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Fever 1793 Summary, Characters and Themes

“Fever 1793” is a historical fiction novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. 

The plot follows fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook who lives in Philadelphia during the devastating yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Mattie dreams of expanding her family’s coffeehouse, but the fever turns her world upside down. As the disease ravages the city, she and her grandfather flee. Mattie endures loss and hardship, discovering inner strength and compassion amidst the chaos. The novel explores themes of survival, resilience, and the complexities of human nature during a crisis.


In the sweltering heat of Philadelphia’s summer of 1793, fourteen-year-old Matilda “Mattie” Cook dreams of expanding her family’s coffeehouse. Her independent spirit clashes with her mother’s expectations, but she finds connection with Nathaniel, a painter’s apprentice. When her friend Polly dies from a mysterious fever, fear ripples through the city. Yellow fever has arrived, and it will devastate Philadelphia.

As the epidemic intensifies, Mattie’s mother falls ill, forcing Mattie and her grandfather to flee the city. Their journey takes a harrowing turn when their companions abandon them, and Mattie’s grandfather becomes feverish. She must tap into hidden strength and survival skills to nurse him back to health.

Tragically, her efforts aren’t enough. Grandfather succumbs to the fever, and Mattie is taken to Bush Hill, a chaotic makeshift hospital. Under the care of French doctors, she battles the disease and recovers. Returning to Philadelphia, Mattie discovers the city is a ghost of its former self – many have died, including her beloved Polly, and her own mother is missing.

Amidst the heartbreak, Mattie encounters Nell, an orphaned girl, and reunites with the courageous cook, Eliza. Together with the Free African Society, Eliza works tirelessly to care for the sick. Mattie joins their efforts, finding strength and purpose.

As the first frost signals the end of the epidemic, Mattie continues her search for her mother while caring for Nell and other orphaned children. Hope returns with the arrival of farmers bringing supplies, and later in the quiet company of Nathaniel, who stayed safe throughout the crisis. She rediscovers friendship and the possibility of something more.

With Eliza as her partner, Mattie begins the daunting task of rebuilding their coffeehouse. Though grief lingers, her dreams of independence remain alive. When her mother finally returns, having survived the fever, relief washes over her.

Mattie’s story is one of resilience and growth. She faces unimaginable loss but emerges stronger, a testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure and rebuild. As Philadelphia heals, so does Mattie, ready to embrace the future with newfound determination.

Fever 1793 Summary, Characters and Themes


Matilda Cook

The protagonist of the novel, Matilda is a resourceful and resilient fourteen-year-old girl who undergoes a profound transformation in the face of adversity. Initially yearning for independence and dreaming of a life beyond the confines of her family’s coffeehouse, Matilda’s journey through the yellow fever epidemic forces her to confront the harsh realities of life and death. 

Throughout the novel, she demonstrates remarkable strength and courage as she cares for her loved ones and navigates the chaos of the epidemic. Matilda’s growth from a headstrong teenager to a capable and compassionate young woman is central to the novel’s narrative.


Matilda’s grandfather is a former Army captain in the Revolutionary War, and his military training and wisdom serve as a guiding force for Matilda throughout the novel. 

Despite his advanced age, Grandfather maintains a jovial spirit and imparts valuable lessons to Matilda, especially during their journey through the countryside and their time at Bush Hill hospital. His love and support provide Matilda with the strength to endure the hardships she faces.


The Cook family’s cook and a free black woman, Eliza is a nurturing and compassionate figure in Matilda’s life. Widowed and without children of her own, Eliza forms a close bond with Matilda and provides both emotional and practical support during the epidemic. 

Her selflessness and dedication to helping others, particularly the members of the Free African Society, highlight her resilience and compassion in the face of adversity.

Nathaniel Benson

A painter’s apprentice and Matilda’s friend, Nathaniel represents stability and comfort for Matilda amidst the chaos of the epidemic. Despite his disapproval from Matilda’s mother due to his profession, Nathaniel remains steadfast in his friendship with Matilda and ultimately becomes a source of support and companionship during her darkest moments. His presence symbolizes hope and renewal in the midst of despair.

Matilda’s Mother

Matilda’s mother is portrayed as a stern and pragmatic woman who prioritizes the well-being of her family above all else. Despite her strict demeanor, she deeply cares for Matilda and her grandfather, as evidenced by her willingness to sacrifice her own safety during the epidemic. Her absence during much of the novel adds to Matilda’s sense of isolation and forces her to mature quickly in order to survive.


Matilda’s friend and the Cooks’ servant, Polly’s death from the fever early in the novel serves as a catalyst for the events that follow. Although her character is not extensively developed, Polly’s tragic fate underscores the severity of the epidemic and its impact on the community.


Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Matilda Cook embodies remarkable resilience throughout the harrowing events of the yellow fever epidemic. Initially, she is a sheltered girl with aspirations of a life beyond the coffeehouse. 

However, as the fever ravages Philadelphia, Mattie endures unimaginable loss, including the deaths of her beloved grandfather and her childhood friend, Polly. She witnesses the worst of humanity yet still manages to find strength within herself. 

From taking charge when her grandfather falls ill, to caring for abandoned children, to her determination in rebuilding the coffeehouse, Mattie’s resilience is an inspiring beacon throughout the novel. 

Her journey demonstrates how even in the darkest hours, the human spirit can rise above adversity and find the will to carry on.

The Power of Compassion and Community

Amidst the devastation that the story talks about, the book undoubtedly highlights the transformative power of compassion. Characters like Eliza, the Cooks’ cook, and the members of the Free African Society, risk their own lives to tirelessly care for the sick and provide solace to the dying. 

Their selfless actions stand in stark contrast to those who choose self-preservation at all costs. The epidemic underscores how the worst of times can bring out the best in people, revealing the importance of community and shared humanity during a crisis. 

The bonds forged between Mattie, Eliza, and the orphaned children they care for become a testament to the strength and solace found in unity and compassion.

The Complexity of Human Nature in Times of Crisis

The yellow fever epidemic serves as a catalyst, exposing the complex spectrum of human behavior. While some characters demonstrate bravery and compassion, others succumb to fear and selfishness. 

We witness neighbors turning against one another, the abandonment of the sick, and opportunistic thieves exploiting the chaos. 

Mattie herself observes how quickly society’s facade of civility can crumble under extreme pressure. Yet, through the contrasting examples of cruelty and kindness, the novel raises important questions about the extremes of human behavior. 

It highlights the choices individuals make in times of crisis, forcing readers to confront the gray areas of morality and the potential for both heroism and cowardice that lies within us all.

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