity as a person and as an artist, expecting new experiences to bring her closer to true spiritual fulfillment. Arrogant about his talent and maturity, David resents her rivalry, twisting their relationship, almost unwillingly, into one of mutual antagonism. Mary Treadwell (another self-caricature) is sensitive and compassionate but harbors an inner reticence that blocks the expression of her feelings for others and causes her to appear cold and aloof. Wilhelm Freytag, ostracized after his marriage to a...

(This entire section contains 874 words.)

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Jewess is revealed, hides from truth behind a mask of politeness and genteel civility. Dr. Schumann, a deeply religious man threatened by a heart condition, is the most admirable person on the ship. His compassion, illustrated frequently during the voyage, suggests a possibility of hope for humankind’s future. His love for La Condesa, expressed tentatively but unmistakably, reflects both tenderness and self-control; she, on the other hand, experiences her love for him as a deeply emotional, unrestrained and nonrational, passion.

Although Porter’s sojourn in Germany in the early 1930’s provided her with substantial material that she incorporated into the novel to expose the Nazi mentality during its formation, persons of other nationalities are represented as similarly guilty of moral irresponsibility and spiritual decay: Comparable nationalist attitudes, racial biases, and social prejudices are revealed among Americans as well as Germans. Those not actually committed to evil still contribute passively to its augmentation by their silent tolerance or calm indifference. They observe criminal behavior and do nothing, though they may condemn it privately in hushed whispers. The 876 deportees in steerage are looked upon with simple or contemptuous curiosity by those who deign to notice them at all. These representatives of all the suffering lower classes of the world accept their degradation with patience and stoical endurance, and it is a member of this class, a carver of small wooden figures, who performs the only heroic act during the voyage: He gives his life by leaping into the sea to rescue the Huttens’s drowning bulldog. In Porter’s view, all the passengers, whether through complacency or turpitude, share responsibility for the moral decadence which the entire book illustrates.

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