Places: Ship of Fools

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Allegory

Time of work: August 22-September 17, 1931

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Veracruz

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

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

In addition to Veracruz, the novelist refers to numerous cities and countries in her work. Since the story is an allegory, it uses these places literally; on one level the book is about a great variety of peoples coming together to travel on a ship. Each passenger has a special reason for traveling to a specific destination. On other levels, however, the work is a moral commentary on the political climate, class distinctions, and social displacement of humans in the 1930’s. Porter comments in a preface to the novel that she is “a passenger on that ship” and implies that the readers are as well.


Vera. German passenger liner on which the bulk of the novel’s action occurs. Passengers interact with one another and reflect on various matters as they are united in the controlled environment of this ship. Attitudes of superiority, suspicion, and animosity that exist among people the world over are accentuated when viewed in the controlled space of the ship. Attitudes that might otherwise be dissipated or obscured by political and geographical boundaries are centrally focused because of the confines of the ship.

The second section of the novel opens with a German epigram that translates as “No house, no home.” It suggests the existential displacement of the passengers. Although most passengers are literally returning to their own homes (or continuing points of destination for the tourists on board), the allegory suggests a disconnect between place and value.

As the ship crosses the Atlantic Ocean, its passengers are located in distinct places on board that suggest their social position. On the lowest level–literally near the bottom decks of the ship–in steerage, more than eight hundred dislocated migrant field hands are uncomfortably bunched together. At the other end of the spectrum, the German captain has the freedom to wander throughout the ship, though he does not want to enter the lowest part of the ship, and other people are not allowed to enter his domain. He routinely interacts socially with the fifty or so passengers who are traveling on the high, first-class deck. The places of the characters on the ship thus parallel their places of social privilege and assumed value in the larger world.


*Bremerhaven. German port that is the final destination of the ship and most of its bourgeois passengers.

*Canary Islands

*Canary Islands. Islands off the western bulge of Africa that are the destination of the Cuban field workers traveling in the ship’s steerage level.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Harold Moss’s essay on the novel repeats the complaint that it has no novelistic tying up of loose ends. Robert B. Heilmann’s essay on style compares Porter to Jane Austen and George Eliot, highlighting techniques such as the use of series of nouns and participles, but claims that Porter evinces no trademark mannerisms. Joan Givner examines the Porter triangle of villain/victim/not-so-innocent hero or heroine and notes the consistency of Porter’s description of evil characters.DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. DeMouy categorizes Porter’s women in three types: the Venus figures, the traditional mother and wife figures, and the unfeminine, androgynous figures. Like many other critics, DeMouy seizes upon the vignette witnessed by Jenny Brown–a man and woman locked in mortal combat–as an explication of Porter’s pessimism about the possibility of love and her latter-day feeling that men, too, are victims.Hardy, John Edward. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Contains interpretations of Porter’s major fictional works, with a very good chapter on Ship of Fools, though some of the biographical information is inaccurate.Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendrick. Katherine Anne Porter. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A thorough and well-written overview of Porter’s life and fiction, with a chapter on Ship of Fools.Liberman, M. M. Katherine Anne Porter’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1971. The first chapter makes a spirited defense of Porter’s novel, analyzing some of the more common criticisms and making a case for Ship of Fools as an apologue.Mooney, Harry John, Jr. The Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962. Typical of some critical interpretations, this analysis uses some of the strengths of Porter’s short stories to reflect on shortcomings of the novel and echoes other opinions that the novel’s greatest fault is the absence of any possibility of human nobility.Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A comprehensive and detailed study of Porter’s work, written on an advanced level but readable and perceptive.Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Understanding Katherine Anne Porter. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. An excellent beginner’s source for analysis of all Porter’s major works. Clearly and simply written by an important scholar. Excellent annotated bibliography.Warren, Robert Penn, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Contains an interview (1965) and seventeen essays, many of which deal with Ship of Fools.
Categories: Places