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Fourteen-year-old Matilda "Mattie" Cook is the teenage protagonist of a young adult novel. This means that over the course of Fever, 1793 she's going to be coming of age, searching for her identity, and learning what it means to be an adult. We mean, come on – that's just what teenagers in young adult novels do!
Matilda's character development works a little bit differently, though, than other young adult protagonists, because although she's just an ordinary teenager, the circumstances in which she finds herself are extremely out of the ordinary. Matilda will be coming of age during a crisis situation – the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. It's an extreme scenario, and in order to respond to it, Matilda has to grow up very, very quickly. In fact, growing up becomes a matter of life and death.
Let's take a look at Matilda's development over the course of yellow fever outbreak. Matilda hits a number of stages, each important to her developmental arc (um, that means her process of growing up).
Before everyone around her starts dying, Matilda is pretty self-absorbed. (Give her a break. She's just a kid!) She's kind of mean to her mother, she sleeps in late, and while she has some responsibilities, she usually has to be badgered into performing them. Matilda's also always got her head in the clouds, and she dreams of floating out of the prison of her family, much like Blanchard does in his hot air balloon (1.28). Everyone who has ever been fourteen can relate to these angsty feelings, but of course, anyone over the age of fourteen also knows that Matilda has a very long way to go on her road to maturity.
As the fever starts taking its toll on Philadelphia, Matilda's life is changed for the worse. She's confronted with a series of illnesses and deaths in the novel, each bringing her more and more pain. First, of course, there's Polly the serving girl. Then her mother falls ill. And then she herself comes down with a case of yellow fever! But wait, here's the kicker: there's the attack on Grandfather by those nasty thieves. She watches him die on the floor of the ransacked coffeehouse. Really horrible stuff, right? And then she's completely alone. Harsh. Needless to say, these experiences cause Matilda intense pain and suffering on a deep and personal level. We could say that, at this point, Matilda is a victim of yellow fever in every conceivable way.
Much like the ladies of Destiny's Child, Matilda is not just a victim of the yellow fever – no, she's also "a survivor. She's not gonna give up." Matilda has seen and felt terrible things, and she has lived to tell the tale. This gives her the ability to really empathize with other people, and to relate to how they are feeling. For example, she takes little Nell, a small girl who has been orphaned, under her wing. Matilda knows what it's like to be alone in the world, and this feeling helps her give aid to others. Talk about a role reversal. Speaking of which…
By the time Mattie joins back up with Eliza, she has finally learned to care about other people in a big way. She selflessly assumes guardianship of the orphan Nell. She becomes an integral part of Eliza's family, learning to share and to put others before herself. Example:
I took the bread from my plate and broke it into three pieces which I handed to the twins and Nell. Every day more towns prohibited travel to or from Philadelphia. Even prices higher than any in memory couldn't tempt farmers into the city with fresh food. I tried not to eat more than I absolutely had to. (23.85)
Matilda also begins working with Eliza and the Free African Society to nurse the citizens of Philadelphia back to health. The fever really does bring out the best in Mattie, and she's no longer a victim of the fever epidemic. She is instead empowered by helping other people.
Matilda began the novel as a dreamer (and just maybe a little bit of a slacker), but by the end, she's realizing her dreams, and doing so with the people around her. Matilda has realized what is truly important to her – her family, for starters, and also making life better for others. As the novel closes, Matilda has partnered with Eliza to run the coffeehouse. She has made Nell an official part of her family, and incorporated her sweetheart Nathaniel into her business venture. When Matilda's mother returns home, it's clear that Matilda is now the head of the business – and the family. She has truly become a grown-up.