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Those Filthy Irish: Dis-ease in Andrea Barrett’s Short Story “Ship Fever”

Corinne H. Dale
p. 99-108


Ship Fever (Typhus), recueil de nouvelles d'Andrea BARRETT qui a remporté le U.S.National Book Award en 1996, traite de la recherche scientifique et des pratiques médicales au cours du XIXe siècle. La nouvelle du titre se déroule pendant l’épidémie de typhus de 1847, sur l’île de Gross au Québec. Emigrants irlandais, ses personnages permettent à l’auteur d’expose la portée morale d’une maladie physique que ni barrières sociales, ni quarantaine ne sauraient arrêter. La contagion crée des liens socio-politiques entre le moral et le matériel, si bien que l’épidémie apparaisse comme synonyme d’immigration. Le lecteur est, lui aussi, transporté par la nouvelle sur la rive rédemptrice d’en face pour découvrir, avec les personnages la fraternité et la bonté dans la complexité multiple de l’humain.

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Studied authors :

Andrea Barrett

Texte intégral

1Andrea Barrett’s collection of short stories Ship Fever, 1996 winner of the U.S. National Book Award, explores the scientific research and medical practices of the nineteenth century. In these stories, Barrett adroitly teases out of the early investigations of modern science the moral and social conditions of humanity. The title story, “Ship Fever,” which focuses on the plight of Irish emigrants to Canada in 1847, is a longer, more sustained narrative in which the characters develop to a greater degree than in the rest of the collection. This story, which occupies ninety-seven pages of the 254-page collection, not only lends its title to the collection but also ends the collection, providing the final word: “’I am,’ Nora said” (254). This brave statement of existence and survival is significant by itself as a philosophical declaration of being. It is more significant still as a triumphant declaration of endurance, coming as it does at the end of a harrowing tale of what is known as “The Grosse Isle Tragedy,” the typhus epidemic on Grosse Isle, Quebec during 1847. Having read the earlier stories in the collection, the reader is conditioned to find in “Ship Fever” that the disease, contagion, and quarantine of Irish emigrants reveal political and moral conditions. Ironically, in this story, epidemic equates to immigration, and contagion--as it permeates class and gender barriers--spreads social dis-ease.

2As in all the stories in this collection, Barrett’s fiction is securely based in the history of science, an interest developed as a biology student at Union College and later as history student and a writer of fiction. Grosse Isle was the quarantine station for the Irish emigrants who fled to Canada from the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Barrett acknowledges her sources for this work of historical fiction, including an eye-witness account of the conditions on the ships and on the island provided by the journal of Robert Whyte, who made the passage from Ireland to Quebec and whose account was published in 1848 as “The Ocean Plague.” She credits as her major source “The Grosse Isle Tragedy and the Monument to the Irish Fever Victims, 1847,” and she identifies as her resource for medical information about the diseases that follow famine, the chapter “Medical History of the Famine” in The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, edited by Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams (255).

3Faithfully, Barrett relates the tragic details of the typhus epidemic through the dispatches of the sympathetic journalist Arthur Adams, the ordeal of the young Irish emigrant Nora Kynd, who arrives in Canada already infected with typhus, and also the experiences of Dr. Lauchlin Grant, a fictional young Canadian doctor whose interest in the epidemiology of typhus, or ship fever, is obviated by the desperate needs of thousands of sick and dying Irish emigrants. The horrific details of the epidemic are nearly overpowering in the story. At one point, there were 80,000 sick people on the island with inadequate food and shelter. As many as 4,000 were released in one day, many infected but not too sick to stand; these carried the contagion into the cities on whose piers they are dumped by the ships. Three ships go down with all board in a late snowstorm. By June 27th, 116 ships have arrived. Of nearly two hundred attendants, twenty-two die, including six priests, two clergy, and twenty-six doctors. In all, 9,000 died at sea, 5000 were buried in mass graves on Grosse Isle and 7000 were buried in port cities.

4Barrett investigates moral and political dis-ease as well as chronicling the course of the typhus epidemic in mid-nineteenth century Quebec-- a community settled by earlier Irish emigrants who are faced with an overwhelming influx of new emigrants--an epidemic, that is, of the dirty, starving, and diseased Irish poor. Barrett shows that the typhus epidemic is a socio-political dis-ease, by revealing the moral dimensions as well as the physical conditions of contagion and quarantine. Supplementing the investigative reporting of Arthur Adam, the individual stories of Dr. Lauchlin Grant and Nora Kynd, who both contract the typhus, not only personalize for readers the historical Grosse Isle tragedy but also draws us into a kind of moral immigration. With Lauchlin and Nora we take passage on "Ship Fever" and cross into a redemptive state of kinship and human kind-ness.

5The story begins with a letter addressed from Skibbereen, County Cork by a Canadian journalist who has journeyed to Ireland to investigate the conditions during the potato famine. Writing to his friend Dr. Grant, Arthur Adam describes the desolate Irish countryside with its rotting corpses gnawed by rats and dogs, and with emaciated, starving paupers, who huddle in apathy and despair, too enervated by dysentery and fever even to bury their dead. Though Arthur Adam’s letter details the famine of Ireland, he begins his letter to Dr. Grant, who sits safely enough (for the time being) in an overheated, luxurious house on Palace Street in Quebec, with an inquiry into his health and a comment on his own moral state: “Does this find you well, my friend? For myself I am well enough in body but sick at heart” (159).

6This query, pairing physical health with heart-sickness, opens the story and along with Nora’s final declaration “'I am,'” provides a frame that encloses the narrative of physical contagion and social dis-ease. In fact, as ensuing events make clear, everyone’s health--body and soul-- are at risk. Though it is the impoverished Irish emigrants whose piled-up corpses most obviously figure as the victims of the Irish famine and of the Grosse Isle tragedy, the majority of relief workers--doctors, nurses, ship captains and crew, priests and nuns, Quakers, the servants and prisoners impressed into labor on the island--die from the fever as well. Furthermore, the fever also infects urban Canadians; even the wealthy who command their own well-appointed hospital die, though not in such great numbers. The fact is that the quarantine conditions at Grosse Isle are not sufficient to contain the disease. In spite of Arthur Adams’ persuasive journalism, his exposé of the political causes of the epidemic, and in spite of heroic efforts by the relief workers, the practical resources needed to treat and contain the typhus effectively are far too scarce.

7Arthur Adams’ soul-sickness is also contagious. His exposé of the political causes of the epidemic is reinforced by Dr. Grant’s own investigations. Adams sorts through the popular assessments of the contagion, as reported by the press, and reveals British political policies as the true causes of the epidemic. He writes:

Yesterday, I read a column stating that the cause of the ‘potato murrain’ is a sort of dropsy. Others contend that the rot arises from static electricity generated in the air by the puffs of smoke from locomotives, or from miasma’s rising from blind volcanoes in the interior of the earth. Always the potatoes; not a word about the ships that sail daily for England with Ireland’s produce, which might have been used to feed the starving (160).

8He accuses the British Government of other “benighted policies” (160), such as causing dysentery by passing out unground Indian corn to the starving people. He understands that the “lazy Irish” can not farm the land because they are starving and diseased rather than unwilling. Adams also condemns the harsh immigration policies of the US and the unwillingness of Canadian authorities to provide the resources to treat the emigrants, both well and sick, effectively.

9More evidence for the epidemic as a social-class disease, this “pauper’s fever” (217), becomes apparent on Grant’s overnight visit to Quebec in a fruitless effort to garner more supplies for Grosse Island. He discovers that the Board of Health is angry with the emigrants rather than sympathetic and that it diverts to the city's population the clothing and food gathered by Quakers charities to help the emigrants. A city official tells him, “The only good news is that so far most of the victims are emigrants--... We have no medicine to spare at present.” Like Lauchlin’s own father who blames the death of his wife on Irish emigrants, the city residents turn on the newly arrived Irish emigrants, tearing down sheds constructed to shelter the sick. Even the doctors, who urge humanity and common decency, condescend to the emigrants. Nora thinks, “Yet it was horrible to hear herself described this way: a ‘pauper,’ a 'half-naked pauper’” (228). “What kind of new world was this, where the rich blamed the poor for their poverty?”(228).

10The tendency to combat the emigrant rather then the disease itself is validated by the accepted theory of the time: that disease was spread by miasmas --noxious exhalations given off by filth. This belief that dirt caused disease laid on the filthy Irish emigrants the moral responsibility for their own sickness and for the contagion of the healthy Canadian population. Thus, physical quarantine serves to validate social classification and ethnic discrimination.

11Dr. Grant, whose medical career has begun poorly because he balks at the standard bleeding of patients, is interested in scientific research and hoping to find medicines to treat diseases effectively. He studies the nature and uses of alkaloids, "those active principles isolated from plants" (166), searching for a medicine as useful as atropine or quinine. Because of his research interests, he had earlier stopped working in the emigrant hospital and is disdainful about the treatment of wealthy hypochondriacs. The epidemic, however, interrupts his research, which ironically, might have done more to save lives than the nursing he is limited to on Grosse Isle. Just before accepting a position there, he receives a shipment of books-- “On Miasma and Contagion, Sanitary Report, and Treatise on Fever” (171)--books which might have led him to useful discoveries, as his mentor suggests “the most rigorous, mathematical epidemiology and investigation of underlying cause, combined with patient care and social policy--good science combined with good medicine”(172). In addition, Lauchlin is in correspondence with a doctor who argues that ship fever must be due to “pathogenic microbes; and not, as the miasmatists contend, to noxious exhalations given off by filth” (173). But the epidemic intervenes to postpone the medical breakthrough. It is heartbreaking to read of Lauchlin’s musing on infection and contagion, as he struggles to theorize against the accepted wisdom of miasmas. Cleanliness was observed to offer some protection for caregivers, although cleanliness was impossible on Grosse Isle. Lauchlin in passing notes the presence of lice (198), the true carriers of the disease. Later Lauchlin himself feels like “a rodent, say . Or a louse” (172) an ironic reflection of the social aspects of dis-ease.

12The water in the St. Lawrence is filthy, not only floating with dirty straw and other bedding, but rags, planks from the ship, human excrement, maggoty food--all the detritus of the emigrants who have been ordered to jettison their belongings and their bedding in the futile hope of hiding the filthy conditions in which they have traveled. The British ships are run like slavers: the sick and the well, even in many cases the dead, are piled up in the holds; straw does little to absorb the human waste of humans afflicted with dysentery, vomiting, and fever. For Lauchlin on this first day, the passage into the hold, again and again is a passage into the heart of darkness. Barrett alludes to Conrad's image: “she knew that place by heart. The darkness, of course; and the rotting food, and the filth sloshing underfoot. The fetid bedding alive with vermin and everywhere the sick“ (180-181).

13Lauchlin rejects the horrible sights and smells violently: he vomits, thinking “this was madness” (181), only to be told that worse is yet to come. When he witnesses bodies removed with boat hooks, he temporarily suspends his thinking. At this point, he discovers that one of the corpses to be discarded is actually a live woman: Nora Kynd, her name suggesting kinship--human kind as well as kindness. That Nora is kin is immediately apparent: when she opens her eyes she recognizes the red-haired, blue-eyed Lauchlin as Irish. Lauchlin responds by singling her out for special treatment, insisting that she be taken to the island even though the quota of ten sick from that ship has already been met.

14The great irony of the emigrant experience has always been--and remains still-- that those in North America who disdain the new arrivals are themselves emigrants, in the case of Barrett’s story very recent ones. The most prejudiced Quebecan in the story is Annie Taggert, who has herself left Ireland only twenty years before. She remembers her contemporaries as hard working men and women, “poor but respectable. Nothing like the new arrivals” (168). She bullies the new Irish maid, whom she labels as ”filthy and stupid and good for nothing” (168) as well as “lazy” (169). The stereotype of the filthy Irish is particularly significant in a story about disease that is believed to be transmitted through dirt, and particularly poignant is the fact that the new maid Sissy is accused constantly of leaving dirt in the house. Thus Annie scowls about the “filth” left in the corners of the stairs (169) and then immediately scorns her own mistress Susannah for “exposing herself to filth like that”(170) when she volunteers to nurse the emigrants. The new Irish emigrants are filthy and thus are themselves human filth, to Annie’s mind.

15As she exposes the stereotype of the filthy Irish, Barrett depicts a social revolution in which the “filthy Irish” enforce cleanliness; the sick promote healing, the patient instructs the doctor, and the servant commands the master. Barrett makes Nora and the “filthy Irish” themselves the source of effective methods of preventing contagion by showing them to insist on cleanliness at least as much as is possible given the circumstances imposed on them in the British ships. Nora has learned how to deal with contagion from her grandmother, an Irish nurse who practiced traditional remedies. She tells Lauchlin of how the fever was treated by the farmers in Ireland, who would burn the house to the ground after a family had died. Moreover, the grandmother isolated the sick in huts and treated them with water and boiled milk; she protected her grandchildren by instructing them to wash their hands and faces in their own urine after touching a patient. Nora’s nursing amounts to “doing battle with the filth that coated everything” (222); each night she sponges off her one set of clothes with vinegar and water and hangs them in the open air while she sleeps. Notably in contrast to the city officials and even the doctors, she combats not the sick themselves, but the filth that attends them.

16The social implications of this shift in power are clearly disturbing, even revolutionary. Lauchlin soon begins to order the attendants and other visitors to remove their clothing upon leaving, basing his order on Annie and the grandmother’s advice, but tactfully persuading the other doctors by using published medical precedents as arguments. When the Irish servant Annie forces Susannah and Lauchlin to strip and bathe and don clean clothes before entering the house, Annie is said to have gotten above her station by ordering her masters and mistress around. And when Lauchlin’s own servants also refuse to touch his dirty clothes, he laments, “Had all the servants in this city gone mad?” (220).

17Both Arthur Adams and Lauchlin are sympathetic to the plight of the Irish emigrants, even to the extent of recognizing that the epidemic in very real ways is promoted by ethnic and class discrimination. Yet at the same time that they labor to expose this political contagion, they conspire to isolate Susannah, Arthur’s wife, because of her gender. For example, she has been told, “It’s [Ireland's] no place for a woman” (165). The servants join the conspiracy to isolate her, censoring the political news and joining in the general disapproval of Susannah’s charitable visits to hospitals for the emigrants. In this story, however, isolation is another word for quarantine; so the social and moral implications of the quarantine of the Irish emigrants on Ship Island deepen the significance of Susannah’s gender quarantine: “Isolation,’ [Nora] said [speaking of the physically ill]...’ That means making someone to be alone’” (197).

18Susannah fights her gender isolation; she refuses the jewels, fine furniture, and other frivolous luxuries of her social station; she demands to hear the truth of the political situation. And she chafes against being left at home to run bazaars while her husband investigates the realities of the Irish famine. Eventually, she begins to nurse the sick Irish emigrants, and thus she contracts typhus.

19Susannah’s violation of quarantine -- a social as well as a physical revolt--reveals her kinship with emigrant women. The contention that Ireland is no place for a woman seemingly de-genders Irish women such as Nora. An Irish emigrant woman is not really a woman at all—it appears. Yet Nora and Susannah resemble one another--Lauchlin in his fever, believes that Nora is Susannah, and when Nora visits Susannah’s house, she is told that she resembles Susannah. That the wealthy Quebecan Susannah tragically dies of typhus while the Irish emigrant Nora lives, ironically demonstrates the kinship of these women, whether quarantined to protect them from the typhus epidemic or from the contagion of class and gender dis-ease.

20Lauchlin’s passage through his own heart of darkness to moral kinship with the Irish emigrants --the Others of Barrett’s story--occurs in stages. His first acknowledgment of kinship is with Dr. Jacques (a historical figure) and with the other doctors who have to play the godlike role of deciding who will get treatment, who will be sent on into Canada, who will be buried. These fateful decisions made with no regard for individual circumstances have earlier aroused Lauchlin’s anger and dismay, but he learns of their necessity and of his own necessary collusion: “He--we, I--separate the sick from the healthy without regard for family ties; we have no choice” (190).

21Later, the social distinctions between him and Nora break down, as they work together caring for the sick. He insists that she call him by the first name. Later still, he passes into a “kind of insanity” (225) that Nora has seen and felt herself; she understands that he feels invulnerable and thus has stopped caring for himself. She also understands the danger of this state, which is described as a challenging of social and political hierarchy, a kind of dis-ease that provokes the authorities to defend themselves.

22It is like the madness that had seized her father, who drove his surviving children to find food and demanded work and finally threw a rock at the member of a relief committee. Cursing and demanding, he is shot down in the street.

Nora considers this anarchic state as insanity, pretending courage and strength could save them, when salvation was clearly only a matter of luck... It was fate, which could not be defeated. Fate was starvation and fever back home, and humiliation and fever here, and in neither case could fate be fought but only tricked a bit. (226)

23She believes in survival of the cunning and the fortunate few. Yet the illness and death that follow Lauchlin’s own heedless rebellion is described as a redemptive journey that allows him to transcend both social dis-ease and physical disease.

24When Lauchlin falls sick, he continues his social and moral immigration, passing from doctor to patient and from settled citizen to emigrant voyager. Finally, in his feverish delirium, he recognizes his kinship to the sick, feeling “chained into a raft with the others to begin the long journey downstream” (233). On his deathbed, he does realize his kinship with his patients. And he does realize that he is a fellow traveler:

he understood for the first time that these people he’d been caring for were, if not exactly him, extensions of him, as he was an extension of them. It was life, simply life that they had in common... (239)

25But from understanding the life that he shares with others, too soon it is death that he shares.

What was this shadow that lay over him now, if not the shadow that had lain over her and all the others? He became aware of a large, echoing space beyond the small space confining him. That space was filled with other beings, turning, murmuring, plucking their blankets as he plucked his: Those beings dreamed like him. Count me, he thought,... Count me, count them, count us. (239)

26Although Lauchlin dies in the typhus epidemic, Nora lives to spread the contagion of kinship--Nora Kynd, who all along recognized that she is kin and kind to all others. Taking for herself a donated dress and cloak and boots, she sets out to find her two younger brothers who had been sent upstream against their will when she was quarantined on the island. Finding Lauchlin’s address, she comes face to face with the servant Annie, who recognizes her as a new emigrant and suspects that she has come from Grosse Isle bringing contagion with her. But the sight of Nora reminds Annie of her early years in Canada, when few people had treated her with kindness. Suddenly recognizing her own unjust treatment of Sissy, the new Irish maid, and of Nora, she serves Nora tea and spends the afternoon listening sympathetically to her story. Annie remembers her own passage and the cholera epidemic she had survived. Annie recognizes Nora’s kinship: “this one had lived, like her... And like her was all alone”(254). As the story concludes, Annie, who has been a peripheral character so far, moves to center stage and acknowledges for us, the readers, our common humanity. Responding to Nora’s desire to start fresh, Annie comments, “‘Wouldn’t we all,’... ‘Didn’t we all of us think that was what we were doing, leaving our homes for here?'” In response to Annie’s query, “'you’re leaving already?’” Nora’s final "'I am'"(254), besides asserting her survival, also affirms her decision to move on—to seek hopefully for a better future in spite of the terrors and tragedies of the past. Immigration and contagion has become a metaphor for the commonality of human experience: "‘I am,’ Nora said” (254).


Barrett, Andrea. Ship Fever, and Other Stories. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1996.

Farnsworth, Elizabeth. "Ship Fever" (Interview with Andrea Barrett). On-line Newshour. November 8, 1999.

Kurth., Peter. "Andrea Barrett." Salon Books/The Salon Interview. December 2, 1998, pp. 1-3.

Heltzel, Ellen Emry. "Thriving on the Deliberation of Her Craft." The Oregonian. October 5, 1998. (on-line).

Mallon, Thomas. New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p.24.

Op de Beeck, Nathalie. "Science, Nature and Regret." Washington Post Book World, February 11, 1996, p. 8.

Outside Magazine. May 13, 1997 (on-line).

Rauch, Molly E. Nation, January 29, 1996, pp. 32-34.

Ship Fever and Other Stories, Norton Reading Group Guide. Fall, 1995. (on-line).

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Référence papier

Corinne H. Dale, « Those Filthy Irish: Dis-ease in Andrea Barrett’s Short Story “Ship Fever” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 35 | 2000, 99-108.

Référence électronique

Corinne H. Dale, « Those Filthy Irish: Dis-ease in Andrea Barrett’s Short Story “Ship Fever” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 35 | Autumn 2000, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2008, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL :


Corinne H. Dale

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