Critical Overview

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‘‘Roman Fever’’ was first published in 1934 in Liberty magazine; two years later, Wharton included it in her final short story collection, The World Over. At the time, a few years before her death, Wharton was a literary star, both in the United States and abroad. As such, the story collection received reviews from newspapers and magazines ranging from the The New York Times to the Saturday Review of Literature. The majority of reviewers found the collection to be, on the whole, a pleasing and successful representation of Wharton's work. Fanny Butcher pointed out in the Chicago Daily Tribune that although many contemporary readers tended to think of Wharton primarily as a novelist, The World Over served as a "fresh reminder of her incomparable skill in the short story.’’ Percy Hutchinson, writing for the New York Times, found that the collection proved that Wharton's reputation as a "master'' of the short story art form could not be tarnished.

Many reviewers also singled out ‘‘Roman Fever’’ for special praise. Punch magazine found "Roman Fever" "worth re-reading, after an apparently unproductive first perusal, for the sake of the final sentence on which its every word converges.’’ Butcher declared that of the stories in the collection, "there are three which any writer might envy and which few could equal." "Roman Fever’’ was one of these. Other publications, such as the New Statesman and Nation and Catholic World, also agreed that ‘‘Roman Fever’’ was the best story in the collection.

Over the decades, Wharton biographers and critics have made note of "Roman Fever'', but have varied in their evaluation of the story. As early as 1959, Marilyn Jones Lyde claimed the story to be one of Wharton's best works. Almost 20 years later, Cynthia Griffin Wolfe, in A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, agreed with this assessment. Neither of these authors explained why she felt the story was so successful. In 1970, Geoffrey Walton expressed a different opinion: ‘‘'Roman Fever' is a very light comedy that can be taken as a kind of farewell skit on the decorum of the great days.’’ Yet Walton also found that the story presented a ‘‘glimpse of an unexpected kind of sophistication.’’

More recently, particularly as interest in the works of Wharton has increased, the body of contemporary criticism has grown. However, as Alice Hall Petry points out in her essay, ‘‘A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton's 'Roman Fever',’’ ‘‘[It] is curious that so widely-anthologized a work has generated such a paucity of critical interpretation.’’ She categorized earlier criticism as "tepid.’’ She then examines in her essay how a minor element of the story, the act of knitting, can be seen as a way of ‘‘appreciat[ing] the complex art of 'Roman Fever.’’' Petry believed that Wharton used knitting in a particularly "provocative" manner, indicating Wharton's interest in developing a technique that, as stated by the critic E.K. Brown, shows that she cared "about the processes of art.’’

Another recent essay, Lawrence I. Berkove's ‘'‘Roman Fever': A Mortal Malady,’’ explored the angle of the moral landscape represented by Wharton: ‘‘the story, besides being artistic, is a powerful exemplum about the dangerous susceptibility of human nature to the mortal diseases of the passions.’’ Berkove discussed the moral standards evinced by Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, and concluded by declaring that ‘‘Roman Fever" "is a reminder that art as great as [Wharton's] is not only an aesthetic accomplishment but also a way to come to grips with the causes and cures of the maladies of the human soul.’’

Petry's calls for "serious critical attention'' for ‘‘Roman Fever’’ have yet to be answered, but readers seem to view the story as a complex, refined work of art.

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Essays and Criticism