by Laurie Halse Anderson
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
The title of Laurie Halse Anderson's novel is punchy, pithy, and plenty helpful. The words "Fever, 1793" tell us what we're going to be seeing, when it'll be happening, and even give us some bigger ideas to think about as we read the novel.
First up? "Fever." And what kind of fever, specifically? Well, yellow fever, of course. This nasty disease, still existing in some regions of the world today, is transmitted primarily by blood-sucking mosquitoes. (Gross.) The illness causes fever, chills, vomiting, and in some cases, death. Scary, right? Totally, because this is not just something you read about in books, but an actual, terrible disease. Yellow fever did in fact wreak havoc on the city of Philadelphia during the late 1700s. By including "fever" in the novel's title we know from the get-go that we should be thinking about the impact of illness, epidemics, and all the nasty things that these kinds of crises do to us – and the societies we live in.
Speaking of which, we should also be thinking about "fever" in a less medical sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "fever" can also mean "a state of intense nervous excitement." We see this usage a lot, even today – think of "World Cup Fever" or "Harry Potter Fever." And in Anderson's Fever, 1793, we see a similar mass phenomenon. The staggering scale of the yellow fever epidemic causes "intense nervous excitement," fear, and panic amongst the citizens of Philadelphia.
The emotions of "fever" can have many effects on people, even on those who technically don't have any medical disease. That is, "fever" will cause some people to do some very bad things: looting, rioting, leaving dead family members on the streets, and so forth. Yet, in the midst of the chaos, others will do very good things. Our novel's spunky teenage heroine, Matilda Cook, for example, becomes an unexpected caretaker of the orphan Nell and helps Eliza care for the sick with the Free African Society. So. While the intensity of "fever" brings out the worst in some people, in others it will bring out the best.
Now, let's talk about the other half of the title: the date. The year 1793 pins the yellow fever epidemic to a certain moment in time. Specifically, the Federalist period, during which Matilda Cook and her family live. This is the patch of history directly following the American Revolution, when George Washington had become president and people hung out while wearing some excellent powdered wigs. Given the novel's constant references to actual historical events like the Declaration of Independence and Pierre Blanchard's hot air balloon experiments, History (yes, with a capital "H") is a pretty big deal for this novel. Not just for us, mind you, but also for the characters we'll meet. Matilda's grandfather, for example, is pretty darn obsessed with his days as a solider serving under George Washington. As you read, think about how the events of the past come to define many of the characters in the present. How does the past impact all of us?