by Laurie Halse Anderson
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Laurie Halse Anderson more than did her share of homework for Fever, 1793; she spent a good deal of time reading source material and conducting research in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (For Anderson's account of her time researching the book, click here.) As such, each and every chapter of Fever, 1793 is prefaced by a short quotation pulled from an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century document, including conduct manuals, cookbooks, letters, journals, and even other novels.
The fascinating tidbits that Anderson dug up help create a wonderfully rich historical backdrop against which Matilda's story is set. What's more, the novel's collection of quotations connects Matilda's individual narrative (i.e., her story) to a larger historical framework. What do we mean by that? Well, by showing us pieces of other people's stories, the novel suggests that Mattie was not alone in her experience of the fever outbreak. There were other people who went through the very same things Matilda did. Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic was not something experienced just by Matilda Cook alone, mind you, but by an entire society. The quotations of primary source materials remind us of that – and help us remember that for some people, the fever was a real-life nightmare that actually happened.
As for the quotations themselves, they usually reflect the themes of each chapter. Sometimes the quotations are a little ironic, as in Chapter 5, when a passage from Hannah More's conservative conduct manual The Young Lady Abroad is included before the episode in which Matilda meets Nathaniel Benson (swoon!) at the marketplace. Sometimes the quotations are more serious, as when a passage from Charles Brockden Brown's novel Arthur Mervyn (Chapter 15) is included right before Matilda, recovering at Bush Hill, hears about the horrible things going on in Philadelphia. Whatever the case, these quotations create an immersive historical experience for the reader. That means, they are part of a distant history, but a history that comes to life for us, even if just during the course of reading this book..
For a list of the literary references prefacing each chapter, see "Shout-Outs: Literary and Philosophical References."