What’s Up With the Ending?
Life and death, joy and sorrow, endings and beginnings: Fever, 1793 is a novel about all of the connections, contrasts, and seeming opposites that make up the great circle of life. The ending of the novel is, of course, no exception.
Curious? OK, let's break it down:
At the conclusion of the novel, Mattie's mother returns from the country and is reunited with her daughter. We're happy, right? Well, yeah, but we're also sad. Why? Because it's now clear that there are tolls taken by the fever. Mother's hands are "withered and limp" (29.50). She's not her usual feisty self, and it looks like she won't be back to running the coffeehouse. Clearly, things can't go back to the way they were before. Matilda has become the adult, and her mother is now the one in need of care. (In case you're keeping track of the circle of life, so far we've got the following: joy and sorrow, illness and health, childhood and adulthood.)
Anything else happening at the end of the novel? Well, sure – a whole lot, actually. Mattie has made Eliza her business partner. Nathaniel Benson is painting pictures for the walls of the coffeehouse. And little Nell has become a part of the family. While Grandfather has passed away and Mother will never be what she once was, Matilda has begun a different stage of her life. We see a new beginning for the coffeehouse, and a new beginning for the Cook family – now with additional members and a large extended family. (Again, with the circle: old and new, youth and age, death and rebirth. Got it?)
OK, one more, and then we'll stop. We promise. The novel's epilogue mirrors the first chapter of the novel in some interesting ways; that is, the end of the novel is like the beginning of the novel, but with some key differences. In the first chapter, Matilda wakes up to the sound of her mother screaming for her to get out of bed. Teenaged Mattie, of course, gets all grumpy and has to drag herself downstairs and face the day. Bratty behavior ensues.
The epilogue, though? It stages a very similar kind of scene. The same, yes, but also very different. Again, it's morning. Matilda wakes up early in her bedroom all by herself. This time no one is yelling at her, nagging her to get up. As the first one downstairs, Mattie gets the fire going and makes the coffee. (Look who's acting like a responsible adult!) Sitting on the steps of the house with her cup of joe, she thinks of all the things she has lost (Grandfather, Polly). But then her thoughts turn to facing the day. After the long nightmare of the fever epidemic, "day was begun" (epilogue.16). Mattie, and the novel, have come completely full circle. (Speaking of which, shall we do the circle of life dance once more? Let's: childhood and adulthood, life and death, the beginning and the end.)