Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools (1962) is a psychological fiction novel by American author Katherine Ann Porter (1890-1980). In 1931, a group of passengers from around the world boarded a ship from Mexico to Germany. As the various nationalities begin to interact, they became increasingly judgmental and frustrated by each other. Porter's grand story encompasses many characters and analyses themes of delusion and nationalistic ideology.

Ship of Fools Ship of Fools

Create learning materials about Ship of Fools with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Contents
Table of contents

    Ship of Fools: Characters

    In Ship of Fools, Katherine Ann Porter presents a giant cast of characters who purposely divide into groups based on national origin.

    Nationality Analysis
    GermanThe German passengers are presented as everyday people who have fallen under the ideology of Hitler's Nazi party. Notable characters include Frau Professor Hutten, Herr Wilhelm Freytag, and Dr. Schumann.
    American The Americans onboard are often presented as shallow and self-obsessed. David Scott and Jenny Brown are unable to communicate and are constantly bickering. The ship's captain, Thiele, yearns to enforce his rule and fantasizes about violent scenarios where he represses unruly mobs onboard. Mary Treadwell is bored with life, and mainly plays solitaire or dances with young men while maintaining emotional distance.
    Spanish The Spanish group is not as clearly defined as the Germans or Americans but includes the dance group that stages the scathing satrical number at the end of the cruise. The group consists of members who commit acts of petty thief and prostitution.
    OthersWhile other passengers belong to the national identities, they are often excluded because of their identity. Herr Glocken is a German tobacconist returning home. Many Germans exclude him because of his physical disability. Similarly, Löwenthal is excluded because of his Jewishness.

    Ship of Fools: Summary

    Ship of Fools does not have a traditional narrative; it is a summary of many anecdotes and stories featuring the passengers on the boat. The novel is divided into three sections; Embarkation, High Seas, and The Harbor.

    Part I: Embarkation

    The novel opens in the sweaty port of Veracruz, Mexico. In August 1931, a group of passengers of various nationalities waits to board a German liner Vera. They are anxious to begin their journey to Bremerhaven, Germany, and escape the escalating political unrest in Mexico. As the narrative continues, the passengers are each described physically but not yet named. The ship's passenger list contains Germans, Swiss, Americans, Mexicans, Cubans, one Swede, and a group of almost 900 Spanish sugar workers shoved into steerage for their return journey home.

    How does Porter's physical description of the characters and their actions clearly define them as separate nationalities?

    As the passengers settle into their cabins, they realize they have been poorly matched with bunkmates. As the various characters begin to interact with each other's nationalist identities, the passengers start to divide as the multiple groups hold each other in suspicion.

    Ship of Fools, Ship, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The passengers quickly segregate themselves along national lines onboard Vera.

    Part II: High Sea

    The voyage hits the high seas, and the reader is introduced to the daily adventures of many characters. Dr. Schumann, the ship's physician, invites the German passengers to dine with him at the captain's table. The group includes the Hutten family with their beloved bulldog, the Baumgartners, who unsuccessfully attempt to cover up the father's alcoholism, and Wilhelm Freytag, a young businessman interested in oil. Herr Löwenthal, a German Jew, remains cautiously distant from the rest of the passengers.

    How do the Germans respond to being placed at the captain's table? Are they gracious or arrogant?

    Also on board are an American couple named David and Jenny, who has a series of bickering matches as David grows increasingly jealous at Jenny's flirtations with Freytag, William Denny, a bigoted Texan on his way to start a job in Berlin, Mrs. Treadwell, a wealthy widow, and several other American tourists.

    As the passengers continue to interact, a series of petty conflicts and incidents ensue. When Freytag confides to Mrs. Treadwell that his wife is Jewish, the information spreads around the ship. At dinner, the rest of the Germans inform him of their support for Hitler's anti-Semitic policies and exile him from the table. He is forced to eat with Löwenthal, but the pair soon bicker.

    Ship of Fools, Star of David, StudySmarterFig 2. - Ship of Fools explores anti-semitism to challenge the thinking behind nationalistic identities and the dangers of ideology

    Meanwhile, Dr. Schumann falls in love with a Cuban countess. Schumann begins to supply her with drugs as the pair conduct a secret affair. A mischievous set of Spanish twins known as Ric and Rac pull pranks and cause general mayhem in the adult's lives throughout the cruise. They finally go too far and throw the Hatten's bulldog overboard. A man from steerage dies saving the dog, and the twins finally face punishment.

    There are many unlikeable characters onboard Vera. Which characters does Porter present as likable?

    Part III: The Harbors

    After the cruise briefly lands at the Canary Island, it enters the final leg of the journey. A group of Spanish performers plan an elaborate performance for the last night and sell tickets to the event. When the night arrives, the passengers become drunk, and the strained peace which has held for most of the journey begins to disintegrate. The Spanish performers stage an act mocking the fake politeness of the passengers and take over the captain's table. Two German men enter a brawl, and David erupts after finding Jenny kissing Freytag. As chaos ensues, the drunken father of the Baumgartner family leads his children in a goose-step Nazi march around the ship.

    The following morning the cruise reaches Bremerhaven. The passengers, pretending nothing happened, disembark and greet each other with the same strained politeness they had displayed throughout most of the trip.

    Katherine Ann Porter's original title for the book was No Safe Harbor.

    Ship of Fools: Themes

    One of the novel's most important themes is the delusional nature of many characters, which reflects more significant global political problems in the lead-up to WWII.

    Delusion

    As characters from various nationalities interact with people of different backgrounds, they each judge and look down upon the cultural differences they encounter. Many of the characters want to be left alone and isolated from others but crave the company of other people. Ironically, when they receive what they want, they often end up unhappy and further isolate themselves within their national group.

    The people onboard believe they know what they want and why they want it, but their actions and reactions often disprove this belief. Even the characters headed to Germany to begin a new life believe this fresh start will solve all of their problems. Ultimately, many of them think that they can be self-sufficient and can live with others. Porter uses this attitude to reflect the global attitude toward the political situation of the 1930s.

    Ships of Fools is set at the beginning of the 1930s when Fascism was on the rise in Europe. In 1931, Katherine Ann Porter completed a voyage from Veracruz in Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany, where she was to begin studying a Guggenheim Fellowship (which is a grant awarded to those with a creative or literary promise). During the journey, she kept a detailed journal and based many of the novel's characters on real people she observed onboard.

    In the novel's preface, the author describes her motivations for writing the book. She wanted "to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world." Like many artists and intellectuals of the period, Porter viewed WWII as a horror that could have been avoided had people been aware of the warning signs and prepared to do something.

    Set against a backdrop of great uncertainty worldwide, Ship of Fools touches on events like the Great Depression in America and the burgeoning struggle for independence in many Latin American countries. Porter uses the multinational passengers to explore the tensions and division caused by nationalism and political ideologies.

    Just as the passengers on board go unchallenged in their bigotry and anti-Semitism, Porter sees Western society's inability to stand against Fascism as a failure to uphold the basic principles on which civilization is founded. Many German passengers speak glowingly of Fascism and are unchallenged by people from other countries. Like the nations they come from, the other passengers are content to remain isolated and silent in the face of this rising danger.

    Ship of Fools: Analysis

    Katherine Ann Porter is best remembered for her short story collections like Flowering Judas (1930) and Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939). Considered a master of the short story format, Ship of Fools is Porter's first and only novel and was published when the author was 72. The idea for the book first occurred to Porter in 1940 but would not be completed for almost 20 years as the writer struggled to harness the many characters and intersecting storylines. Upon publication, the novel became the best-selling novel of 1962, though critical opinion was divided.

    Ship of Fools explores the thinking behind nationalistic identities and the dangers of ideology. It is an example of the

    Psychological fiction genre.

    Psychological fiction: also known as psychological realism, it's a literary genre that explores the inner workings of characters' psyches and thought processes. Characters in this genre are sometimes used as presentations of a particular group or ideology. Examples of the genre include Anthony Burgess' (1917-1993), A Clockwork Orange (1962), and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).

    Throughout the novel, Porter provides deep insight into the internal thoughts of many characters. Each group is presented as having feelings of superiority and resentment towards other nationalities and cultures. While many works of psychological fiction deal with a character's development or growth, Porter presents the reader with a group of unlikeable characters who only become more entrenched in their narrow-minded views as the journey continues.

    The book's title comes from the English translation of the poem "Das Narrenschiff" (1494). The verse, by German writer Sebastian Brant (1458-1521), tells the tale of 100 passengers onboard a ship traveling to a fool's paradise. Porter drew inspiration from Brant's cutting satirize on corruption in the Catholic Church. She was intrigued by the idea that a ship could represent the entire world and play host to some relationships and interactions.

    Ship of Fools: Quotes

    The following quotes display Katherine Ann Porter's ability to explore deeper psychological issues through some of the novel's many characters.

    The past is never where you think you left it: you are not the same person you were yesterday." (Part II)

    After one of Jenny and David's many fights, Jenny yearns to start over again but realizes it is impossible to return to a reset point. Many passengers are traveling to start a new life but find themselves weighed down by the baggage of the past.

    People can't hear anything except when it's nonsense. Then they hear every word. If you try to talk sense, they think you don't mean it, or don't know anything anyway, or it's not true, or it's against religion, or it's not what they are used to reading in the newspapers..." (Part III)

    During a conversation with his bunkmate, Freytag, Hansen attempts to understand why there is so much hostility on the boat and the world at large. Freytag, distracted by shaving himself, does not listen to his mate's thoughts and dismisses him.

    Ship of Fools - Key takeaways

    • Ship of Fools is a 1962 novel by American author Katherine Ann Porter.
    • In 1931, a group of passengers from around the world are on a voyage from Mexico to Germany. As the various nationalities begin to interact, they became increasingly judgmental and frustrated by each other.
    • The story has no central character. Instead, Porter moves between a wide cast of characters representing nations worldwide.
    • The work explores themes of delusion, nationalistic ideology, and the roots of WWII.
    • The novel is an example of the psychological fiction genre.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ship of Fools

    What is the main theme in Ship of Fools?

    The main theme of Ship of Fools is the delusion and shortsightedness many suffer due to nationalist identities. 

    Who wrote Ship of Fools?

    Ship of Fools was written by Katherine Ann Porter. 

    What is the main idea of Ship of Fools?

    The main idea of Ship of Fools is the danger of political ideologies and how they can divide people.

    What genre is Ship of Fools?

    Ship of Fools is a psychological fiction novel. 

    What is Ship of Fools about?

    Ship of Fools is about a group of passengers traveling from Mexico to Germany in 1931. During the trip, the various nationalities begin segregating themselves from each other, causing tension.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Ship of Fools takes place during August _________. 

    In Ship of Fools, the passengers are onboard a German vessel named _______. 

    Which genre best describes Ship of Fools? 

    Next
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Ship of Fools Teachers

    • 11 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App