“Ship Fever” by Andrea Barrett: An Epidemic of Emotions

I first read “Ship Fever” six years ago. The current pandemic caused the short story to bubble up to the surface of my brain as there are tragic similarities between the typhus outbreak onboard a ship and the global trauma we are enduring today.

Andrea Barrett is a masterful storyteller and a beautiful wordsmith, but be aware that her tales, while worth the read, have the power to stay in the brain and the heart whether you want them to or not. A trait I appreciate…most of the time.

Barrett, Andrea. “Ship Fever.” Ship Fever. New York: Norton, 1996. 159-254. Print.

The setting in “Ship Fever” by Andrea Barrett is just as much a character in the story as Dr. Lauchlin Grant who follows his wish to bring meaning and purpose to his career by volunteering as a physician on the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station in Quebec in the spring of 1847. It is after the Irish famine that thousands of immigrants journey to America for a better life. Many end up contracting “ship fever” or typhus en route aboard ships without proper food, shelter, or hygiene resulting in the death of hundreds and a lifelong struggle by survivors who sacrificed their own health and lost loved ones to the deadly epidemic.

The place and period might be analyzed as characters unto themselves with the power they yield over communication and current medical knowledge. However, as I examine “Ship Fever’s” locale in relation to the trials and emotions of Lauchlin, I notice a mirroring effect as if what he experiences is a reflection of the setting he finds himself within at any given time. It is as if Barrett wrote him into particular places at particular times experiencing specific events to enhance the emotional impact of Lauchlin’s life choices.

We meet Lauchlin as he is living a dismal, lonely life and an unfulfilling professional path against the backdrop of a rundown house. Previous events beyond his control prohibit him from marrying the woman he deems his true love, but current circumstances permit him to visit her often. This makes the love-lost situation worse for him. His career as a doctor is bleak since returning from study in Paris, France with the latest procedures and thoughts at his fingertips, but the environment in 1847 Quebec is behind the times and doesn’t appreciate his skills.

He is frustrated in love and miserable as a research scientist and physician. His depression is reflected by the lack of energy in Quebec to seek new answers and take chances toward new discoveries. Disease prevention and public health are new fields as noted in the story (Barrett 171) but it is exactly where Lauchlin feels his training and expertise are most valuable. He leaves the smothering atmosphere of Quebec to land on an island, the quintessential metaphor for getting away from your troubles.

On the isolated quarantine station, Lauchlin is surrounded by a mammoth challenge to his desires to make a difference in the world of medicine. Thousands of people lay dying of typhoid fever everywhere he turns. It is as if he wished for an opportunity to show what he could do, and the setting provided him with more than any person might handle alone. In the safe, quiet upper class of Quebec, he believed that the surroundings kept him from realizing his true worth. His pouting and petulance landed him in a deeper dilemma. Lauchlin has two choices: stay or go home.

  • It was too much, it was impossible. He would go home at one, on the next steamer out, and when Susannah chided him he would tell that this was not what he had bargained for: this was madness, he could be of no help. (Barrett 181)

Then Lauchlin saves the life of the young immigrant, Nora, and the madness throughout the island becomes somewhat tolerable, and he notices a sense of hope developing in himself. As Lauchlin’s mental state slowly improves, so does the state of the medical surroundings. Lauchlin accepts the circumstances and sees the research potential of the situation. Fewer and fewer ships arrive, and the epidemic becomes somewhat manageable.

As things improve slightly, a sense of empowerment results, and he attempts to participate in the politics overshadowing the circumstances by returning to Quebec to appeal for aid and supplies. Things are clean, organized, and the same in the town where the quarantine island is exactly the opposite.

He meets with failure on political and personal fronts then returns to the quarantine station with renewed vigor because he has finally developed empathy for the survivors and their dreams. This is due in part to his relationship with Nora who tells him about her people and their reasons for leaving Ireland.
The words of writer Jessica Page Morrell support the idea of engaging the elements of setting to do more than offer a site to a story:

  • But setting is more than a mere backdrop for action; it is an interactive aspect of your fictional world that saturates the story with mood, meaning, and thematic connotations. (Morrell 151)

In “Ship Fever,” Andrea Barrett portrays the realities of human suffering as a journey made up of choices by placing the main character in a number of settings that reflect his emotions. Even with his interior self mirrored in front of him, he struggles to see his purpose and value.