Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The phrase “ship of fools,” as Porter mentions in a brief introductory note, is a translation of the title of Sebastian Brant’s moral allegory Das Narrenschiff (1494). As Brant’s work does, Porter’s work reflects on the many follies of human beings. Unlike the characters portrayed in Brant’s work, however, the passengers on Porter’s ship are not static homilies. They reflect on their own lives and interact with one another.

Described by one critic as a “wave,” Ship of Fools begins slowly, developing a large number of characters, crests somewhere after its mid-point with a series of miniclimaxes, and rolls quietly to a denouement that solves no one’s problems. Part 1, “Embarcation” which constitutes less than a fifth of the book, introduces the passengers in Veracruz, as they prepare to board, and follows them onto the ship, offering the reader initial, sometimes misleading glimpses of all the major characters. Part 2, “High Sea,” constitutes more than half of the book, and Part 3, “The Harbors,” in which many of the apparently meaningful crises and decisions are resolved, constitutes less than a third of the work.

The development of characters and drama is achieved through two overarching devices: the slow building of individual and family portraits and the juxtaposition of alien elements. Either one or both of these processes may lead to a decisive moment in the life of an individual or...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Veracruz. Port city in Mexico from which the German ship Vera departs. Most of its passengers are Germans returning to their homeland after visiting Mexico for various reasons and lengths of stay. Passengers from other European nations, the United States, and Cuba also board the ship.

The novel opens with a French epigram meaning, “When are we setting forth toward happiness?” It suggests the allegorical nature of the voyage that is to come. The notion of human happiness is set forth as a destination, that is, a place, or a stasis, that the travelers desire to reach. Thus, the literal geographical references introduced in the novel parallel the great variety of human culture across the globe, yet these various places represent the particular and universal longings of passengers who inevitably mistake place for purpose, who confuse national identity for authenticity. The localizing of the passengers at Veracruz anticipates what will occur on the ship once the passengers are on board en route for Europe.

In addition to Veracruz, the novelist refers to numerous cities and countries in her work. Since the story is an allegory, it uses these places literally; on one level the book is about a great variety of peoples coming together to travel on a ship. Each passenger has a special reason for traveling to a specific destination. On other levels, however, the work is a moral commentary on the political...

(The entire section is 581 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A major subtext of Ship of Fools is provided by Porter’s grim presentation of the role of women of all social levels and all ages. The women of the Spanish troupe are constrained to turn over their earnings to their lovers/pimps. If they are careful, they may be able to skim some of the money and build secret funds for creating new lives as performers or shopkeepers, like those they have so deftly robbed. Mrs. Schmitt’s personality is submerged under considerations of whether her dead husband Otto would approve of what she is doing at any moment. Mrs. Rittersdorf terrorizes Mrs. Schmitt and fills the pages of her diary with supercilious comments on others of whom she does not approve but whom she will not confront. Mrs. Hutten flees from her moment of rebellion to the safety of marital thralldom. Jenny flutters like a butterfly in a net but repeatedly returns to David and his quest for both love and dominance. Lizzie Spöckenkieker defines herself only in terms of which man wishes or has wished to marry her. La Condesa is so addicted to masculine admiration that she turns a blind eye to the satirical comments of her Cuban student entourage. The desperate and dependent futility of these lives invites both compassion and indignation. Racial and ethnic bigotry outlived the Nazi era as did sexual bigotry. None of what Porter says is yet beside the point.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Germany in the 1930s
The Germany that the travelers in Ship of Fools were bound for was a nation on the brink of...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Animal Imagery
Porter frequently uses animal and bird imagery to refer to the passengers on the ship. Much of this occurs in...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Porter was committed to theme, not plot. As she wrote in "No Plot, My Dear, No Story" (1942): "Now listen carefully: except in emergencies,...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Drawing on her own trans-Atlantic voyage, Porter assembles a large cast of European and American characters aboard the Vera, a German...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930s: Hitler’s Nazi party takes over in Germany; Mussolini’s Fascists rule Italy, and the world is plunged into war.


(The entire section is 273 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Investigate the causes of anti-Semitism. Why were the Jews so persecuted in Europe for hundreds of years?

Why have Jews fared...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

At the outset of her book, Porter frankly pays homage to Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff (1495; Ship of Fools), a medieval...

(The entire section is 182 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1965, Ship of Fools was adapted for the motion picture screen. Abby Mann wrote the screenplay and Stanley Kramer directed it. A...

(The entire section is 68 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Ship of Fools was made into a movie in 1965. It was directed by Stanley Kramer, and starred Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Treadwell, Simone...

(The entire section is 37 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), which won for Porter the formal awards that had eluded Ship of Fools: a...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Givner, Joan, The Life of Katherine Anne Porter, Jonathan Cape, 1983, p. 443.

Hendrik, Willene, and...

(The entire section is 300 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Harold Moss’s essay on the novel repeats the complaint that it has no novelistic tying up of loose ends. Robert B. Heilmann’s essay on style compares Porter to Jane Austen and George Eliot, highlighting techniques such as the use of series of nouns and participles, but claims that Porter evinces no trademark mannerisms. Joan Givner examines the Porter triangle of villain/victim/not-so-innocent hero or heroine and notes the consistency of Porter’s description of evil characters.

DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction....

(The entire section is 442 words.)