Study Guide

Fever, 1793 Themes

  • Mortality

    For whom does the bell toll? Well, dear reader, the bell tolls for you. Whether the line is spoken by Metallica, Ernest Hemingway, or the poet John Donne, all of them agree that some day, somewhere, somehow you are going to die. Pretty scary, we know. But, sigh, that's death for you.

    OK, OK, fine. We'll stop being so morbid. Let's think about death in a less scary way. Part of what Fever, 1793 wants you to ponder is that while death is a universal, there's also something that always goes along with it: life. The two are completely and utterly connected. Example 1: Remember how the garden was dead when Matilda and Grandfather got back from the country? Well, with a little hard work it came back to life again – and even started producing food, to help sustain more life. Example 2: Remember how terrible it was when Grandfather died? Of course you do. But then what happened next? Matilda found Nell – and helped the child start a brand new life. Part of the way in which Matilda deals with the trauma of losing those she loves is to embrace the life ahead. Matilda (not to mention the reader) must realize that yes, death is way scary – but it's only one part in the larger life cycle.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. What's the significance of Polly's death? Why does Matilda keep thinking about Matthew?
    2. Why is it important for Matilda to honor her Grandfather with a proper burial?
    3. What is the significance of the Cook family's garden? How does it change throughout the novel? Why is it important that death is connected to life? What images or metaphors do the novel use to emphasize this connection?

    Chew on This

    The bell may toll for everyone, but death means different things to different people. That is, the way in which we experience death – and the events surrounding it – are very different for each culture, society, and even person.

    In Fever, 1793, while death is an end, it's also always connected to a beginning: life.

  • Suffering

    As we find out in Fever, 1793, people can suffer in so many ways: physically, yes, but also emotionally. The pain of yellow fever completely transforms Matilda's body. She becomes pale and gaunt, thin and sallow. There's another kind of scar, however, that's not so easy to see. Matilda experiences the loss of someone she loves – her grandfather – and it fills her with pain, grief, anger, fear, and just about every other nasty thing you can think of. The trauma of loss is something that will stay Matilda her for a very long time.

    But while pain and suffering are supremely terrible, we also learn that there are strategies for coping with the harder parts of life. Matilda, for example, refuses to remain a victim of the fever. She's a survivor in the strongest sense of the word, and she also helps others survive. Matilda's painful experiences give her the ability to empathize (that is, feel the pain of others), so she starts doing a whole heck of a lot of good in the world. She helps Eliza nurse fever victims back to health, and she becomes a guardian to the orphan Nell, who, like her, was left without a mother or a father. Though suffering is an awful thing, the way in which Matilda deals with pain suggests that these experiences teach us valuable lessons about life – and sometimes help us make the world maybe just a little bit of a better place.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What is the difference between emotional pain and physical pain? Which do you think is worse for Matilda?
    2. What do you think would have happened to Nell if Matilda hadn't taken her in? What kind of life would Nell have had?
    3. Is Matilda a victim in this novel? Why or why not?
    4. How has the fever changed Matilda's mother at the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Only once Matilda herself has experienced pain can she truly empathize with others who are suffering.

    While suffering is a part of life, we should do everything in our power to ease the pain of others.

  • Family

    What defines a family? Fever, 1793 is a book that would very much like to know. Matilda Cook begins the novel with a pretty small family: it's just her, her mother, and her grandfather. Her grandfather she adores, of course, but her mother is one person that, for some reason, she just can't stand at the moment.

    By the end of the book, though, Matilda, has made an even larger family for herself, an extended circle of friends and loved ones who Matilda cares for and cares about: there's the little orphan Nell, Nathaniel Benson, the twins, Eliza, Eliza's brother Joseph, and Mother Smith. Oh yeah, and even Mother too. For Matilda, family becomes a group of people who not only share blood ties, but who share the same values and experiences. All of the people in Matilda's family are survivors of the fever epidemic, and nearly all of them risked their lives to help others during the outbreak. While we might think of a family simply as a collection of people who are related by blood, Fever, 1793 is a novel that suggests that family – and the love and care it brings – can be (and should be) a much more inclusive concept.

    Questions About Family

    1. Who are the members in your family? Are they all related to you by blood?
    2. Why does the farmer abandon Matilda and Grandfather in the country? Should you treat your own family better than you treat other people?
    3. How does Matilda's place in her family change from the beginning to the end of the novel?
    4. Why does Matilda want to keep Nell? Why does Matilda need Nell? Does Nell need Matilda?
    5. What is Eliza's role in her family?
    6. What is Mother Smith's role at the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Families can be defined by blood, but they can also be defined as a group of people who are brought together by shared experiences or values. People can choose to be a family.

    The primary duty of a family is to take care of its members.

  • Visions of America

    For Matilda Cook, the star of Fever, 1793, "America" means a very specific place: Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, the city of her birth, and the city she very much loves. It's a regular melting pot with exotic goods in the marketplace, the hustle and bustle of the coffeehouse, and the merchants everywhere. When the fever epidemic hits, however, Philadelphia quickly transforms into one giant nightmare. There's looting and illness. People abandon the dead on the streets, and orphans are left to fend for themselves in dark doorways. How will the citizens of Philadelphia respond to such a crisis? Will they rise to the occasion? Sure, there are thieves and looters about, but also think of Eliza and the Free African Society. Or the printer Mr. Brown, who stays in the city to print notices from doctors. And then, of course, there's Matilda – who works tirelessly to care for the twins and Nell when they come down with yellow fever. These people present an optimistic vision of American life and of the gumption and character of the citizens of Philadelphia.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. The city of Philadelphia is often contrasted with the country. Why? How are they different? How are they similar?
    2. Why does Matilda love Philadelphia? Why does she hate the country?
    3. Why does Matilda always head to the marketplace to hear the news of the day? What else is transmitted in the marketplace besides food and goods?
    4. Why does Matilda want to go to Paris? How does she view Paris as different from Philadelphia?

    Chew on This

    Whether in the city or country, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 put all Americans to the test.

    For better or for worse, Philadelphia will never be the same after the fever outbreak.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Matilda Cook is a dreamer, just like that darn Jean-Pierre Blanchard she keeps mentioning (1.28). (You know, the guy who floated into the sky in a big yellow hot air balloon?) Like the visionary Blanchard, Matilda has plenty of plans for the future. She dreams of going to Paris, of opening her own shop, and of selling the finest French fripperies right in the heart of Philadelphia. In some ways we could say that what Matilda wants is the American Dream – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all that kind of thing. But all of that changes when the fever epidemic hits. Instead of dreaming about foreign travel and shop keeping, Matilda is simply trying to survive from one day to the next. The fever epidemic doesn't mean, though, that the intrepid Matilda has to put all of her hopes and dreams on hold. She simply starts making new plans for the future – and moving in new directions. (We know she'll get to Paris. Some day.)

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What are Matilda's plans for her future before the fever epidemic? After? Who else does she begin to include in her plans?
    2. What is the significance of France for Matilda?
    3. Why does Matilda have such a negative opinion about marriage?
    4. Do we know what Eliza's dreams are? Why or why not? How about Matilda's mother?
    5. What will the future be like for Matilda's mother after the end of the book?
    6. How is Nathaniel Benson a part of Matilda's future at the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Matilda must learn to stop her daydreaming and face the situation in front of her.

    Dreams and plans are an important part of our interior life. They allow us to hope for the future.

  • Women and Femininity

    What are the avenues offered to women in Philadelphia in 1793? Before the fever, Matilda's family assumes that she will find a nice young man like Edward Ogilvie and marry him. This, after all, is what decent young girls are expected to do. Matilda, though, has other plans – plans that don't include being a housewife. An independent girl, Matilda wishes to run the family business – just like her mother has been – and take over and expand the coffeehouse into something quite grand.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What are Matilda's options for a career? How about Eliza's? Nell's?
    2. What is Matilda's opinion of marriage? Why?
    3. In what way is Matilda a different kind of girl than the Ogilvie daughters?
    4. Why does Matilda refer to her mother as a "captain"?
    5. How does Matilda's relationship with her grandfather shape the woman she becomes?

    Chew on This

    Fever, 1793 suggests that you can challenge expectations for your gender, and – with the help of other likeminded people – succeed.

    While opportunities for women in the eighteenth century were limited, Matilda manages to carve out a path for herself and for others, like Eliza.

  • Foreignness and the 'Other'

    Early on in Fever, 1793, rumors spread that it's the refugees who are responsible for the fever in Philadelphia. While many fleeing from Santo Domingo (now Haiti) were indeed carrying the virus, the way in which the topic gets discussed becomes a bit of a problem. The fever is something that "they" are causing. Not "us." In this case, the "other" becomes the scapegoat for a problem infecting an entire society. As we learn from the novel, this kind of "us" versus "them" attitude can lead to acts of dehumanization (that is, treating people as though they aren't human beings.) The sad truth is, though, that death, fever, and illness can happen to anyone – refugee or otherwise.

    We should also note that there are different kinds of foreigners in the novel, and each are treated in different ways. The French Doctors, for example, present the right cures, but they're in direct conflict with the treatments prescribed by the American Dr. Benjamin Rush. There's also the Free African Society that Eliza is a member of, and that helps victims of the fever and their families.

    Questions About Foreignness and the 'Other'

    1. The refugees get full blame for the fever, and the information spreads like wildfire. Who do we hear repeating this information in the novel? And why?
    2. Why does Dr. Benjamin Rush enlist the help of the Free African Society to treat the fever victims?
    3. Matilda tells Eliza that the French doctors have more experience with yellow fever and therefore should be trusted. Where and how did they get this experience?
    4. Why does Eliza have such a hard time believing Matilda about the French cure?

    Chew on This

    By viewing people as the "other," they become dehumanized. It becomes easier to dismiss people or treat them poorly when we regard them as less than human.

    Philadelphia is a city of many cultures, all of them valuable to the life of the city.

  • Memory and the Past

    Fever, 1793 is a historical novel, so it's no surprise that this is a book that has a hankering for the past. This applies to both personal history and the kind of History that gets a capital "H" too. For Matilda's mother and grandfather, the Revolutionary War brought out the best in them. Though it ended years prior, that past event defined them as hard workers and the people they are today. The two reference the war constantly, especially Grandfather who virtually lives in the past with his parrot named King George, his sword over the mantel, and his service to President Washington that he's always mentioning. How does the past present a narrative, or a story, that defines people in the present? How does our relationship to the past define what we do or say in the future?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why is the Revolutionary War so important to Grandfather? To Mother?
    2. Both Eliza and Mother have lost their husbands. How have they coped differently?
    3. Do you think it's important that Matilda remember her Grandfather and those she lost during the fever? If so, how do you think she'll do this?
    4. Why is it important for us, as 21st-century readers, to remember or think about people who died in a fever epidemic in 1793? Can we draw any comparisons with epidemics in our own day?
    5. What can the past teach us about the present?

    Chew on This

    The past will always come to bear on the present. It's up to us to determine in what way.

    Memories can be difficult to deal with, but we must face the past instead of letting it stand in our way.

  • Transformations

    When Fever, 1793 begins, fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook is a teenager from head to toe. This means that her life is made up of a series of changes, transformations, and metamorphoses. She's going through a growth spurt, she's noticing boys (ahem, Nathaniel Benson?), and she's challenging authority (read: her mother) in a big way. Oh the joys of being in between childhood and adulthood!

    But along with the usual teenage transformations, Mattie is caught up in some larger transformations that will really jumpstart her journey down the road to adulthood. The city is turned upside down with a fever epidemic: day becomes night and night becomes day. Mattie begins to see death and suffering on a daily basis. In the midst of the chaos, Mattie has to re-evaluate her priorities and take control of her growth. She takes on many more responsibilities and begins making her own choices. For Mattie, becoming an adult means not only physically growing, but learning to care for others, to make sacrifices, and to make the right decisions.

    Questions About Transformations

    1. What kind of transformations does the city of Philadelphia undergo during the fever outbreak?
    2. How does Mattie's idea of family transform in this novel?
    3. Why is the image of Mattie's garden important? How is it transformed in the novel over and over again?
    4. What does being an adult mean to Mattie? Is it simply about putting on one of mother's dresses? (Which, remember, Mattie does.)

    Chew on This

    The transformation into adulthood is about learning to care for others.

    Some changes happen to us, and other changes we make happen ourselves. It's the latter that turns us into adults.

  • Science

    If there's one thing we learn from Fever, 1793 it's that science isn't an exact science. Debates about the cause of the fever and its proper treatment rage through the hospitals and coffeehouses of Philadelphia. There's the school of thought led by Dr. Benjamin Rush (an actual historical figure, by the way) who believes the fever is quickly spreading everywhere and can only be treated by letting blood and administering expectorates. (That means draining the body of fluids and purging with treatments of jalap and calomel. Yikes.) Then there's the French school of thought, practiced by people like Dr. Deveze, who argue that bed rest is the best path to health. Sounds much better to us but hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. We now know that the French were right about things, but what we should really take away from this topic is that science is changing, shifting, and shaping. It's a field of knowledge that's very much a work in progress.

    Questions About Science

    1. Why do people in the novel trust Dr. Benjamin Rush's cures?
    2. Why do people in the novel have a hard time trusting the French doctors?
    3. How do rumors and gossip sometimes shape the way we see things like medicine?
    4. Why does Dr. Rush enlist the Free African Society to care for fever patients? What is his assumption based on?

    Chew on This

    You can't prove everything: even scientific "facts" are sometimes debatable. What we think we know about the world is always changing.

    Doctors should do no harm to a patient.