In 1931 the author herself took part in the voyage depicted in the novel. It lasted for one month and according to her she didn't exchange half a dozen words with anybody but kept taking notes all the time. Then she let the material rest for ten years, took it up again and worked on the book for about 20 years more - the result has become world literature. Is it still of interest today?
Porter draws a picture of pre-war society, especially of Germany, for it is a German ship bound from Vera Cruz for Bremerhaven and the passengers in the first class are mainly Germans, almost all of them nationalist and anti-Semitic, narrow-minded and arrogant, so that there are lots of reasons for conflicts. Another explosive element is the gender-specific behaviour of men and women of that time. Relentlessly pungent, sometimes desperately comic Porter characterizes gender-typical behaviour of that time. And it becomes clear that her own emancipation experiences lie at bottom, especially in the case of the American Mrs Treadwell. In a grandiose scene the latter beats up the drunk, sexually roused, repulsive Texan Denny with the sharp heel of her sandal. Last, but not least, there lies immense fuel for conflict in the social and religious differences. But even if the satire is no longer of topical interest and sometimes luridly and grotesquely exaggerated, many of the attitudes and ways of behaviour in a somewhat different form have lived on into our times and you always get a universally relevant picture of human society. For, firstly, apart from the Germans there are also other nationalities, other social classes present - indeed you have a downright political and social microcosm -, and, secondly, the passengers in spite of often being drawn as caricatures are always recognizable as human beings by being multi-faceted characters who are in most cases also suffering from their own shortcomings. The only Jewish passenger on board (Löwenthal), by the way, is presented as an especially repellent character equalling his opponents in arrogance and contempt.
The vital element in the book is the realistic, caustic style of the author revealing her attitude of profound disillusionment. What is especially admirable is how she can put herself into men's shoes and see the world from their points of view. Doing so she oscillates between the points of view of the omniscient author, reported speech or interior monologue. Also the protagonists comment and characterize each other permanently so that the reader is elevated into a superior position wondering : why is there almost never any real communication possible? Must every society be like that? What should/could/must be different?