In "Roman Fever," how does Edith Wharton criticize the double standard of Puritan morality in the American society?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his essay, "'Roman Fever':  A Mortal Malady," Lawrence Berkove writes,

Wharton’s genius, it turns out, is moral as well as aesthetic; the story...is a powerful exemplum about the dangerous susceptibility of human nature to the mortal diseases of the passions.

Within the setting of Wharton's narrative, the Victorian Age, women were expected to be the moral center of the family and act at all times with decorum. Thus, the pleasures of the flesh were to be controlled as wives must act as exemplary mothers and spouses.  Thus, while there were the emerging "flappers" after the turn of the century, much of the Puritanical decorum was yet in place for the high society of New York in the early 1900s, known as The Gilded Age.

In order to escape this confining code of conduct that demanded complete control of human feelings, members of high society in the Gilded Age sojourned in Europe where the Puritanical code did not exist.  There, in a location as ancient Rome, a society of cloistered violence and repressed hatred and anger could find its oulet. Moreover, in this site of pagan and primal passions, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley as young women and again as matrons have been able to pursue their carnal urges and satisfy their hatred.  For, on the terrace at dusk, they recall the "spring effulgence of the Roman skies" of many years past as they now examine the "great accumulated wreckage of passion and splendor at [their] feet."

Thus, begins the conversation between the "two old friends" who have really been bitter rivals in love.  Still, there is the jealousy between them regarding Delphin Spade.  For, while Alida Slade prides herself upon her treacherous letter and the winning of Delphin Slade as a husband, Grace Ansley has the secret revenge of having given birth to his daughter, whom she has named Barbara.  The venting of their passions in the city that was both savage and the beginning of Western civilization is also the release of the two women's violent treatment of each other and revelations, a far cry from Puritanical decorum. Clearly, the history of Roman treachery is repeated in the proper Victorian women who sit and watch the horizon as the sun descends upon the Old World.

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