Our narrator, Matilda Cook, is quite the young firecracker. How do we know? Well, because we can hear all of the private thoughts running through her head – whether her mother is getting on her nerves or she's filled with joy over finding a potato in the garden.
How about when she meets Nathaniel Benson in the marketplace and then immediately feels like a dork for wishing him luck with his paints:
"Good luck with your paints? Did I really say that? What a ninny." (5.94)
We've all been there. Trust us.
As a narrator, Matilda is likeable, relatable, and very human. As we read, we may come to feel like one of her very good friends – a relationship between novel and reader that makes witnessing her pain all the more intense.
Fever, 1793 is a work of historical fiction, which means that it makes use of time and place in the distant past to unfold the plot, as well as to dramatize its basic themes and concerns. Anderson's novel is set in late eighteenth-century America, a time when men wore powdered wigs and George Washington was President. In other words, the good old days! (Yeah, sure, except for the pesky fever part.) For more, see our section on "Setting."
Young adult books are written for and marketed specifically to children and adolescents (though us adults here at Shmoop enjoy them too). The genre is known for many things, among them stories about coming of age, the search for identity, and learning how to be a grown-up. Fever, 1793 fits the bill on all these counts.
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?
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.)
The Cook family's coffeehouse is located in the city of Philadelphia, and is a site where people discuss news, politics, current events, and titillating gossip. (And here we were thinking they just served coffee!) Grandfather and his friends frequent the place, as do lawyers, doctors, politicians, and merchants. Beating Starbucks to the punch by about two hundred years, eighteenth-century coffeehouses were a large part of the public sphere and were very important in the formation of things like public opinion. Take, for example, the discussion of the fever early on in Chapter 4 (4.17-4.27). The conversation includes Grandfather, a doctor, a government clerk, and a lawyer, all exchanging ideas and opinions on the epidemic; though the doctor is clearly the medical authority on the matter, all the men have something to say. (And boy, do they ever.)
Philadelphia is the place that Matilda loves so very much, and it comes to be a character of sorts in the book. At first, the city is represented as a diverse melting pot of people, sounds, and colors, alive with commerce and merchant activity. There are West Indian women selling hot soup in the marketplace and lively conversations between merchants and lawyers, politicians and plebes underway in the coffeehouses. Free blacks can walk the streets in safety thanks to the anti-slavery influence of the Quakers.
Once the fever strikes, however, the city turns into a nightmare vision of pain and suffering with corpses on every corner. The streets are deserted and trade is completely cut off from the city. Like any other character in the book, Philadelphia feels the effects of the fever. And like any good character, the city changes over time. How is the city different at the end of the novel? Does it recover from the fever?
Also of note: in 1793, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, and remained so until 1800, when it was moved to Washington, D.C. This is why George Washington and other historical figures pop up from time to time. (It's not just where they had vacation homes, or something.)
The novel is set in 1793, a year that would be classified as part of the Federalist period. The Revolutionary War had ended less than two decades earlier, and the country was beginning to take shape under the hands of Presidents George Washington (1789-1797) and John Adams (1797-1801). While America had soundly defeated the British in its battle for independence, there was still internal political division to deal with, as well as foreign threats at every turn. (The Spanish are here! The British are back!) In a way, this era can be characterized as a time when America was still very much trying to define itself as a nation.
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."
The historical context might seem a bit daunting, but Fever, 1793 is actually a pretty quick read. Laurie Halse Anderson does her best to modernize the dialogue, with only the occasional eighteenth-century phrase thrown in for good measure. The fast-paced action should be enough to keep younger readers turning the pages.
Matilda's narrative (her story) may be firmly planted in the late eighteenth century, but her prose, along with much of the novel's dialogue is of the twenty-first century. While you might find an eighteenth-century word or phrase thrown in here or there for color, the language has been, for the most part, modernized.
At last, the culprit: it's those darn blood-sucking bugs that keep spreading the yellow fever. They're tiny and pesky and no one seems to know just how dangerous they actually are. In fact, everyone's blaming everything but the bugs for the yellow fever epidemic. Let's consider: where in the novel do we actually see mosquitoes? (Hint: check the very first line of the novel.) Why might insects – especially ones that suck blood – be important for this story?
Paris is a city of wonder and excitement, "far away and wonderful," and Matilda longs to go there (5.51). But while Paris may be the city of love and lights, our business-minded young heroine also wishes to visit in order to collect French "fripperies" – trinkets to sell to customers in her own brand new expanded store (6.33). She may be a dreamer, but this girl is also always an entrepreneur.
What else does Paris, or even France come, to symbolize in the novel? (Hint: think of the French doctors at Bush Hill.)
Pierre Blanchard was an actual French inventor who flew his hot air balloon across the English Channel and over the skies of Philadelphia, near Walnut Street Prison. Matilda constantly references Blanchard's experiments as a source of wonder, excitement, and hope (1.28, 25.53, epilogue.15). Why, though, do you think the balloon is yellow? What else in the novel is yellow?
The Cook family garden is at the back of the coffeehouse and is a source of food for both the Cook family and their business. When Grandfather and Matilda return from the country, though, the garden is all dried up and overrun with weeds. Is it dead? Well, not exactly. Matilda must water the wilted plants and work the rows in order for the space to be restored to its former life. If the garden were a metaphor (hint: it sure is), what would it symbolize? Why is the image of a garden significant for this story?
You might walk away from Fever, 1793 feeling a little hungry. The novel is filled with vivid descriptions of food, glorious food. Take, for example, this passage about the Cook's lunchtime meal: "Cold chicken, crisp pickles, butter biscuits, and peach pie were laid out on the table" (6.26). Mmm. We'll have seconds! What does food represent for the Cook family? What is the family's relationship to food? And what does food represent more generally?
Fever, 1793 is narrated in the first person by Matilda Cook, our plucky young heroine. The effect is that we are privy to all of Matilda's hopes, fears, dreams, plans; as well as her fear, anger, suffering, and pain. Matilda's eyewitness account allows us to see the devastating effects and emotional impact of the epidemic on the life of one young girl. While catastrophes of this magnitude are often discussed in terms of statistics, death counts, and plain old numbers, the narrative point of view allows us to register an otherwise enormous catastrophe on a very basic human level.
The major conflict at this stage is between Matilda and her mother – the age-old struggle between parent and child for authority and identity.
Matilda is being confronted for this first time with illness, and what's more, with death. She is also being forced away from her mother and the city she loves – into the country.
Matilda and Grandfather get a taste of the cruelty of others when the farmer and his family leave them for dead (more or less) in the countryside. Things keep getting worse, it would seem, when Matilda herself becomes ill and blacks out.
Talk about trauma! If she wasn't before, Matilda is definitely feeling like a victim of the horrors of the fever epidemic now. She watches her grandfather get in a fight with a thief looting their home, and then, horror of horrors, she witnesses her grandfather's death. Though she's there to give him comfort as he dies, the event brings her deep pain and anger.
This section of the novel sees a turning point for Matilda. She is no longer a victim of the fever, rather she's the one giving help to others. She takes responsibility for the orphan Nell and starts working with Eliza at the Free African Society. The suspense builds, however, when Nell and Eliza's nephews becomes sick. Eliza and Matilda must nurse the children back to health – but will they survive?
The frost comes, and the children survive! The fever epidemic is over and life returns to the city. The marketplace is filled once again with food and the people who fled to the country return to the Philadelphia. The coffeehouse is set to reopen.
As the novel ends, the family is re-formed: Matilda asks Eliza to be her business partner, Nell stays on at the coffeehouse with Matilda, Nathaniel shows up, and Mother returns at last. Though things have changed, everyone is back together. Matilda is a survivor and is stronger than ever, running the coffeehouse. Her journey into adulthood is complete.