Fever 1793 Summary & Study Guide

Laurie Halse Anderson

Fever 1793

  • 56-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 29 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a Master's degree in Professional Writing
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Fever 1793 Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 56-page guide for “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 29 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Selflessness Versus Selfishness in the Face of Disaster and Coming of Age in a Time of Tragedy.

Plot Summary

Set during Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak, Fever 1793 is a young adult, historical fiction novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson and first published in 2000. Anderson is a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her contribution to young adult literature, and Fever 1793 is an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Best Book for Teens.

Fever 1793 begins in August 1793, with 14-year-old Matilda Cook awakening to a typical day: she helps her mother, grandfather, and the cook Eliza run the Cook family coffeehouse, a business Matilda’s mother manages alone since her husband’s death. Matilda butts heads with her demanding mother and dreams of becoming an independent young woman who travels and owns her own businesses. Matilda receives support from jovial Grandfather, a former Army captain in the Revolutionary War, and friendly Eliza, a free black woman who is widowed. Matilda also enjoys spending time with Nathaniel Benson, a painter’s apprentice, although Mother disapproves of his profession.

Matilda’s normal day suddenly turns tragic: Polly, Matilda’s friend and the Cooks’ servant, dies of a fever. Rumors of yellow fever spread through Philadelphia, and soon over a hundred people die. Anyone with the money to do so is leaving the city. When Matilda’s mother contracts the fever, Matilda begs to stay with her, but her family insists she leave town to stay with some acquaintances and Grandfather in the countryside.

Grandfather and Matilda ride with a farmer and his family, but when Grandfather appears ill and the guards of a neighboring town won’t let him pass through, the farmer throws Matilda and Grandfather off the wagon without their belongings. Matilda must care for her sick grandfather and find food. She uses the military training Grandfather has given her throughout his life, framing the challenge as a battle and inspiring Grandfather to call her “‘Captain’” (87). However, Matilda falls ill and collapses.

Matilda awakens to discover she has yellow fever and is in Bush Hill, a former mansion repurposed as a hospital for fever victims. While at first Bush Hill was dangerous, Stephen Girard—a wealthy French merchant—takes over the makeshift hospital and staffs it with French doctors. As Matilda’s nurse Mrs. Flagg explains, the French physicians disagree with the bloodletting and purges advocated by American doctors. Grandfather visits Matilda, and he’s recovered enough to flirt with Mrs. Flagg—he was sick but never had the fever.

After Matilda recovers, she and Grandfather return to Philadelphia with fever victims headed to the orphanage. The orphans’ caretaker, Mrs. Bowles, asks Matilda to stay and help care for the orphans, but Matilda declines. Matilda and Grandfather reenter a dismal, abandoned Philadelphia, with only the sick and dying remaining, as well as many corpses that must be buried in mass graves. They return to the coffeehouse only to find thieves have ransacked it, and Mother and Eliza are missing. Grandfather is ill again, and Matilda struggles to collect food from their dying garden.

Thieves return at night and Matilda attempts to scare them off, but reveals herself when one of them nearly cuts her with Grandfather’s sword. Grandfather hears the commotion and shoots at one of the thieves, but misses and the thief attacks Grandfather. Matilda chases him out with Grandfather’s sword, but it’s too late: after telling Matilda he loves her, Grandfather dies. Distraught Matilda spends the night weeping beside “the finest man had ever known” (149).

After burying Grandfather, Matilda meets Nell—a little girl whose mother died of fever—and finds Eliza tending to the sick along with other members of the Free African Society. Matilda and Nell accompany Eliza to her brother Joseph’s apartment. Joseph is recovering from the fever; his wife died of the illness, but his twin boys haven’t become sick. Matilda stays with them and helps another member of the Free African Society, Mother Smith, who recommends that Matilda take Nell to the orphanage. Matilda is relieved to find the orphanage overcrowded because this means she can keep Nell.

Matilda accompanies Eliza on her charity missions, witnessing both the devastation wrought by the disease and the good work of compassionate volunteers like Eliza. Joseph’s twins and Nell fall ill with fever, and Matilda becomes so exhausted caring for three sick children but at last a frost arrives, signifying an end to the fever. The children begin to recover, and farmers return to Philadelphia with much-needed food.

Matilda searches for news about her mother, but finds Nathaniel instead. He and the Peales remained safe inside the Peale mansion throughout the epidemic. Matilda and Nathaniel renew their friendship and later agree to spend their future together.

With Eliza as her business partner, Matilda works hard to return the coffeehouse to a thriving establishment and continues caring for Nell. Matilda finally hears from Mother in November—she is among the last of the Philadelphia residents to return with George Washington. Mother is weak from her fight with the fever, so Matilda takes responsibility for the coffeehouse and lets her mother rest.

In an epilogue set in December 1793, Matilda begins her day just as she did in the first chapter of the novel. Having undergone a dramatic transformation, she is eager to begin the day’s work, knowing each chore brings her closer to becoming a successful, well-traveled businesswoman. While Matilda still mourns Grandfather and Polly, she—like Philadelphia itself—looks forward to a hopeful future, rather than remaining mired in tragedy. A stronger, more mature Matilda watches the sun rise, “filled with prayers and hopes and promise” (243), and prepares to begin another day working toward her dreams.

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