In this essay, he discusses Porter’s novel in terms of the self-deceit of many of the characters. Perhaps it is not too obvious to remark that Ship of Fools is aptly titled. The sum total of human wisdom assembled on the Vera is heavily outweighed by the accumulation of folly, ignorance, vice, and sheer evil. If this novel is a portrait of the human condition, as some critics take it to be, it gives little cause for comfort.
The human failings presented in the novel are varied and numerous: the hateful rantings of Herr Rieber, the contemptuous authoritarianism of the Captain, the alcoholism of Herr Baumgartner, and the cheating and thieving of the Spanish dancing troupe, to name only a few. One fault that afflicts many of the characters is self-deceit. Perhaps because the truth is unpalatable, these are characters who tell themselves stories about their own lives and then convince themselves the stories are true.
For example, it is likely that Herr Graf is only able to come to terms with the fact that he is dying by inventing the notion that God has given him power to heal others. Professor Hutten, the intel- lectual, thinks he believes in the innate goodness of man, but later it transpires that this is a sham, a cover he has invented to hide his real, less acceptable beliefs. The stability of the Huttens’ marriage also rests on a lie that they both conspire to believe, that Frau Hutten is the perfect, devoted wife, completely fulfilled by serving her husband.
Another example is Frau Rittersdorf, for whom small deceits have become a way of life. This is conveyed early in the novel, when she sends flowers to herself, with accompanying cards supposedly from two of her friends, both of whom happen to be dead. She convinces herself that this is not deceitful because they would have sent the flowers had they been alive. Frau Rittersdorf is so thoroughly mired in false appearances that she makes the Catholic gesture of crossing herself, even though she is Lutheran, simply because she thinks the gesture becomes her. Sometimes her self-deceit reaches comic proportions, as when she mistakenly writes in her diary that David Scott’s last name is Darling and Jenny’s is Angel (because that is how they always address each other) and congratulates herself on her own cleverness in analyzing the derivation of the names. Most seriously, her inflated idea of her own social standing makes her one of the most intolerant and snobbish of the German passengers.
Lizzi Spockenkieker is another shining example of self-deceit—the lack of an accurate perception of oneself. She thinks she is beautiful, despite much evidence to the contrary, and she also believes that she has legions of male admirers who are just waiting to marry her, which sounds highly unlikely, to say the least, for a woman whose shrill laugh sounds like “a long cascade of falling tinware.”
Sometimes the self-deceit takes on more subtle forms, as with the character of Mrs. Treadwell. She is an interesting character because she is one of the few who is not subject to the author’s scathing irony. Mrs. Treadwell does not share the ignorant prejudices of many of the others: they are bigoted and unhappy; she is merely unhappy. And yet in spite of the sympathetic manner in which she is presented, Mrs. Treadwell’s capacity for self-deceit may be the most thoroughgoing of all. If anything bad happens to her, she refuses to believe in it, as if it is only a bad dream. When she is attacked by the beggar woman who bruises her arm, Mrs. Treadwell convinces herself that this is not a thing that really happens to anyone, least of all her. Because her life has been full of emotional pain, she tries to turn her back on it and deny it. The voyage itself is just another thing to flee from, and her desire is to disappear entirely from view: “moment by moment she would find a split second of relief from boredom in the very act of flight which gave her the fleeting illusion of invisibility.” For Mrs. Treadwell, who is forty-five years old and has a birthday while she is on the ship, even her age is something temporary that she can somehow put off.
Mrs. Treadwell’s great fantasy is that she can be happy in Paris, her destination, but the reader suspects that this is just another illusion. Paris is her Shangri-La, her mythical paradise that always beckons in the distance but is...
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