Discuss the irony and the symbolic significance of the title "Roman Fever". What moral lesson, if any, can be taken from the story?
The term "Roman Fever" is an old one for malaria. The title is a form of verbal irony because "Roman Fever" has a dual meaning: on the surface, it means malaria but it also symbolizes Alida's raging, disease-like jealousy of Grace Ansley that she has harbored for all of these years. This story is loaded with irony. Alida Slade has had, in some sense, what appears to be a more successful life than her "friend" and she tries to convince herself she has no reason to be jealous. With some good foreshadowing, the author leads us to believe that Alida does not really believe this, deep down, that there is some reason why she is jealous of Grace. Grace's daughter, Barbara, for example, is much more vivacious and lively than Alida's daughter. The jealously that she has harbored against Grace for all of these years has wound up, in the end, destroying her, like a disease, not her friend.
We find out that Alida tricked Grace into going to the Colosseum to meet Delphin (who was Alida's fiance at the time) by writing a phony letter that was supposed to be from him. She was so jealous that her reason was affected, however, because she did not count on Grace answering the letter, which she did. When Delphin got the letter, he went to the Colosseum to meet Grace because he obviously was in love with her, just as Alida had suspected.
The irony is that while Alida thought she was going to make Grace sick by being out late at night in the cold, she really made herself sick, not only with her jealousy, but she caused her fiance to meet Grace, make love, and have a child with her. Barbara is really the child of Delphin. All of these years, Alida and Delphin have lived across the street from Grace and her husband Horace, not knowing that Barbara was Delphin's daughter. Alida cannot understand how the unremarkable Grace and even more unremarkable husband, Horace, could have had such a lively, beautiful daughter. Now she knows.
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Edith Wharton's title "Roman Fever" is symbolic of the passionate hatred and jealousy felt by Alida Slade, as well as the sexual passion experienced by Delphin Slade and Grace Ansley. The name for the dangerous night air of the Roman Forum which often brought on malaria in people, "Roman fever" was what Grace Ansley was expected to have caught after she went to the Forum to meet Delphin Slade. Ironically, however, the primary achievement of this night of feverish passion between Grace and Delphin Slade is the birth of the beauty named Barbara Ansley. The resulting birth of a dynamic and beautiful girl is not what Alida Slade anticipated would happen when she forged a letter to induce Grace Ansley to go to the Forum.
In a further irony, each of the two women have each looked "through the wrong end of her little telescope" at the other. Alida Spade is envious of Grace for having such a beautiful and intriguing daughter, a daughter who would not have been born if her mother were not sent by the forged letter that Alida wrote. "I always wanted a brilliant daughter . . . and never quite understood why I got an angel instead," Mrs. Spade remarks to her friend that she envies. As they move from the parapet toward the stairway, Mrs. Ansley reveals the final irony that "her daughter Barbara is also the daughter of Delphin Spade."