Ship of Fools

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Porter explains in an introductory note that the novel’s title is taken from a 15th century German allegory, DAS NARRENSCHIFF, by Sebastian Brant. She read the book in 1932, soon after her first voyage to Europe. She wrote her novel over a period of years and finished it in 1962.

The passengers and crew of the ship Vera represent the whole spectrum of humanity, from good to evil. Many of the passengers, most of the crew, the ship’s doctor, and the Captain are German. Also traveling on the ship are several Latin passengers, including a zarzuela company, a few Americans, a Swiss family, a Swede, and uncounted and mostly nameless steerage passengers.

The novel has little plot, but a troubled love affair between two American artists, Jenny Scott and David Brown, provides a thin story line. A climactic festival near the end of the voyage offers insights into particular individuals, developing character traits suggested earlier. Despite the lack of plot, lively incidents and colorful characters make the novel entertaining and thought provoking.

Although the author’s point of view is omniscient, she remains unobtrusive and objectively presents the characters in their strengths, weaknesses, folly, and, occasionally, their repulsiveness. Her keen insight pointedly reveals the destructive potential of racism, particularly in the Captain’s personality. Both the author’s and the reader’s inescapable hindsight, provided by knowledge of World War II, makes this conventional topic unconventional.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Harold...

(The entire section is 679 words.)