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In Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever", Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley engage in a psychological and verbal power struggle over an event that occurs in their past: a supposedly-orchestrated joke in which a young and single Alida (Mrs. Slade) falsely leads Grace, the future Mrs. Ansley, into an encounter with Slade's then fiance, Delphin.
Throughout the story we notice how each woman tries to outdo the other in terms of how this incident was planned, failed, or achieved. In the end, Mrs. Ansley "wins" the debate when she tells Mrs. Slade that Ansley's daughter, Barbara, is actually the daughter of Delphin; Slade's dead husband.
Mrs. Slade gave an unquiet laugh. "Yes, I was beaten there. But I oughtn't to begrudge it to you, I suppose. At the end of all these years. After all, I had everything; I had him for twenty-five years. And you had nothing but that one letter that he didn't write."
Mrs. Ansley was again silent.[...]
"I had Barbara," she said, and began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the stairway.
With this line, Wharton leaves the future of Slade's and Ansley's friendship up to the reader's opinion: Could these women be friends after such a confession? Could their daughters remain as close as they seem to be?
Considering the story's historical context, chances are that the women will remain civil to each other and that, somehow, Slade will either ignore or deny what Ansley tells her. However, we can rest assured that she will never forget it.
The story teaches us the importance of neither taking things for granted, nor at face-value. Just when we think that we are in control of every aspect of our lives, we fail to realize that there are many other forces at work that affect our lives just as powerfully: we are not in control of anything, or anybody. The only thing we can really control in life is not our husbands, or our children, but our own actions and choices. That is the importance of the central theme of the story.
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