Compare the description of Slade and Ansley in "Roman Fever".How does the contrast between these two characters enhance the irony in the story?Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" describes the interaction between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley as they sit on a Roman terrace. Their conversation is intermingled with the women's (especially Mrs. Slade's) thoughts and opinions about one another. The two women, who have been friends since they were young, have both lost their husbands, and both have daughters, are characterized as different from one another in a way that builds to a stunning conflict and conclusion at the end of the story.

Early on, the two characters are mostly distinguished by their differing demeanors: Mrs. Slade is more "energetic," and certainly more outspoken. She enjoys socializing and has a strong personality. Mrs. Ansley, on the other hand, is meeker, "old-fashioned," less sure of herself, and "exemplary." Her daughter, Barbara, is more vivacious, while Mrs. Slade's daughter, Jenny, is "perfect." Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley reflect that they do not know one another very well, even after so many years of friendship. The women "visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope." Their true lack of knowledge of one another comes to a head in the second part of the story.

Mrs. Slade—after nursing a simmering envy and hatred for Mrs. Ansley, who is calmly knitting on the terrace, for most of the story—decides to reveal the truth about a long-held secret: Mrs. Slade's husband, Delphin, did not write a letter to Mrs. Ansley before they had been married. Mrs. Slade herself wrote the letter to lure her friend there and prove that her friend had feelings for her soon-to-be-husband. Mrs. Ansley, normally very cautious, went out at night and ended up becoming violently ill as a result. Mrs. Slade tells Mrs. Ansley that she wrote the letter, not Delphin. Mrs. Ansley is upset, revealing her remaining feelings for Delphin. However, it turns out that Mrs. Slade actually does not have the trump card. Mrs. Ansley replied to the letter, Delphin met her, and, apparently, Barbara is Delphin's daughter. The end of the story reveals that Mrs. Slade has underestimated her friend completely. She thought she was weak and timid, but really, Mrs. Ansley is the one who ends the story with a complete bombshell. Both women give each other information that will change their memories and even their lives forever, but it is Mrs. Ansley's revelation that has the stronger impact.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" it seems odd that such a woman as Grace Ansley would even care to travel to Rome. For, she presents the picture of the proper middle-aged widow, knitting and glancing at the Roman view with the calmest of exteriors.  In contrast to Mrs. Slade, who is

fuller, and higher in color, with a small determined nose supported by vigorous black eyebrows,

Mrs. Ansley is smaller and paler and speaks in less superlative tones, "much less articulate" than her old friend, whom Mrs. Slade, "very dashing" as a young woman, considers "old-fashioned" and

far less sure than her companion of herself and of her rights in the world.

However, as they sit together in anticipation of watching the moonlight illuminate the night view of Rome, Mrs Ansley remarks ironically,

I've come to the conclusion that I don't in the least know what they [the daughters] aare....And perhaps we didn't know much more about each other.

Her verbal irony continues, "I never should have supposed you were sentimental, Alida."  The two ladies sit quietly and reflect how little they knew each other.  Both give the appearance of decorum and gentility, but under those corsets there were seething emotions in both as young woman although they were so "guarded" as Mrs. Ansley reflects.  In fact, the guardness of Mrs. Slade, who attempted to be surreptitious--anything but sentimental--by forging her husband's note to Grace Ansley, had her plan backfire as she, indeed, did not know much about her social friend, or even enough about her husband, who found Grace exciting. 

The irony of the denouement of Wharton's story is certainly enhanced by the descriptions of Mrs. Ansley as perceived by Mrs. Slade.  Staid and proper, lacking an exuberance of personality, Mrs. Ansley certainly surprises both Alida Slade and the reader when she reveals her passionate night in Rome with Delphin Slade, a night that produces the vivacious daughter Barbara.