Ship of Fools

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Ship of Fools
Katherine Anne Porter

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Reading


The idea for Ship of Fools (Little, Brown and Company, 1962) originated in a voyage that Katherine Anne Porter took from Mexico to Europe in 1931. Some of the passengers she encountered on the ship became the models for the characters in Ship of Fools. Porter began work on the novel in 1941 and it took her twenty years to complete.

The title is taken from a moral allegory published in Latin in the fifteenth century. Porter wrote that the title of her novel symbolizes "the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity." The wide cast of characters includes German, Swiss, Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, Swedish, and American first-class travelers. In steerage, there are 876 Spanish workers who are being deported from the sugar fields of Cuba.

Ship of Fools is notable for its pessimistic view of the human condition. In particular, the Germans are portrayed in a harshly negative light. They are mostly anti-Semitic and contemptuous of races other than their own, with an arrogant sense of their own superiority. Critics have remarked on how accurately Porter conveyed the German mentality on the eve of the rise of Nazism. However, the other characters, with few exceptions, are unsavory also. The one Jew on the ship is filled with hatred for all Gentiles; the Spanish, who are members of a dancing troupe, are presented as amoral thieves, pimps and prostitutes. There is little genuine human love present in the novel, although there is much comedy and satire.

Ship of Fools is the only novel Porter wrote. It was an immediate bestseller and was made into a movie in 1965. Critical judgment, however, was sharply divided over the merits of the novel, a debate that continues today.

Author Biography

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890, in Indian Creek, Texas, the daughter of Harrison and Mary Alice Jones Porter. Porter's mother died in 1892, and the family moved to Kyle, Texas, to live with Porter's grandmother. In 1901, the grandmother died and the family moved to San Antonio.

Porter married John Henry Koontz, a railway clerk, at the age of sixteen; she left him after seven years and was divorced in 1915. Also in that year, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent two years in sanatoriums. In 1917, Porter began her journalism career, writing for the Critic, a weekly newspaper in Fort Wayne, Texas. The following year she wrote for Rocky Mountain News in Denver. She also caught influenza and was dangerously ill.

In 1919, Porter moved to New York, where she worked for a motion picture magazine and wrote children's stories. In the early 1920s, she traveled twice to Mexico, where she studied Mexican art. Returning to New York in 1922, she wrote her first mature story, "Maria Concepción." In 1930, her first book, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, which included the well-known story, "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," was published.

From 1931 to 1932, Porter sailed from Mexico to Europe, where she lived in Berlin and traveled around Europe. In 1939, her volume of stories, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, was published; The Leaning Tower and Other Stories followed in 1944.

From 1949 to 1962, Porter lectured at various institutions, including Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia. Her unorthodox teaching style made her popular with the students. In 1952, she published a collection of essays, The Days Before, and her only novel, Ship of Fools, which she had been working on for twenty years, followed in 1962.

In 1966, Porter received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her Collected Stories, which had been published the previous year. Her final publication was The Never-Ending Wrong (1977), a reminiscence of the Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s.

Porter married Ernest Stock in 1926, but they were divorced within a few years. In 1933, she married for the third time, to Eugene Pressly, and that marriage also ended in divorce, in 1938. In the same year, Porter married Albert Erskine Jr.; they were divorced in 1942.

Porter died on September 18, 1980, in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Plot Summary

Part 1

Ship of Fools begins in the Mexican port town of Veracruz, where a group of travelers is about to embark on a twenty-six day voyage to Europe. The August weather is hot, and the local people, who dislike the travelers who pass through their town, try to exact as much money from them as possible. The travelers are hot, tired and frustrated at the bureaucratic delays that are put in their way. All they want is to get on the German ship Vera that waits in the dock and hurry away from the unpleasant town where there is labor unrest and the threat of social revolution.

The travelers are introduced at first as a collective, anonymous group, and then gradually they are individualized, but still nameless, described only in terms of their physical appearances. The exception to this is Dr. Schumann.

The passengers are a mixture of Germans, Swiss, Spaniards, Mexicans, Americans, and one Swede. As they embark and the ship sets off, they discover who their cabin mates are, and most of them are ill-matched. Almost everyone reacts negatively to everyone else, and it becomes clear that there are sharp racial divisions among the passengers; the northern Europeans despise the southern Europeans as well as the Latin Americans. The smug, nationalistic Germans, who all dine together at the Captain's table, are presented in a particularly negative light.

On the third day of the voyage, the ship puts into port in Havana, Cuba. A half-dozen Cuban students join first class, and nearly nine hundred Spanish unemployed sugar workers who are being returned home squeeze onto the steerage deck.

Part II

The ship heads for the high seas, and the travelers begin to live out their frustrations, animosities, and small adventures. On the first day or so, for example, Ric and Rac plot mayhem; Johann insults his uncle; David and Jenny quarrel; the Spanish dancing troupe mock the other travelers; Frau Hutten expresses her sentimental feelings over her dog; Jenny strikes up a friendship with Freytag; and Hansen pursues the dancer, Amparo. Each incident reveals something of the character of the participants, and often the narrator provides information about how the character's attitudes and motivation have been shaped by their experiences of life up to this point. Gradually, the reader learns more about this heterogeneous band of not very appealing travelers.

Soon the passengers' routine gets established. They spend their time strolling around the deck, lolling in deck chairs or hiding out in their cabins. They drink, gossip at gala dinners, and dance. In the evening, they play cards and chess and occasionally attend movies ("moving pictures"). On Sunday, there are church services. On the first Sunday, after Father Carillo has given morning mass on the steerage deck, a fight breaks out between one worshiper and a fat man who insults him. Amongst the first-class passengers, who have their own services, wild rumors spread about the fight, until the little scuffle has become magnified into a free-for-all between dangerous criminals.

During the early part of the voyage, Dr. Schumann becomes acquainted with La Condesa, who flirts with him and then declares that she loves him. Dr. Schumann gives in to her desire for drugs, and keeps her well supplied with them, even though there is no medical reason for him to do so. He is disturbed by his own amorous feelings towards La Condesa. Rumors spread on the ship about the nature of their relationship.

The more educated among the travelers often have discussions about worldly affairs. The Germans' contempt for other races is never far from the surface, and anti-Semitic views are rampant, particularly those expressed by Siegfried Rieber. The Captain hears a rumor that there is a Jew dining at his table. This is in fact Freytag, who is not Jewish, although his wife is. Freytag has confided this information to Mrs. Treadwell who foolishly passes it on to Lizzi, her cabin mate. At the Captain's dinner table, there is a nasty discussion about the Jews, and Lizzi blurts out what she knows about Freytag. Freytag immediately leaves the table. He is not allowed to return. Instead, he is allocated a small table near the service entrance, facing a blank wall. This also happens to the table of Löwenthal, the only Jew on the voyage. He and Freytag quarrel, after which Freytag always tries to dine alone. He also confronts Mrs. Treadwell about her betrayal of him, and they manage to achieve some kind of a reconciliation.

Media Adaptations

  • Ship of Fools was made into a movie in 1965. It was directed by Stanley Kramer, and starred Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Treadwell, Simone Signoret as La Condesa, José Ferrer as Siegfried Rieber, and Lee Marvin as Denny.

The chain of petty incidents continues. David and Jenny continue to squabble; the Spanish dancers plan a festive dinner in honor of the captain, and even sell tickets for it, in spite of Frau Rittersdorf's careful explanation that this is a serious breach of ship etiquette. Denny pursues a dancer named Amparo, but is put off by the fee she tries to charge him. Little Hans reports that Ric and Rac threatened to throw him overboard. Rieber continues his lustful flirtation with Lizzi. At dinner at the Captain's table, Frau Hutten dares for once in her life to express opinions that are directly opposite to those of her husband.

The most dramatic moment comes when Ric and Rac toss Bébé, the bulldog, overboard. A man from steerage jumps into the water to try to save him, but he is drowned. The dog survives. Ric and Rac get their comeuppance when they are caught after stealing La Condesa's pearls. They are severely punished by their parents.

Part III

In September, the ship docks for a day at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, one of the Canary islands. For many of the steerage passengers, as well as La Condesa, this is the end of their journey. Dr. Schumann bids La Condesa a fond farewell. Some of the other passengers go ashore for sightseeing. The group of Spaniards busy themselves shoplifting; David, Jenny, Frau Otto Schmidt, Professor and Frau Hutten know what is going on but can do nothing to stop it.

The voyage resumes, and the gala evening in honor of the Captain takes place, with dinner, music, and dancing. The Spanish company take their seats at the Captain's table and offer effusive tributes to him, much to his embarrassment and displeasure, since he despises them.

The evening produces a lot of drunkenness and violence. Hansen breaks a beer bottle over Rieber's head and there is a scuffle. Lizzi, whom Rieber has been trying to seduce, runs away screaming. The drunken Denny pursues Amparo the dancer to give her a beating, while David discovers Jenny in an embrace with Freytag. The Baumgartners have a vicious quarrel that drives him to suicidal despair. Then Herr Baumgartner strikes his wife across the face, and this is followed by reconciliation. Mrs. Treadwell, who has also had too much to drink, encounters Denny and beats him about the face with the heel of her shoe.

The ship reaches Vigo, where the Spanish dancers disembark, and then heads for Gijón, Spain, and then to Boulougne, where Mrs. Tread-well and the Cuban students disembark. After stopping at Southampton, the Vera finally arrives in Bremerhaven, Germany, where all the Germans, as well as the Americans Denny, Jenny, and David, disembark.



Amparo is one of the group of Spanish dancers on the ship. She is beautiful but often ungracious. She has sex with men for money, which she then hands over to her lover, Pepe.

Frau Greta Baumgartner

Frau Greta Baumgartner is Karl Baumgartner's wife. She is unable to halt her husband's decline and watches disapprovingly as he sinks further. Sometimes, she takes out her frustrations on their helpless son.

Hans Baumgartner

Hans Baumgartner is the timid and delicate-looking eight-year-old son of Karl and Greta Baumgartner.

Herr Karl Baumgartner

Herr Karl Baumgartner is a sickly looking German lawyer, who practiced law in Mexico City. For some years, his practice flourished, but then he developed a drinking problem; he could not resist his longing for brandy. His career went into a decline, and he lost three important cases in the Mexican courts. The stress of failure gave him stomach pains, and this is the situation as he and his long-suffering wife board the ship. He continues to drink to assuage the stomach pains.

Jenny Brown

Jenny Brown is a young American artist, the girlfriend of David Scott. She is black haired and attractive, with a bold manner, but she is also restless, dissatisfied, and superficial. Jenny enjoys getting involved with radical political causes, such as joining strikers on a picket line, but for her this is just a lark. She and David have a love-hate relationship, and she enjoys tormenting him, although she also believes that, in spite of everything, she loves him. However, she knows in her heart that their relationship is doomed. Jenny shares a cabin with Elsa Lutz and is pleased to share her views about love with the naive young girl.

Father Carillo

Father Carillo is one of the two Mexican Catholic priests on the ship. He has a hatred for atheism and political radicalism, which he believes lead the lower classes astray, and he regards the poor travelers in steerage with suspicion. However, he is a gentler man than Father Garza.

La Condesa

La Condesa is a fifty-year-old Spanish noblewoman who has lived many years in Cuba. She became involved in revolutionary politics and is now being deported from Cuba to Tenerife. Slender, with short, reddish hair, she wears expensive-looking clothes and exudes a kind of faded glamour. She is addicted to drugs. The Captain is informed that she is a dangerous revolutionary, but he thinks she is just an idle rich lady who likes excitement. La Condesa flirts with the young sailors and also with Dr. Schumann, who falls in love with her and accedes to her desire for drugs.

William Denny

William Denny is a young American chemical engineer from Texas, who is on his way to Berlin to work for a manufacturing firm. Tall and shambling, he is a bigoted man, who regards people from a class, nation, or race other than his own as inferior and refers to them by insulting names. According to David Scott, who shares a cabin with him, Denny thinks only of three things: sex, money (largely his determination not to be cheated by anyone), and his health.

Herr Wilhelm Freytag

Herr Wilhelm Freytag is connected with an oil company in Mexico and is returning to Germany to fetch his Jewish wife, Mary, and her mother. The thirty-year-old Freytag is good-looking and well dressed, and he comes from a solid Lutheran family. He is self-confident and feels that there is no barrier to his future success. However, he dreads introducing his Jewish wife to the German community in Mexico City, where he is emigrating because of the growing anti-Semitism in Germany. When it is discovered that Freytag has a Jewish wife, he is removed from the Captain's table for meals and instead is given a table with Herr Löwenthal, the only Jew on the voyage. Freytag forms a friendship with Jenny Brown, but he regards her as a flirt.

Father Garza

Father Garza is one of two Mexican Catholic priests on the ship. He has a cynical view of human nature (he doubts the genuineness of the expressions of pity at the funeral of the drowned man), and he can be argumentative and outspoken.

Herr Karl Glocken

Herr Karl Glocken is a hunchback who has sold his tobacco and newspaper stand in Mexico and is returning to Germany. He is only four feet tall and has a long, sad face, but he has a pleasant, good-humored nature.

Herr Wilibald Graf

Herr Wilibald Graf is a dying man who is pushed around in a wheelchair by his nephew, Johann. Graf is a former teacher of philosophy who has become a religious fanatic. He believes that God has given him the power to heal others by touching them. He is also a miser and refuses to give his nephew any money before he dies.

Arne Hansen

Arne Hansen is a big and clumsy Swede, with huge hands and feet, who was in the dairy business in Mexico. He is morose and argumentative, with strong opinions about religion and politics. He is often mistaken for a Dane, much to his annoyance. Hansen spends much of the voyage having sex with Amparo, for a fee. He also feuds with Herr Rieber, and they get into a scuffle at the final dinner.

Frau Professor Hutten

Frau Professor Hutten is Professor Hutten's wife. Like her husband, she is overweight. She is overly fond of their seasick white bulldog, Bébé, and spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning up after him. Frau Hutten has spent her marriage obeying her husband and being attentive to his needs. This has involved giving up her teaching career, but she did so because her husband told her that a woman's sacred mission was to create a happy home. Once at the dinner table during the voyage, Frau Hutten expresses her disagreement with her husband's views, and he rebukes her fiercely.

Herr Professor Hutten

Herr Professor Hutten is the former head of a German school in Mexico. He is a pedantic scholar, who is utterly convinced of the rightness of his views, which he expounds at length to anyone who will listen. He dominates his wife and expects her total and unwavering support. When Professor Hutten speaks in a group, it is not to make conversation but simply to announce his own thoughts and opinions. He struggles to uphold a view of the basic goodness of man, but there are strong hints that this opinion is at odds with what he really feels.


Johann is the nephew of Wilibald Graf. He takes care of his uncle, pushing him around in his wheelchair, but he does it with bad grace, believing his uncle to be a pious old hypocrite. Tall, with glittering golden hair, Johann is waiting for his uncle to die so that he can receive his inheritance. Eventually, he persuades his uncle to give him some money, and he uses it to pay Concha, one of the Spanish dancers, for sex.

Herr Julius Löwenthal

Herr Julius Löwenthal is a Jewish manufacturer and salesman; he is returning to his home in Düsseldorf to visit his cousin Sarah. His business takes him to all parts of Europe, South America, and Mexico, where he sells rosaries and plaster and wooden saint statues to Roman Catholics. Wherever there is a Catholic church, he can make money. Even though he hates Catholics, he is happy to do business with them. Löwenthal is conscious of being persecuted because he is a Jew, and he frequently expresses his distaste for all Gentiles. For meals, he is put at a table by himsel until Wilhelm Freytag is forced to join him.

Elsa Lutz

Elsa Lutz is the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Lutzes. She is a big, ungainly girl, who fears that she may never fall in love or be loved. She conceives a romantic fantasy about a tall, dark-haired, handsome student on the ship, just because he once happened to smile at her. But when he finally asks her to dance at the final gala dinner, she is so frightened she says she cannot dance.

Frau Lutz

Frau Lutz is Heinrich Lutz's wife. She is plain and dumpy and more serious than her husband. According to her daughter, Frau Lutz is unable to laugh. She is fond of giving motherly talks to her daughter about how she should conduct herself towards men, and she unsuccessfully tries to set Elsa up with Hansen.

Herr Heinrich Lutz

Herr Heinrich Lutz is a Swiss hotelkeeper from Mexico, who is returning with his family to Switzerland after fifteen years to start their own hotel business. He has an extremely limited outlook on life and is interested only in the narrowest of practicalities. According to his daughter, he is happy by nature and loves to have a good time.


Rac is one of the six-year-old twins of the Spanish dancer, Lola. Rac, and her twin brother Ric, are continually up to no good. They deliberately pour ink onto the carpet in the writing room, toss Frau Rittersdorf's pillow overboard, and try to do the same to the ship's cat. They do succeed in throwing the Huttens' bulldog, Bébé, overboard. They also steal La Condesa's pearl necklace and throw it overboard. The other passengers refer to them as little devils.


Ric is the twin brother of Rac. He and his sister enjoy pulling pranks on the passengers and are always getting into trouble.

Herr Siegfried Rieber

Herr Siegfried Rieber is the publisher of a ladies' garments trade magazine. He is small and fat, with a crude manner, and is of a lower class than the other Germans on the voyage. He is violently anti-Semitic and includes anti-Semitic propaganda in his magazine. At one point, he demands that he should not have to share a cabin with Löwenthal the Jew, whom he loathes because he is Jewish, but he cannot find anyone else who is willing to share with him. Rieber flirts throughout the voyage with Lizzi Spockenkieker, but on the night he plans to seduce her, he is thwarted by Hansen, who breaks a beer bottle over his head at the gala dinner.

Frau Rittersdorf

Frau Rittersdorf is a widow whose husband Otto was killed in the First World War. She comes from an humble background. Her father was a shoemaker and her mother a seamstress, and she lives on a modest inheritance passed to her by her husband's parents. However, she is vain and has become a snob. While in Mexico, she was expecting a Spanish nobleman to ask her to marry him. Since he did not, she convinces herself that a German woman should not marry outside her race. Frau Rittersdorf has a poor memory, so she writes every detail of her daily life in a diary, which is full of her jaundiced observations about life. On observing Glocken the hunchback, for example, she writes that she is in favor of euthanizing defective children, as soon as it is clear they are "unfit."

Frau Otto Schmidt

Frau Otto Schmidt was widowed in Mexico only six weeks before the voyage began. Her husband's coffin is traveling in the ship. Frau Schmidt was a teacher in the German school in Guadalajara in Mexico, and she is returning to Nuremberg. She is a timid woman, full of self-pity, and she often feels snubbed, ignored, or neglected.

Dr. Schumann

Dr. Schumann, one of the few admirable characters in the novel, is the ship's sixty-year-old doctor. He is amiable, well bred, dignified and handsome, with two dark dueling scars on his left cheek—a mark of distinction. He also has a heart condition that could kill him at any time. Dr. Schumann is a Catholic and a religious man, with a developed sense of his moral responsibilities. He is the only one of the Germans at the Captain's table who does not express anti-Semitic views. He has also thought deeply about the destiny of man and concludes that it is a mystery known only by God. However, against his will, Schumann allows himself to succumb to the charms of La Condesa, with whom he falls in love. He feels guilty about this, first because he is a married man and second because he prescribes for her the drugs she craves, although she has no medical need for them. After she disembarks at Tenerife, Schumann sends her a respectful note, but she declines to reply. This leaves him despondent at the end of the voyage.

David Scott

David Scott is a young American artist who lives with Jenny Scott. They are on their first trip to Europe, but they do not much enjoy each other's company. They are perpetually quarreling and seem to take delight in saying cruel things to each other. David does not trust Jenny and does not like or trust anyone else either, reacting very coolly to Denny, his cabin mate. He is also jealous of the friendship Jenny forms with Freytag. David thinks of himself as an outsider, and he does not seem to know how to enjoy himself—he refuses to dance, for example. He blames his morally strict Quaker upbringing for ensuring that he never really enjoys his life. Always restless, he habitually wants to be somewhere other than where he is.

Fraulein Lizzi Spockenkieker

Fraulein Lizzi Spockenkieker comes from Hanover and is in the ladies' garment business. In Mexico, she has been visiting her aunt and uncle. Tall and thin with close-cropped hair and a shrill voice, she carries on a constant flirtation with Siegfried Rieber. According to Mrs. Treadwell, with whom she shares a cabin, Lizzi's topics of conversation consist entirely of perfume, clothes, shops, and men.

Captain Thiele

Captain Thiele is the ship's captain. He is an arrogant man, completely sure of his own authority and superiority. He regards the poor people traveling in steerage as little more than cattle and threatens to lay in irons anyone who causes a disturbance. Captain Thiele believes that as captain he is the representative of a higher law that he must enforce to prevent a moral breakdown. He is fascinated by American gangster films and has violent fantasies in which he acts like a hero in putting down rebellions by lawless mobs. Thiele always feels somewhat disgruntled, and his general state of anger and ill-humor causes him to suffer often from digestive problems.

Mary Treadwell

Mary Treadwell is a divorced American of forty-five who is returning from Mexico to Paris. Mrs. Treadwell had a privileged upbringing and went to the best schools, but she married a man who had fits of jealousy and beat her. She tends to blame herself for the failure of the marriage, which lasted ten years. She has now been divorced for ten years and is bored with her life, which she thinks of as "shady, shabby, lonely, transient, sitting in cafes and hotels with others transient as herself," although she tries to shut this unpleasant truth out of her mind. On the ship, she drinks too much wine and spends a lot of time playing solitaire or dancing with a handsome young officer. (Mrs. Tread-well is still slender and pretty.) One of her faults is that she is too emotionally detached. She refuses to get close to people, in part because she feels their troubles too keenly.


Anti-Semitism and Nationalism

The voyage takes place in 1931, only two years before Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, and in the novel, the Germans display a deep-seated anti-Semitism. The worst offender is Herr Rieber, the proto-Nazi. He uses the journal he publishes to disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda and proudly tells Lizzi that one the topics discussed is the idea that "if we can find some means to drive all the Jews out of Germany, our national greatness will then assert itself and tomorrow we shall have a free world." Rieber warms to the subject of the Jews over dinner at the Captain's table, talking (in the way Nazis did) about cleansing the blood of Germany from the Jewish poison. No one dissents from this except Dr. Schumann, who represents a moral sensibility well above that of the others.

Rieber may be alarming, but fanatics with extreme racist views exist in many societies. What is most disturbing in the novel is how so many of the others go along with him. The empty-headed Lizzi, for example, absorbs Rieber's opinions and finds them congruent with her own. She says the Jews in her business are "trying to control everything and everybody"; they are unscrupulous and will try any trick. When Mrs. Treadwell suggests mildly that all business is like that, Lizzi counters firmly that no, it is only the Jews.

A similar acquiescence occurs when Freytag is expelled from the Captain's table because he has a Jewish wife. None of the Germans protest this petty act of injustice—quite the reverse, they praise and justify it. Frau Rittersdorf congratulates the Captain on how tactfully the deed was done; Professor Hutten praises the Captain for his decisive leadership, which helped to remind them all of their principles. Hutten's anti-Semitism is of the intellectual type. He is the sort who would within a few years be justifying Nazi anti-Semitism under a veneer of scholarly objectivity.

Even Freytag, the victim in this situation, is not free of the assumptions of his fellow Germans. Thinking of Mary, his Jewish wife, he shows that he too has absorbed German ideas about the superiority of their race, musing that "our children's blood will flow pure as mine, your tainted stream will be cleansed in their German veins."

Anti-Semitism is only one manifestation of the Germans' nationalistic belief in the sacredness of their "mystic Fatherland" and their racial superiority. They despise all races other than the Nordic, and all classes other than their own. Freytag, for example, regards the poor as spawning "like maggots in filth, befouling the air around them," and Captain Thiele holds a similarly contemptuous view of the steerage passengers. Herr Rieber would prefer it if the low-life traveling in steerage were put in a gas oven instead. The Spanish are also despised as being of a lesser breed, and so are the Americans, whom the Germans regard for the most part as a coarse, vulgar, racially "impure" people. Frau Rittersdorf gives expression to this view when she complains of "The gradual mongrelization of that dismaying country by the mingling of the steerage sweepings of Europe and the blacks [which] had resulted only in a mediocracy of feature and mind impossible to describe."

The Germans are not the only ones to express intolerant, racist views. One of the Americans, Denny, is equally dismissive of anyone from another country, and of certain categories of people within his own. David Scott observes Denny's "vulgar habit of calling all nationalities but his own by short ugly names."

Topics for Further Study

  • Investigate the causes of anti-Semitism. Why were the Jews so persecuted in Europe for hundreds of years?
  • Why have Jews fared better in the United States than in Europe, as far as persecution is concerned? Is there anti-Semitism in the United States? If so, what form does it take?
  • In the novel, Denny, the American, expresses contempt for other races and classes—for everyone who is not like him. Are attitudes like Denny's still common in America? Why do people so often despise people who are different than they are? What are the results often produced by this kind of thinking? What can be done to combat these seeds of racism?
  • Are the passengers on the Vera representative of the whole range of humanity? If not, what is missing? Is the author too pessimistic about human nature, or is she merely being realistic?
  • Which character in the novel repels you the most, and why? Which character or characters do you feel sympathetic towards, and why?


The portrayal of love in Ship of Fools is a pessimistic one. Many of the characters are involved in relationships that should embody love, but almost none of them have been able to attain a mutually satisfying intimate relationship. There is only one example of a love that appears happy and full of promise, and that is between the unnamed Mexican bride and groom. This couple are given no dialogue of their own; they are simply viewed from time to time strolling around the deck, obviously deeply in love. But there is a hint that their idyllic private world will not last. After Jenny observes how lovely they look together, Freytag comments that the look on the bride's face is like "Eden just after the Fall. That little interval between the Fall and the driving out by that tricky jealous vengeful old God." What he means is that such love can last only for a short while; soon the couple will be exposed to the harsh realities of the world, which have distorted the love of many of the couples depicted on the Vera.

The love between Jenny and David, such as it is, is of quite another kind, and it is hard to imagine them ever attaining the serenity of the Mexican bride and groom. They are constantly quarreling. Jenny gets a clear insight into the essence of their relationship when she dreams of a vicious fight to the death between a Mexican man and woman that she once caught sight of from a passing bus. Gradually in the dream the faces of the man and woman change to those of David and herself. She holds a bloody stone in her hand; he has a knife poised to stab her already bleeding breast. Jenny then realizes that, metaphorically speaking, that is what David and Jenny are doing to each other in the name of love.

In her better moments, Jenny does in fact possess a higher, more idealistic vision of love: "She believed the thought of love as tenderness and faithfulness and gaiety and a true goodness of the heart to the loved one." But she has little idea of how to realize this love with David. As for David, he has a similar romantic idealism but like Jenny no practical skill in making it work in daily life.

The other couples on the ship are for the most part a sorry bunch. The Baumgartners, for example, are driven apart by the husband's alcoholism. He and his resentful wife experience only one moment of reconciliation, and that is when they make love after a vicious quarrel. But even this is not presented in a positive light, because it is shown through the frightened eyes of their little son Hans, who has just witnessed their quarrel. The best explanation that Frau Baumgartner can manage is to tell Hans that "Sometimes we are crossest with the ones we love best."

If the Baumgartners are mostly hostile to each other, the Huttens are complacent. They made a bargain long ago that the price of love was the wife's complete submission and obedience to her husband.

Of the other characters, Mrs. Treadwell is too damaged by her abusive marriage that ended ten years ago to allow herself to get close to anyone; Frau Rittersdorf lives, as far as love is concerned, in the past with her dead husband Otto, whom she lauds as a war hero but also resents for dying prematurely. Dr. Schumann, for all his worldly wisdom and moral rectitude, sinks into a sentimental, hopeless affair with La Condesa even as he reproaches himself for doing so. Freytag might seem a more promising example since he clearly loves his absent wife, but when he fully realizes how difficult their life will be because she is Jewish, the seeds of resentment are sown.

At the lowest level of the scale are Denny, Hansen, and Rieber, and even young Johann, for whom love has no meaning at all; their pursuit of women is entirely for the purpose of sex.


Animal Imagery

Porter frequently uses animal and bird imagery to refer to the passengers on the ship. Much of this occurs in Part 1, as the travelers are first introduced. The implication is that this particular group of humans lacks some essential quality that would make them fully human, an implication that is often confirmed as their characters unfold during the course of the voyage.

Some examples of the imagery include Lizzi, who is likened to a "peahen"; Rieber, who is both "pig-snouted" and a "little short-legged strutting cock"; and Jenny, who is likened by some of the hostile local people to a mule or a monkey. The locals also observe that poor little Hans has been made into a "monkey" by the leather riding costume his parents force him to wear even in the hot weather. The Spanish girls are as "noisy as a flock of quarreling birds"; David Scott is like "a willful, cold-blooded horse."

The point is amusingly brought home by the fact that Bébé, the white bulldog that belongs to the Huttens, is presented in a more flattering light than his overweight, self-indulgent owners. Although Bébé has just spent an uncomfortable night tied up on a kitchen patio, it is clear from the following description that as far as human and animal qualities are concerned, the roles of Bébé and his owners have been reversed:

Bébé the bulldog had borne his ordeal with the mournful silence of his heroic breed, and held no grudges against anybody. His owners now began at once to explore the depths of the large food basket they carried everywhere with them.

Point of View

The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator. This means that the narrator has total knowledge of the actions of all the characters and also knows their thoughts and motivations. This applies to minor as well as major characters. The fact that there is an omniscient narrator also enables the author to constantly shift the point of view. A scene will be described from the point of view of one character, and then after a few pages, another scene takes place and another point of view takes over.

Sometimes this technique produces interesting contrasts in perception between different characters. For example, when the reader is first introduced to Mrs. Treadwell, it is explained that the bruise on her arm was the result of being hit by a beggar woman for refusing to give alms. But several pages later, when the point of view has switched to that of Dr. Schumann, he makes the assumption that the bruise was caused by a lover's pinch.


The novel is split into three parts of unequal length; there are no chapters. Instead, there are multiple small sections, or scenes. Each scene shows two or more characters interacting, or focuses on the inner life of one character. The scene unfolds for a few pages, and then another scene, involving different characters, takes its place. There is little plot in the traditional sense of the word, in which a series of interrelated actions leads to conflict and complications before reaching a climax and a resolution. Nor is there much in the way of character development; at the end of the voyage, the characters are much the same as they were when they embarked. This is unlike many novels, in which the main characters are changed in some meaningful way by the end of the story.

Irony and Satire

The grimness of the novel is relieved by the satirical approach of the author, who is always ready to poke fun at her characters, and allow them to reveal how small-minded and prejudiced they are. Porter's stance is one of ironic distance. As the lofty authorial voice, she manages to find a way of passing negative judgment on her characters through her careful choice of words and details. The effect is often humorous. The obnoxious Herr Rieber, for example, as he encounters some obstacles to his goal of seducing Lizzi Spockenkieker, decides that he must not be discouraged:

After all, this was only another woman—there must be a way, and he would find it. He thought with some envy of the ancient custom of hitting them over the head as a preliminary—not enough to cause injury, of course, just a good firm tap to stun the little spirit of contradiction in them.

Porter also has some fun with Lizzi, the object of Rieber's desire. Early in the novel, she accidentally bumps into the Captain, almost knocking him over: "He threw an arm about her stiffly, his face a dark furious red; and Lizzi, blushing, whinnying, cackling, scrambling, embraced him wildly around the neck as if she were drowning."

At other times, the irony takes the form not of humor but of icy condemnation, as when at the dinner table the subject of Jews comes up:

They then exchanged a few customary remarks about the Jews and their incomprehensible habits, a sort of small change of opinion which established them once and for all as of the same kind of people without any irreconcilable differences.

Historical Context

Germany in the 1930s

The Germany that the travelers in Ship of Fools were bound for was a nation on the brink of accepting the rule of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party. In September 1930, a year before the Vera arrives, six and a half million Germans had voted for the Nazi Party. This was an increase from 810,000 two years earlier.

The increasing strength of the Nazis was a consequence of Germany's desperate economic straits. In 1931, there were five million unemployed, the middle classes were facing financial ruin, and the unpopular government was unable to find a way out of the morass.

In March, 1932, Hitler won over eleven million votes—30 percent of the total—in the presidential election, denying President Hindenberg an absolute majority. In a second election, Hitler in-creased his vote by two million. In July, 1932, the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the German parliament. Following months of political intrigue in the wake of another round of elections in November 1932, Hitler was appointed chancellor in January, 1933.

Hitler immediately set about reconstructing the German state in accordance with Nazi ideology. All other political parties were banned, and economic and cultural life was brought under the control of the central government and maintained by sophisticated propaganda. Hitler assumed the presidency on the death of Hindenberg in August, 1934.

The persecution of the Jews, along with other minority groups, was not long in coming. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprived Jews of their German citizenship and forbade marriage between Jews and Aryans. More anti-Semitic laws were passed over the next few years, enough to satisfy the many Herr Riebers (the proto-Nazi in Ship of Fools) who were now occupying government positions and promoting anti-Semitic propaganda, as well as others in the novel, like Frau Rittersdorf and Lizzi Spockenkieker, who believe firmly in the inferiority and corrupting influence of the Jews. In Nazi Germany, Jews were banned from professions such as medicine, law, the civil service, journalism, and teaching. They were not allowed to trade on the stock exchange. By 1936, it is estimated that about one half of German Jews were without a means of livelihood.

It was then only a few steps to the concentration camps and the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust during World War II.

Compare & Contrast

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

    1960s: The world is divided into two power blocs, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the cold war is at its height. Germany remains divided into East Germany, which is communist, and West Germany, which is a member of NATO.

    Today: A reunited Germany is at the heart of the European Union; the Soviet Union is a thing of the past, and the United States is the sole remaining superpower.
  • 1930s: A voyage from Mexico to Europe in a passenger/freight ship like the Vera takes twenty-six days. Ocean liners are the most common form of long-distance transportation across the ocean.

    1960s: The bulk of long-distance travel is by jet aircraft. Many of the large ocean liners are retired; new passenger ships are built for the purpose of luxury cruises rather than essential transportation.

    Today: A flight from Mexico to Germany takes approximately twelve to thirteen hours.
  • 1930s: In America, particularly in the south, African Americans, as well as other people of color such as Mexican Americans, face hardship and discrimination at the hands of the white, Anglo majority. Public facilities are often designated for the use of whites only.

    1960s: The civil rights movement, which began in the south in 1955, produces concrete results, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Today: America is still troubled by issues of race and racism. Overt discrimination is less than it was thirty or forty years ago, but subtler forms of discrimination, including corporate "glass ceilings," still exist.

During the 1930s, the rest of the world was slow in waking up to the threat to Western civilization that the Nazis represented. When the Olympic Games were held in Berlin in 1936, many of the worst aspects of Nazism were hidden from the world. Even David Lloyd-George, an astute statesman who had led Britain during World War I, was fooled. He visited Hitler in 1936 and declared him to be a great man. This ignorance is reflected in the novel, in which the Americans and some of the Europeans mildly disapprove of the anti-Semitism they observe on the ship, but have no inkling of the depth of the evil that is brewing in Germany. Mrs. Treadwell in particular has no knowledge of international politics and no desire to acquire any.

Critical Overview

When it was first published, Ship of Fools received near universal acclaim from reviewers. Leading the admiring chorus was Mark Schorer, in the New York Times Book Review (reprinted in Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays), who called the book "a unique imaginative achievement." He praised Porter's "perfectly poised ironical intelligence" and "the brilliance and variety of characterization." Louis Auchincloss, in the New York Herald Tribune (reprinted in Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter) was equally enthusiastic, commenting that Porter was able to sustain the reader's interest in a collection of unattractive characters such as the Germans "because this vivid, beautifully written story is bathed in intelligence and humor," and the reader is able to "feel how easy it would be for anyone to turn into even the most repellent of these incipient Nazis." For Moss Hart in New Republic (quoted in Givner's The Life of Katherine Anne Porter), "[The novel's] intelligence lies not in the profundity of its ideas but in the clarity of its viewpoint; we are impressed not by what Miss Porter says but by what she knows."

There were a few dissenting voices, including Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (quoted in the Hendricks' Katherine Anne Porter), who thought that although Porter

is one of the finest writers of prose in America … the novel, for all its lucidity and all its insights, leaves the reader a little cold. There is in it … no sense of human possibility.

Commercially, the novel was a huge success. It was number one on the best-seller list within weeks of its publication in April, 1962.

However, after a few months, there was a backlash from critics who regarded the novel in a less than favorable light. Chief of these was Theodore Solotaroff, in Commentary (reprinted in Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter), who wrote of crucial weaknesses in the novel:

The main such weakness is that no effective principle of change operates on the action or on the main characters or on the ideas, and hence the book has virtually no power to sustain, complicate, and intensify either our intellectual interests or emotional attachments.

Solotaroff concluded that Ship of Fools revealed "little more than misanthropy and clever technique."

This emphasis on the lack of development in plot or character was the basis of much subsequent criticism. Porter was also attacked for presenting only the darker side of human nature, a charge she denied.

In spite of these criticisms, however, the novel has many defenders. It occupies an important place in post-World War II American literature, even though today it attracts fewer readers than Porter's short stories and short novels.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. 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 never found. There is also an irony in her choice of Paris because the reader knows what Mrs. Treadwell does not—that within a decade, Paris will be occupied by the Nazis. The horror that is in incipient form all around her on the voyage, and to which she is largely oblivious, will eventually envelop her in her hiding place.

Even the most admirable character in the novel, the dignified, humane Dr. Schumann, falls victim, at least temporarily, to the vice of self-deceit. The doctor clearly represents a higher form of morality, as can be seen in the very first description of him, in which his eyes have an "abstract goodness and even sweetness in them." He is dignified and well bred and is recognized as such by the other Germans, and he has the gift of making others think that he will understand them. Deeply religious, he is constantly measuring his conduct against a moral law that he knows from his Catholic faith, and he does not share the prevailing anti-Semitism.

But even Dr. Schumann cannot avoid sinking into behavior that is not worthy of him. His undoing lies in his relationship with La Condesa, the flighty, drug-addicted noblewoman. When he first meets her, he recoils in moral disgust at her addiction, but he is drawn in by her shamelessly intimate manner. Although he repeatedly tries to put what he regards as an "unruly relationship" back in order, something passes between them that he is unable to resist. Eventually, he gives way to her de-sire and supplies her with the drugs she craves. Although he has fallen from his high professional standards and betrayed his role as a doctor, for a while he convinces himself that he has done nothing wrong, that he was merely being merciful to her. He even gets Father Garza to agree that he was only doing what he could with a difficult patient.

But Dr. Schumann cannot sustain this lie for long. He soon feels shame and humiliation at having fallen in love with La Condesa—he, a married man. He realizes that he has abused his power and has used against her the vice that harms her most. The experience seems to unnerve him completely, and for a while he blames her, giving way to a bout of anger against women, which is uncharacteristic of him although common in virtually all the other male characters. The language he uses to himself about her is vitriolic:

He had a savage impulse to strike her from him, this diabolical possession, this incubus fastened upon him like a bat, this evil spirit come out of her hell to accuse him falsely, to seduce his mind, to charge him with fraudulent obligations to her, to burden his life to the end of his days, to bring him to despair.

The violence of this suggests that underneath the even, calm temperament that usually characterizes the doctor, there may be much darker impulses. But at least he finally has the insight to recognize this, and he is horrified by what he regards as the presence of evil in his own nature. He even believes that he has ruined his own life because of her and that she will always be a burden on his con-science. For a man of his deep religious and moral convictions, the upset in his world has cosmic implications:

The whole great structure built upon the twin pillars of justice and love, which reached from earth to eternity, by which the human soul rose step by step from the most rudimentary concepts of good and evil, of simple daily conduct between fellow men, to the most exquisite hairline discriminations and choices between one or another shade of faith and feeling, of doctrinal and mystical perceptions—this tower was now crumbling and falling around him.

It might seem to the reader that Dr. Schumann punishes himself more than is necessary, but the point the author wishes to make is surely that even the man who has the highest level of moral and spiritual development on the ship is not immune to bouts of immoral, selfish, self-deceiving behavior. If Dr. Schumann can fall, Porter seems to say, what hope is there for any of the others, or for us?

The sad truth is that there is only one noble, selfless act in the entire novel, and only one moment of true beauty. The selfless act is when one of the passengers from steerage, a man named Etchegaray, jumps overboard in an effort to save the Huttens' bulldog, Bébé, who has been thrown into the water by Ric and Rac. Bébé survives, but Etchegaray drowns. The Huttens wonder what prompted Etchegaray's actions. As might be expected, they look for some self-serving motive. The man must have expected a reward, says Frau Hut-ten, while Professor Hutten thinks he must have wanted to attract attention to himself, or to become a hero. The more likely explanation, as the reader well knows, is that Etchegaray, who was an artist who carved little figures of animals in wood, loved animals and wanted to save the dog's life simply because it needed saving.

The moment of beauty comes immediately after the fight that breaks out in steerage in the aftermath of Etchegaray's funeral at sea. Three whales are spotted, and all the passengers stop what they are doing and stare at them:

[T]hree enormous whales, seeming to swim almost out of the water, flashing white silver in the sunlight, spouting tall white fountains, traveling with the power and drive of speedboats, going south—not one person could take his eyes from the beautiful spectacle until it was over, and their minds were cleansed of death and violence.

Unfortunately for the travelers, the beauty of the whales is quite alien to the human world, which sails on regardless, a ship of self-deceiving, small-minded fools heading for Germany, to its historic appointment with Nazism and a world plunged into war and evil.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Ship of Fools, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Smith Kirkpatrick

In the following essay, Kirkpatrick explores the common link among the characters in Ship of Fools—the various social masks they wear to cover their base natures.

When you read Katherine Anne Porter's novel, you will find yourself already aboard her Ship of Fools, not overtly, not through the usual identification with one of the characters, but through a more subtle involvement with a familiar action.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), which won for Porter the formal awards that had eluded Ship of Fools: a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Gold Medal for Fiction awarded by the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
  • Letters of Katherine Anne Porter (reprint edition, 1991) edited by her friend Isabel Bayley, contains many of the thousands of letters Porter wrote during the period 1930 to 1963.
  • Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997), by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, is an extremely controversial book. Using extensive research, Goldhagen argues that Hitler was able to carry out the Holocaust be-cause vast numbers of ordinary Germans, not just the Nazis, supported it.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), by William L. Shirer, is a classic account of Germany during the Hitler years, by an American journalist who lived and worked there during the 1930s.

Miss Porter's ship is a real, not purely symbolic, ship traveling from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven during the early thirties and is peopled with passengers talking and traveling in that troubled time, but as the journey aboard the Vera, truth, continues the passengers tend to develop more towards caricature than characterization. And this is very close to Miss Porter's point. She has no clearly identifiable protagonist or antagonist. Her subject is too large to be shown through a central character; for as the ship progresses from the "true cross" to the "broken haven" she shows us how each passenger journeys not only to Bremerhaven but through life. In so doing she shows us the common manner in which we make the voyage, and she shows us the necessarily concomitant subject of what she views life to be.

Since the reader cannot identify himself with one of Miss Porter's characters, just how does she involve his heart? She has chosen to locate the novel aboard a ship, to limit her action within the confines of a sea voyage where the characters for the most part are strangers to one another. With the ship-board opportunity for new friendships and fresh self-appraisals it is important to look at what the passengers bring with them on their journey. As the title says, the voyagers are all fools. The nature of their foolery is what the passengers bring aboard with them, and Miss Porter reduces the foolery to the oldest mark of the fool, the one thing that all fools in all time have had in common: the mask. She shows how intricately contrived are the masks. Each man wears not one but many. He peers at his existence from behind the various masks of nationality, age, sex, creeds, social rank, race, wealth, politics, and all other existential distinctions made by both the elemental and civilized man.

At times the masks are as pathetically simple as that of Frau Baumgartner, who in the tropic heat is momentarily too angry with her small son to heed his pleas to remove the buckskin suit in which she has wrongly encased him. She taunts him over his inability to endure the riding costume meant for mountain coldness and even begins to enjoy her cruelty and the pleasant feeling of hurting the pride of the boy sitting on the divan "… yearning for kindness, hoping his beautiful good mother would come back soon. She vanished in the frowning scolding stranger, who blazed out at him when he least expected it, struck him on the hand, threatened him, seemed to hate him." But in the next moment she "sees him clearly" and is filled with pity and remorse and tenderness.

At other times the intricacy of the masks is nearly as confusing as it is to Denny the Texan, whose bible is Recreational Aspects of Sex as Mental Prophylaxis—A True Guide to Happiness and whose consuming passion on the voyage is to buy, at his price, the wares of Amparo, a dancer in the zarzuela company. Sitting in the ship's bar Denny has an atheist on one side speaking like a bolshevik and over here a Jew, criticizing Christians and meaning Catholics. He didn't like Jews or Catholics and knew if he said, "I think Jews are heathens," he would be accused of persecuting Jews. He wished himself home in Brownsville "… where a man knew who was who and what was what, and niggers, crazy Swedes, Jews, greasers, bone-headed micks, polacks, wops, Guineas and damn Yankees knew their place and stayed in it."

Denny wants the mask simple and set and Miss Porter shows the results of a mask settling into reality through Mrs. Treadwell, an American divorcee, to whom the past is so bad, as compared to a future full of love she had expected as a child, it seems something she has read in newspapers. Denny in his final determination to conquer Amparo confuses the door and drunkenly mistakes for the face Amparo the face of "unsurpassed savagery and sensuality" which Mrs. Treadwell in drunken idleness painted on herself following the failure of the young ship's officer to arouse any feeling in her. She shoves Denny to the deck, and using her metal capped high heel beats in the face of the fallen and stuporous man with "furious pleasure" and is afterwards delighted at the sight of her "hideous wicked face" in her mirror. When worn as a reality, the mask comes close to covering in-sanity, which becomes a terrifying comment on all the Brownsvilles in the world.

Usually, though, the masks shift and change like the postures of a dance. Jenny and David, the American painters who have been living together but are now traveling in separate cabins, approach each other with feelings of love only to have their feelings turn suddenly into hatred and the hatred as it shows itself on their faces evokes the love again. They can no more decide their emotional destiny than they can decide their physical destination. One wants to visit Spain; the other, France. In the course of their constant argument they even swap positions but always the change is in reaction to an action or reaction in the other. And here Miss Porter takes the breath away with her absolute genius. Never, not once in the seemingly unending continuum of emotional and rational action and reaction, whether between total strangers operating behind the complicated masks of their civilized pasts or whether between selves almost submerged in old marriages, never, no matter how abrupt may be the reversal of a position or of a thought pattern, is there anything but complete belief that, yes, this is the way it would really be.

This constant change is the reason the passengers tend towards caricature. Exactly when is the passenger undergoing the final unveiling to his ultimate truth? Amparo and her pimp, Pepe, steal, swindle, and blackmail behind a flurry of costumery and poses and when at last they are left together, away from their victims, Amparo still full of the strange smells and heats of the recently departed liberal Swede, Arne Hanson, the final truth of these two seems about to be revealed. And the truth is beautifully revealed of them as pimp, whore, and lovers; but the scene ends with the revelation that both parties have long before planned, and even now are working towards, their mutual betrayals.

Perhaps the truth of the characters lies not in revealing the total man facing an action as large as life itself (perhaps no man can) but in the manner or the method with which the characters face life. If in this or that situation they wear this or that ready-made mask and in the next situation wear yet another of the thousand faces molded by the forms of civilization and elemental men, then perhaps we really are caricatures with our true selves forever unrealized. Certainly the passengers behind their masks hide from each other their love. Mrs. Tread-well says the passengers are all saying to each other, "Love me, love me in spite of all! Whether or not I love you, whether I am fit to love, whether you are able to love, even if there is no such thing as love, love me!"

The Germanic mask of discipline and family is so stolid on the face of Dr. Schumann, the ship's doctor, that even though he loves the beautiful Cuban Condesa, who has forsaken herself to ether and self-caresses, he degrades her and wants rid of her. In horror of himself he renounces all human kinship and in his own drugged sleep the Condesa's death-like, bodiless head danced before him still smiling but shedding tears. "Oh, Why, Why?" the head asked him not in complaint but wonder. Tenderly he kissed it silent. This was probably the last opportunity for love in his life.

The one unmasked act of love aboard the ship, an act nearly performed earlier by Dr. Schumann when he risked overtaxing a weak heart by stepping forward to save a cat, was performed by a man in steerage, a wood carver who cries like a child when his knife is taken from him and who, when the white dog is thrown overboard into the night sea, leaps after the white object without hesitation or knowledge of whether it is a man or a dog and is drowned saving it. In the lean raggedness of this "worn but perhaps young" wood carver, who can-not but bring to mind another worker in wood, and in his unselfish act, is an opportunity for the passengers to see behind man's facade. But even the parent-like owners of the dog want only to forget the wood carver's name, and they lose themselves in the carnal interest the act has rediscovered for them.

The wood carver's burial ends with the priests turning their backs while their Catholic flock in steerage nearly kills a taunting atheist. The final results of the wood carver's act are that the dog is saved and fun is had by Ric and Rac, the twin children who threw the dog overboard in the first place.

If La Condesa can say of the Cuban students, "They are just their parents' bad dreams," then certainly this can be said of Ric and Rac even though their parents are in the zarzuela company and are almost bad dreams themselves. Ric and Rac have named themselves for two comic cartoon terriers who "made life a raging curse for everyone near them, got their own way invariably by a wicked trick, and always escaped without a blow." And this is Ric and Rac. They steal, kill, destroy, and hurt not for gain but from some profound capacity for hatred which with the capacity and need for love lurks always behind the mask. It is almost as though this capacity for hatred is the reason of being for the masks of civilization, and Miss Porter is writing of civilized men. She is writing of the passengers living in the upper decks, and they are terrified of the masses of humans traveling in animal misery in steerage. All weapons are taken from the masses, even the wood carver's knife. The elemental man is too apparent. Jenny is haunted by the memory of two Mexican Indians, a man and woman locked in a swaying embrace, both covered with blood and killing each other with cutting weapons. "They were silent, and their faces had taken on a saintlike patience in suffering, abstract, purified of rage and hatred in their one holy dedicated purpose to kill each other." In her dreams she is horrified to see that this is she and David.

And no matter how tightly the passengers may be enclosed in their formalized attitudes the zarzuela company reveals how thinly surfaced they are. By subverting the masks the whores and pimps make the passengers pay them to usurp the Captain's table, toast confusion, send the pompous Captain fleeing, and in their hatred mock the passengers by parodying them on the dance floor. The dance itself being a formalization, the parody by the whores and pimps becomes not only a parody of the individual passenger but of everything he considers civilized.

And the parody is meaningful because the passengers themselves are parodies, fools. Fools be-cause behind all the masks and the love and the hatred is a selfishness, and the most selfish of all is the old religious zealot. His final prayer is that he be remembered for one merciful moment and be let go, given eternal darkness, let die forever—be the one man in all time released from the human condition, which must be lived to whatever its ends may be.

The novel comes to no conclusions, answers no questions; its ending is the end of the journey. But these masks are our masks; this is the way we cover our naked selves for the swift passage; this life is our lives moving steadily into eternity, the familiar action in which we are all involved. And the novel is a lament for us all, a song artistically resolved, sung by a great artist of the insoluble condition of man.

Source: Smith Kirkpatrick, "Ship of Fools," in Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter, edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue, G. K. Hall & Co., 1997, pp. 233-36.

Howard Moss

In the following essay, Moss provides an overview of Ship of Fools, concluding that it "is basically about love, a human emotion that teeters helplessly between need and order."

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Source: Howard Moss, "No Safe Harbor," in Katherine Anne Porter, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, G. K. Hall & Co., 1997, pp. 35-41.


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

Hendrik, Willene, and George Hendrick, Katherine Anne Porter, rev. ed., Twayne, 1988, pp. 99-100.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour, ed., Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter, G. K. Hall & Co., 1997, pp. 40-42.

Warren, Robert Penn, Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1979, pp. 130-49.

For Further Reading

DeMouy, Jane Krause, Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction, University of Texas Press, 1983.

This work studies Porter's work from the viewpoint of feminine psychology. Ship of Fools is seen in terms of the physical and psychological separation of men and women.

Givner, Joan, ed., Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

This is a collection of interviews with and articles about Porter covering a period of sixty years.

Hartley, Lodwick, and George Core, eds., Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Symposium, University of Georgia Press, 1969.

This work contains sixteen essays on Porter's work, including three on Ship of Fools.

Mooney, Harry J., Jr., The Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter, University of Pittsburgh Press, rev.ed., 1962.

This concise overview seeks to understand the meaning of Porter's work and the particular kinds of experiences in which she is most interested.

Nance, William L., Katherine Anne Porter and the Art of Rejection, University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Like Unrue, Nance attempts to find a thematic unity in Porter's work. He finds it in a pattern of behavior he calls rejection, which governs the emotional effect of the work.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour, Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction, University of Georgia Press, 1985.

This study emphasizes the underlying thematic unity of Porter's works, which reflect an arduous, always incomplete discovery of truth. Knowledge comes from apprehending universal laws in oneself and in nature.