Study Guide

Fever, 1793 Transformations

By Laurie Halse Anderson


"Matilda?" Mother's voice called up the stairs. "Now!"

I made a face at the doorway. I had just saved her precious quilt from disaster, but would she appreciate it? Of course not.

No more dawdling. I had to get dressed.

I fastened my stays and a badly embroidered pocket over the white shift I slept in. Then I stepped into my blue linen skirt. It nearly showed my ankles. Along with the ceiling getting lower, my clothes were shrinking, too. (1.23-1.26)

When the novel opens, we learn that Mattie is fourteen years old, and is a teenager in every conceivable way: she likes to sleep late, hates the sound of her mother's voice, and has an attitude that won't quit. She's also in the middle of a growth spurt. Her clothes obviously don't fit here, signaling a definite physical transformation underway. But what else is changing? She's in the in-between stage in life when she's definitely not a kid, but she's sure as heck not an adult either.

He looked much more a man and less a boy than he had a few months earlier. He had sprouted up over my head and grown broad in the chest. Stop, I cautioned myself. You shouldn't look at him as if he were a racehorse for sale. But his hair was a beautiful chestnut color... (5.58)

Mattie isn't the only one growing up – looks like Nathaniel Benson is turning into quite the heartthrob. Here Mattie is dealing with the effect of others' transformation as well. She's in the stage of adolescence in which she's asking herself what it means to be an adult.

How could the city have changed so much? Yellow fever was wrestling the life out of Philadelphia, infecting the cobblestones, the trees, the nature of the people. Was I living through another nightmare? (16.41)

While people change, so do cities. Mattie is appalled by the way in which the fever has drastically transformed the city she loves so much: Philadelphia. Not only is the city changing physically but the character of its citizens seems to be morphing as well. How is the fever epidemic bringing out the worst in people? Is it transforming them into a nightmare?

The garden looked dead. Insects had devoured most of the leaves and vegetables, leaving behind skeletons of stems and branches. Weeds had exploded between the neat rows. All those weeks of backbreaking work had been for nothing. Hot tears threatened, but my grumbling stomach was more painful. (17.37)

Mattie returns home from the country to find the coffeehouse in a shambles and her family's garden completely destroyed. But death is joined to life, and while the garden has been devastated, it can also be transformed back into its former state. Why is the image of the garden important for the theme of transformations? In what ways can a garden be transformed? What does it take to bring a garden back to life?

The water soon turned brown with weeks of dirt and sweat. I held my breath and dunked my head under the water. I scrubbed my hair with soap and dunked again, over and over until my hair was free of blood and filth. I rubbed the soap on a rag and scrubbed my skin until it burned. When even the soles of my feet were clean, I dried myself by the kitchen fire. (18.9)

Back in the city, Mattie takes a bath, washing away the dirt she had acquired from her own illness and travels in the country. How is this moment symbolic? What else is she washing away? Is she being newly born, in a way?

"Excuse me, Miss. Have you seen my granddaughter, Mattie? She must be around here somewhere. Filthy little urchin, she is, wearing a grimy dress and a ragged cap." (18.21)

Mattie is wearing her mother's clothes and cleaning up the coffeehouse. Already, her grandfather notices a change in her behavior and looks. Do clothes really make the (wo)man?

I straightened his arms and legs so he might lay with dignity. What should I do next? There was no one to ask. I felt like a baby girl just learning to walk, only the ground under my feet was shaking and I had no one to hold on to. (19.98)

As Mattie lays Grandfather to rest, she realizes that she's now completely on her own. How is the image of a baby learning to walk important here?

"Please, Eliza, don't make me go. I know you think I'm a child, bigger than Nell, but a baby still, and that I need someone to tell me to wash my face and finish my bread." I struggled to control my voice. "I'm not. I'm not a little girl. I can take care of myself." (22.48)

Mattie struggles to think of herself as an adult. How does her relationship with Nell allow her to do this?

"No," I said firmly. "I'm not going anywhere. The work will go faster if you have me there, and you shouldn't walk home alone after dark."

Eliza raised an eyebrow.

"Never knew you to look for extra work. Come along then." (24.25-24.27)

Prior to this, Mattie had thought of herself as a lazy girl, but here she surprises herself – and Eliza – by volunteering to take on even more work. Again, she's learning that to be an adult means to care not just for yourself, but also for others.

"If I were you, I'd head down to the market," he continued. "That's where all the best gossips in town have gathered.

I glanced at Eliza. "May I go?"

"You don't need my permission," Eliza said.

She was right. I could choose for myself. (26.39-26.42)

Not only has she learned to take care of others, but Mattie has also taken full responsibility of herself. She's making her own decisions.

I looked past the apple seller to the haberdasher's window behind him. Mrs. Epler was right: I was thin. Yellow fever had certainly done away with vanity. I lifted my chin. The shape of my face looked for all the world like Mother's, her nose, her mouth. (26.58)

Mattie's physical form has changed because of the fever. But what other changes has she experienced? Does she only physically resemble her mother? How else might she act like her mother?

As we crossed the threshold, the company in the front room fell silent. They were all as shocked by Mother's appearance as I was. The doctor at the chessboard stood in respect. His companion did the same, then every man in the room rose to his feet to honor her. (29.12)

Mattie has changed and grown older, just as her mother has. What transformation has her mother experienced?