The Blame Game

As we encounter obstacles over the course of our lives, we often turn to external sources to justify internal conflict. This tendency to assign responsibility is evident in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, in which refugees fleeing Santo Domingo are accused of spreading the yellow fever epidemic across Philadelphia. Similarly, in Charles Burns’ Black Hole, teenagers are shamed for having contracted “the Bug”, a sexually transmitted disease that turns them into social outcasts. In both cases, human carriers are shunned and used as scapegoats for the outbreaks. By appointing an “otherness” to the infected characters, they are dehumanized.

Set in the post-Revolutionary era, Anderson’s Fever 1793 depicts the life of a 14-year-old girl living in Philadelphia during the outbreak of the yellow fever. A work of historical fiction, the novel is a first-person account of the epidemic from the perspective of the young protagonist, Mattie Cook. Mattie’s voice offers readers a fresh and engaging outlook on her experience with the fever and the suffering that she endured.

As the plague started to take over the city, the citizens of Philadelphia searched for someone to blame. Rumours, much like the virus itself, quickly began to spread:

“Philadelphia suffers fevers every August,” said Grandfather. “This season it’s those cursed refugees. They brought it, just as the ships from Barbados brought it thirty years ago. The mayor should quarantine them on Hog Island for a few weeks and the fever would pass.” He lifted his mug to King George. The parrot drank” (Anderson, 38).

The refugees were held responsible, as they were in the midst of evading Santo Domingo as part of the Haitian Revolution. This greatly touches upon the “epidemic as Eastern” stereotype that is discussed in professor Heather Schell’s article, Outburst! A Chilling True Story about Emerging-Virus Narratives and Pandemic Social Change. Outbreak narratives often insist on a foreign origin for the virus, exempting the West of any responsibility. Over the course of her text, Schell offers an extensive amount of evidence that demonstrates how pandemic science fiction thrives on this stereotype:

“Constructing human accountability may serve as a way of maintaining a narrative of control over ourselves as well as the natural world, even if that control is destructive” (Anderson, 9).

While many of the refugees evading Santo Domingo were in fact infected by the fever, the disease was transmitted by misquotes. However, a divide had already been established between the refugee community and the people of Philadelphia: the external versus the internal. The refugees were used as a scapegoat for the spread of the yellow fever. “They” were responsible for the outbreak, not “us”:

“Don’t be vile, Jeannine,” snapped her mother. “Those filthy refugees and creatures who live in the crowded hovels by the river, they’re always sick with something. But it is a gross injustice that my gala should suffer because the lower class falls ill. Don’t you agree, Lucille?” (Anderson, 51).

Anderson employs a great deal of descriptive language to characterize the ill, evoking intense images of sickness and disease within readers. Her usage of imagery effectively supports the underlying themes of hardship and misery that dominate her text.

The innate prevalence of blame persists, as the Ogilvies clearly hold the refugee community responsible for the outbreak of the virus, referring to them as “filthy refugees and creatures”. Mrs. Ogilvie is thereby dehumanizing the foreign population by treating them as less than human. However, assigning blame will not stop the yellow fever:

“The sailors babbled in their own languages, afraid to die on the wrong side of the ocean in a world far away from people who knew their names. The vinegar-soaked cloth tied around my nose could not shield me from the stench of the dying men who baked in the old house” (Anderson, 193).

While people may be of different cultures, we are all vulnerable to disease. The city of Philadelphia shamed the refugees and treated them like outsiders, assigning them an “otherness” that was unjustifiable, ultimately leading to their dehumanization.

Set in Seattle during the mid-1970s, Charles Burns’ comic series, Black Hole, is the archetypal high school experience that chronicles a group of teenagers who acquire a sexually transmitted disease commonly referred to as “the Bug”. Although its origin remains unknown, the virus causes its carriers to undergo strange physical mutations that transform them into social outcasts:

“I couldn’t figure out what it was at first… It looked like one of those cheap, rubber Halloween masks you see in dime stores. It was just too f*cked up to be human, but somehow, deep down inside, I knew it was” (Burns).

Despite the obvious ominousness of the graphic novel, it metaphorically highlights the themes of alienation, desire and sexual confusion – elements that are not unfamiliar to the typical teenager. Burns directly assigns a sense of “otherness” to the characters himself by using physical deformities to strategically and symbolically exemplify the ways in which teenagers are stigmatized within our society.

Throughout the text, the more prominently mutated teens set out for an encampment in the woods, seeking refuge and casting themselves out from the rest of society. Besides returning to the city to retrieve food from the dumpsters, the infected have become social outcasts, alienated and exiled from the rest of humanity. When exposed to the public, the infected teenagers are shamed for their condition. They are starred at and criticized:

“Yeah, go ahead… Hide it! Just like you do at school! But you know what? You can’t hide the truth!” (Burns).

The story primarily focuses on the two protagonists, Keith and Chris, who fall victim to the virus after sexually interacting with their love interests, Eliza and Rob. The infected, Eliza, sports a tail to which Keith finds very attractive:

“Eliza sitting naked on a pink towel. So beautiful I could die. Concentrating, all focused in on her sketchbook, but aw, god… Her tail. Her cute little tail moving slowly back and forth, making a fan shape in the dirt. She’s the one. She really is. I know that now” (Burns).

This illustrates the underlying theme of teenage love, desire and the acceptance that often coincides with it. Keith finds beauty in Eliza’s deformity, while Eliza herself learns to tolerate it. Chris started off as someone who was admired by her peers. However, once infected with “the Bug”, she falls into a social downward spiral. Chris isolates herself from society and metaphorically lives in her own little “black hole” out in the woods.

Characters in Burns’ Black Hole are quite literally dehumanized, as they are assigned monstrous and bizarre physical attributes once infected with the virus. They are shamed by the rest of the population due to their conditions, forcing them into exile in the woods. This sense of shame and responsibility over their actions that is thrust upon them is unjustifiable. Sexual interaction is part of growing up and teenagers should not be blamed or made to feel guilty for their experimentations. After all, the life of a teen is fairly difficult as it is. They are often misunderstood and judged. Black Hole sends you back in time to your own teenage years and forces you to question what “bug” you might have had that made you a social outcast. Although you may not have been physically mutated after being infected by a sexually transmitted disease, these mutations represent an “otherness” that exists within us all.

We are all looking for someone to blame when life does not go according to plan. However, often those who are held responsible do not warrant such blame. In Anderson’s Fever 1793, the refugee community is accused of spreading the yellow fever epidemic across Philadelphia, when the mosquitoes were the true carriers. Similarly, in Charles Burns’ Black Hole, teenagers are held responsible for the sexual transmission of “the Bug”, resulting in bizarre physical mutations and turning them into social outcasts, as they are too sexually careless. In both texts, human carriers are shunned and used as scapegoats for the outbreaks of varying diseases. By appointing an “otherness” to the infected characters, a divide is constructed between the internal and external, ultimately leading to their dehumanization.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Fever, 1793. Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. N.p.: Pantheon, 2008. Print.

Schell, Heather. “Outburst! A Chilling True Story about Emerging-Virus Narratives and Pandemic Social Change.” Configurations 5.1 (1997): 93-133. Web.