The story is written to both describe and inform. Wharton describes the Roman ruins and the areas in Italy where the families visit and stay beautifully. She also describes the characters of the families with special attention to Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade. The story focuses on what happens and what happened in Rome rather than in New York since the setting of Rome is more free--representative of girlhood whimsy rather than stifling New York confinement. It is only in Rome that Mrs. Slade can tell Mrs. Ansley the truth about the letter written 25 years ago, and where Mrs. Ansley can throw the truth of Barbara's parentage back at Mrs. Slade like a lead anvil.
The story is divided into two parts--the first where we get the background of the two women and that Mrs. Slade is envious of her "friend". The second where the tone changes and we, the reader, become aware that something more serious is in the works--at one point Mrs. Slade watches Mrs. Ansley knitting and thinks, ‘‘She can knit—in the face of this!'' So we know that she has a deep secret she is about to reveal and the tension is building between them far beyond casual conversation.
There is definitely a balance of power between the two women which shifts in the second part of the story. Mrs. Slade has the upper hand at first, being more wealthy and "important". After Mrs. Ansley reveals that Mr. Slade is her daughter's dad, she is the dominant one.