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...
(The entire section is 874 words.)