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.)