The theme of the novel is the passengers' unavailing withdrawal from a life of disappointment, seeking a kind of utopia, and, "without knowing what to do next", setting out for a long voyage to pre-World-War-II Europe, a world of prejudice, racism and evil. Mrs. Treadwell, a nostalgic American divorcee, hopes to find happiness in Paris, where she once spent her youth. Elsa Lutz, the plain daughter of a Swiss hotelkeeper, thinks heaven might be in the Isle of Wight. Jenny, an artist, says the most dangerous and happiest moment in her life was when she was swimming alone in the Gulf of Mexico, confronted with a school of dolphins. And at the end of the novel, one of the ship's musicians, a gangly starving boy, feels overjoyed to finally be off the ship and back in his home country, as if Germany were a "human being, a good and dear trusted friend who had come a long way to welcome him". Thus Porter manages to convey that salvation is an illusion, and evil is inevitable.
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