Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Loving “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as much as I do, I’ve been waiting anxiously for years to read Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. Nothing was stopping me, mind you. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I hoped it was a novel-length work with the same kind of magic as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” That probably wasn’t fair. In any event, though I liked the book and found it extremely well written, I just didn’t find that magic I was looking.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Patrick McGrath and 4th for Annie Proulx.)

Ship of Fools details the voyage of a motley assortment of people who are citizens different countries and members of different socioeconomic classes from Mexico to Germany shortly before the beginnings of the Second World War. However, for me, it seemed to mainly be a scathing indictment of humanity and our hopes.

I mean, everybody thinks they are better than everyone else. Of course, they aren’t. For example, an American artist named David Scott looks down on just about everyone:

He glanced at Mrs. Treadwell, whose attention had wandered. They were coming into the crowd entering the dining room, and she nodded lightly in several directions – to Freytag, who nodded back without smiling; to the young Cuban pair with their two children; to the bride and groom, who did smile; to the purser, who beamed at her with his broadest smirk; to anybody and everybody, David noticed, without appearing really to see anyone. She behaved in fact like Jenny, except that Jenny was looking for something, a response of some kind, almost any kind at all, always either a little too hard or too soft, with no standards that he could understand or believe in. An intense resentment against Jenny rose in him when he saw her at work trying to undermine him, to break down by any means his whole life of resistance to life itself – to whatever environment or human society he found himself in.

But, he’s just a grumpy and empty young man. He picks apart others, even the girl he supposedly loves (Jenny), but has no reason to feel superior beyond being able to intellectually negate whatever good qualities those people might have.

Really, though this novel is packed with an amazing amount of different characters of all kinds of different classes (German divorcees and widows, Swiss hotel keeper, Spanish dancers, a Jewish merchant of Catholic religious paraphernalia, deported laborers, Cuban medical students, a Swedish communist, and so on), they all come off pretty bad. They all look on everyone else as inferior to them, and then promptly display some horrifying trait.

For example, a number of the German passengers actually advocate getting rid of the Jews and the handicapped, even by extermination and sterilization, foreshadowing the horrors coming in the Second World War:


            “Every day I learn new things about him. Just to think he is a publisher. I had not known that!”

            “How fascinating,” murmured Mrs. Treadwell, from the depths of her pillow.

            “Yes, in Berlin. It is a new weekly devoted to the garment trade, but it has literary and intellectual features besides. One of these is called the New World of Tomorrow, and he engages the very best writers to contribute, all on one topic, to be examined from every point of view. The idea is this: if we can find some means to drive all Jews out of Germany, our national greatness will then assert itself and tomorrow we shall have a free world. Is that not marvelous?”

            Mrs. Treadwell deliberately kept silence.

And, though the Jewish merchant of Catholic paraphernalia is not so extreme in suggesting avenues for his hate, mostly trying to avoid people, he doesn’t seem to regard all these ‘goys’ as even people. He may not be as bad, but I don’t think that necessarily makes him better.

No, Porter seems to treat all of the people on the boat equally. They all have some nice features here and there, but they all are rotten. Every human is a wretched little thing that thinks it is better than everyone else.

To take this further than just the inherently flawed nature of humanity, Porter also has this voyage represent a hope for salvation for each of these flawed characters. The Swiss hotel keeper hopes to go back to Europe to open a hotel where business won’t be as corrupt as Mexico. A German oil company man hopes to retrieve his Jewish wife from the growing danger to Jews in Germany and take her somewhere where she (and thereby he) won’t be persecuted. Everyone hopes for something life-changing out of this voyage. However, we can guess from Porter’s treatment of her characters that these hopes aren’t going to be realized.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not denigrating Ship of Fools in any way. Though depressing, the indictment presented certainly seems accurate. Further, I cannot deny that this is an amazing book in the vast number of different characters that are all vividly and individually portrayed, the intricacy of the political situation represented, and the emotion connection the prose forms with the reader. It is really a marvelously and skillfully executed novel. However, it just didn’t have the same magic for me as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.