The relative presence or absence of literary “realism” in the setting of Edith Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever” is an intriguing issue. The Cambridge Companion to Literature in English, edited by Iam Ousby, lists the following traits as especially typical of nineteenth-century “realistic” fiction:
- an emphasis on “representing the world as it is rather than as it ought to be, with description rather than invention”
- an emphasis on “authentic details”
- an emphasis on “the function of environment in shaping character”
- an emphasis on “the present or the recent past”
- an emphasis on presenting “everyday scenes as objectively as possible in loy-key, unrhetorical prose”
- an emphasis on “drawing its characters from all social levels”
- an emphasis on using “colloquial speech in its dialogue”
Wharton’s story opens by describing two apparently well-off American “ladies” who dine while overlooking “the lofty terrace of [a] Roman restaurant.” A headwaiter is mentioned, and, after one of the ladies tips him, the narrator reports,
The headwaiter, bowing over her gratuity, assured her that the ladies were most welcome, and would be still more so if they would condescend to remain for dinner.
Later in the story, past sickness is associated with a visit to the Roman Coliseum, but later still, this description of the present is offered:
The clear heaven overhead was emptied of all its gold. Dusk spread over it, abruptly darkening the Seven Hills. Here and there lights began to twinkle through the foliage at their feet.
The setting of the story might be described as “realistic,” then, in a number of ways: in its emphasis on the present; in the accuracy of the relatively few descriptions of the landscape; in its reference to a waiter who welcomes being tipped; and in its emphasis on description rather invention. On the other hand, the settings in this story are for the most part highly attractive; the characters are mainly upper-class; and the two women seem at least as much in control of their environments as their environments have influenced them.
Wharton’s realism, then, seems closer to the realism of Henry James than to the realism of someone like Ambrose Bierce. Little wonder, therefore, that Martin S. Day, in his two-volume History of American Literature, calls Wharton a realist influenced by “classicism.”