What is the symbolic meaning of "the colosseum" in the short story "Roman Fever"?


Roman Fever

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sagetrieb's profile pic

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As in many of her stories, here Wharton uses space, interior and exterior, to communicate both theme and something important about her characters. The coliseum is an artifact of an earlier day, both in the larger historical and ideological sense—a time when men fought and ruled each other brutally—but also a time that the two women spent together in Rome, “when their friendship and rivalry both began.” Here, now, in visiting Rome again, they can talk to each other, unlike when, at home in America, their privileged lives across the street from each other prevented such communication. This space proves both confining in its domesticity and divisive by class that regulates behavior in such a way that real communication is not possible. It is only in Romethat Mrs. Slade feels able to reveal the truth to Mrs. Ansley. This truth is that she sent Mrs. Slade a letter that tricked her into meeting Mrs. Ansley’s fiancé at the time, hoping she would catch the “Roman fever” and die.  Just as the men competed for their lives in the coliseum years ago, so these two women competed against each other for men in the same location. Wharton weaves together themes of rivalry and friendship through this symbol.

amy-lepore's profile pic

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It is also worth mentioning that the ironic ending completely reverses the position of the two women.  Mrs. Ansley, who has been feeling superior to Mrs. Slade all these years, is suddenly aware that she has been living a lie.  Mrs. Slade's daughter is more vivacious and lively than Mrs. Ansley's...this has been one source of displeasure in Mrs. Ansley's life as she wished her own daughter was as lovely and accomplished and noticeable.  It is not until the end of the "confrontation" about the meeting so many years ago in the colosseum that Mrs. Ansley is told that Mrs. Slade's lovely and vivacious daughter is Mr. Ansley's daughter as well...a product of that secret meeting so many years ago.  What an amazing twist!

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