How does the environment contribute to the plot and theme of the novel?
The author uses the environment and the weather extensively to place a certain mental image within the reader's mind and to depict the gravity and harshness of the situation. Not only does this add to the background and setting of the book, but it also exemplifies the plot and the message the author is trying to get across.
As stated throughout the novel, this summer in Philadelphia was unusually hot and the sun was scorching on the people and the land. It was a dangerous problem that created fatigue, dehydration, and even death in certain cases. In this way, it extended the plot by providing yet another obstacle that the inhabitants of Philadelphia had to overcome, in addition to the epidemic of Yellow Fever.
The heat in the environment is also important to the understanding of the novel because it provides an allegory for the idea of Hell. Things are going terribly wrong and Philadelphia feels like it is scorching near the center of the Earth, almost as if its people were burning in Hell. The death and destruction that the environment and the weather create also make the inhabitants of the city feel like they are living a life of perpetual misery.
How does Mattie mature as a character over the course of the novel?
At the start of the novel, Mattie is somewhat spoiled and self-absorbed. She doesn't fully value how hard her mother works, and she spends most of her time thinking about her own personal goals and desires (being with Nathaniel and traveling the world). However, with the outbreak of the epidemic, Mattie comes to understand danger, suffering, and loss. She is also put in situations where she has to face hardship and show courage. All of these experiences help Mattie to understand what is actually important and to become more motivated to care about others. By the end of the novel, Mattie is successfully running a business and taking care of her mother and the child she has adopted. Mattie has matured from an adolescent into an adult, even though she had to do so under very hard circumstances.
How do race and class impact the experience different characters have during the epidemic?
When the epidemic first breaks out, it seems like individuals in poorer neighborhoods are more impacted. Individuals with more money avoid these areas, and people like the Ogilvie family even seem to think that the disease is just an inconvenience that won't actually affect them. However, when it becomes clear that wealthy people can also fall ill, individuals with more money and resources largely flee from the city, only returning after the outbreak has ended. Their wealth allows them to avoid much of the suffering, and Mattie feels a lot of resentment and anger when she sees them returning in the colder months. Eliza and other Black residents of Philadelphia also have a different experience of the epidemic as they largely band together to care for each other. They belong to a close-knit community whose members can depend on each other, and they don't have to feel fearful and isolated. Moreover, they were given an explicit social mandate: "Consider also the African American community, then comprising about 5 percent of the city's population. Mistakenly believing that blacks were immune to yellow fever ... [officials] called on the Free African Society for help" (Foster, Jenkins, and Toogood, pg.4).
How does Mattie's experience of growing up without a father impact her during the novel?
Mattie's father dies when she is only a toddler, so she grows up raised by her mother and grandfather, with help from Eliza. This experience shows Mattie that women can be strong, independent, and in control of their own destiny. Her experience with strong female role models gives Mattie the confidence to take care of herself during the epidemic and to eventually run her own business. If Mattie's family structure had been more traditional, she might not have been as resilient and adaptable. Additionally, growing up with a blended family showed Mattie that there are different ways people can come together to love and support one another. Her willingness to adopt Nell, and then to bond with Joseph and Eliza's family, shows that Mattie understands that families can come in all shapes and sizes and don't always need to be related by blood.
Who are the heroes of the novel? Who, if anyone, are the villains?
The novel shows that even ordinary people can act in heroic ways when they are faced with extraordinary challenges. Mattie's heroism consists of things like finding water for her grandfather, nursing her mother all through the night, and adopting Nell when there is no one to take care of her. Mattie cannot ultimately stop the disease, nor can she prevent people from suffering and dying around her. She shows heroism by doing what she can to help people and never giving up hope. Eliza also shows heroism by helping those who need it most and motivating Mattie to be a better person. The disease itself is not a "villain" as such because it is a natural force, but characters like the Ogilvies, who use their wealth and privilege to flee from the city and do not even try to help the less fortunate, can be argued to be the villains of the story.