Characters Are Not What They Seem

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In 1934, the renowned author Edith Wharton, who had been writing for close to 50 years, published her memoirs, A Backward Glance. She had attained widespread critical and popular acclaim almost three decades earlier, with the publication of the novel The House of Mirth. The book quickly became a bestseller, earning Wharton $30,000 in 60 days and solidifying her reputation as a writer of merit. Wharton enjoyed a rich career, publishing 26 novels and novellas (including two after her death), 11 collections of short stories, nine works of non-fiction, and three volumes of poetry. Wharton's writings were enjoyed by readers in her own day, and in the 1980s and 1990s. Wharton's literary standing rose dramatically as new readers and critics rediscovered her writings.

In 1934, Wharton visited Rome. In many ways, this trip was not a success. Wharton had been hoping to visit parts of Italy she had not seen in 20 years, but when she arrived in Rome, she came down with the flu and had to spend the next two weeks in bed. The trip, however, did lead to what Wharton's biographer R.W.B. Lewis dubbed ‘‘another instance of backward glancing.’’ After this trip, Wharton wrote what many critics and readers feel is one of her best short stories, ‘‘Roman Fever." The story centers on two middle-aged widows sitting on a hotel terrace overlooking the ruins of the Colosseum. Although they appear to be old friends, their intimacy masks a lifelong rivalry, caused by a love triangle. When they were young women, Grace (Mrs. Ansley) fell in love with Alida's (Mrs. Slade's) fiance, Delphin. Over the years, Mrs. Slade hid her resentment over Mrs. Ansley's love for her fiance, but she has never forgotten it, and her long-suppressed anger finally emerges. She reveals her role in the conflict: she wrote a letter to Grace (Mrs. Ansley), asking her to come to the Colosseum one night, and signed Delphin's name. Mrs. Ansley appears to be broken-hearted by the news, but she reveals a surprise of her own. She wrote Delphin back, and the two young people met that night; their meeting resulted in the conception of Mrs. Ansley's daughter, Barbara.

‘‘Roman Fever’’ shows that appearances are not what they seem; nearly every preconceived notion the women have of each other, as well as each of the reader's preconceptions, is overturned. At the same time, the story reveals a great deal about the expected roles of women in the early part of the century: that of passive onlookers, content to abide by society's rules and live out prescribed roles. As the story opens, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade appear to be little more than "two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age'' sitting on a terrace in Rome. The conversation of their daughters, whose voices are overheard from the courtyard below, further emphasizes the role of the older women: ‘‘'[Let's] leave the young things to their knitting' and a voice as fresh laughed back: 'Oh, look here, Babs, not actually knitting!’’ The daughters can conceive of no more engrossing activity that might interest their mothers. Indeed, Mrs. Ansley almost immediately and "half guiltily'' drew her yarn and needles from her bag, thus fulfilling her daughter's prophecy.

Although the two women are seemingly content to wile away the afternoon peacefully on the terrace, their private thoughts are less tranquil. Mrs. Slade considers her friend a "nullit[y]" and a ‘‘museum specimen,’’ while Mrs. Ansley believes Mrs. Slade to be "brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks.’’ These private thoughts indicate both that the woman are not truly such good friends and that they are capable of keeping long-held secrets. The interior thoughts also show Mrs. Slade to be resentful of what the world has offered her. After her husband's death, she found life had become a "dullish business.’’ Without the dynamic and successful Delphin, an international corporate lawyer, Mrs. Slade finds her role in the world to be greatly diminished. Instead, she now exists merely as "mother to her daughter.’’ That daughter, Jenny, is yet another source of discomfort, for she is a quiet girl, one ‘‘who somehow made youth and prettiness as safe as their absence.'' Although she does not admit it, Mrs. Slade would prefer to have a daughter like Mrs. Ansley's Barbara, who is vivacious and vibrant.

This brief interlude, Part I of the story, shows how an older woman in the 1920s, who did not have the freedom allowed to younger girls, was defined primarily by her interactions with her husband and children. Although Mrs. Slade had compared herself to her husband ‘‘as equal in social gifts,’’ without him, she is relegated to sitting on a terrace in Rome, or in New York, for that matter, watching others go on with the adventure of their lives. Barbara and Jenny, members of the younger generation, are embarking for an afternoon with eligible Italian aviators; and other travelers, who have also been lunching, demonstrate an interest in the Roman environment by ‘‘gathering up guide-books.’’ For Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, however, the primary diversions are knitting, a potential bridge game, and conversation, all activities that could be carried out at home in New York City. Mrs. Ansley even verbalizes their feelings of doing nothing new. '‘‘[S]ometimes I get tired just looking even at this.' Her gesture was now addressed to the stupendous scene at their feet.’’ Mrs. Ansley, however, rejects her own challenge, merely returning to her thoughts.

In Part II of ‘‘Roman Fever,’’ Mrs. Ansley's and Mrs. Slade's true feelings about each other are revealed. The two are not as good friends as they would appear. Mrs. Ansley (then single) was willing to destroy the bonds of friendship by developing, and following up on, romantic feelings for the fiance of Mrs. Slade (also then single). Mrs. Slade recognizes the enormity of this transgression when she prods Mrs. Ansley, '‘‘But I was the girl he was engaged to. Did you happen to remember that?’'’ When Mrs. Ansley admits to remembering this, Mrs. Slade reiterates her point with the words, '"And still you went?''' Clearly, Mrs. Slade cannot understand why Mrs. Ansley made such a choice. What is more surprising is their pretense for all these years, when both of them know how Mrs. Ansley broke the rules of friendship in pursuing a relationship with Delphin.

Mrs. Slade shows that her hatred toward Mrs. Ansley took on murderous proportions that summer long ago when she brings up Mrs. Ansley's great-aunt Harriet, who sent her younger sister to the Colosseum because they were both in love with the same man. The younger sister caught malaria, more romantically known as Roman fever, and died, and the tale became family folklore used to frighten children. ‘‘'And you frightened me with it, that winter when you and I were here as girls. The winter I was engaged to Delphin.'’’ The obvious reason that Mrs. Slade would be frightened would be of getting sick. But if she did not go out at night, when the cold air could dangerously chill the body, she would have no cause to fear for her health. Thus, the implied reason for her fear is that she would use this knowledge against someone else. This is exactly what she does, when she lures Mrs. Ansley to the Colosseum one night with a note falsely signed by Delphin.

Mrs. Slade's actions indicate that holding on to her man was more important than holding on to her friend. While she could be justified in making such a decision, particularly because Mrs. Ansley held no scruples in pursuing a relationship with Delphin, she takes risks with Mrs. Ansley's health and life. Although she claims that she had no idea Mrs. Ansley would get so sick, Mrs. Slade, in her own words, acted out of a "blind fury.'' Reasoning knew no bonds when it came to protecting her engagement from the ‘‘quiet ways," "the sweetness,’’ of Grace (now Mrs.) Ansley. In so doing, Alida (now Mrs. Slade) also protected her future prosperity, for Delphin proved himself to be an extremely capable provider.
Mrs. Ansley's response to Mrs. Slade's provocation is more astonishing. She reveals that she had an affair with Delphin that night. Although she married soon afterwards apparently taking to her bed not because of illness but because of her precarious and embarrassing condition: the child she gave birth to, Barbara, was Delphin's. In revealing this information, Mrs. Ansley shows that since that moment she has lived out her life as a lie. It can be fairly assumed that Mrs. Ansley did not share this news with anyone; Mrs. Ansley's mother's rush to get her daughter married demonstrates the importance of keeping the pregnancy secret. Wharton had also previously dealt with the issue of illegitimacy in stories in which the true parentage of the child was covered up. As R.W.B. Lewis put it, ‘‘The situation of Grace Ansley's whole lifetime is revealed in a single phrase.’’

Mrs. Ansley's confession, presented in an assertive manner and accompanied by the assertive action of ‘‘mov[ing] ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the staircase,’’ profoundly alters Mrs. Slade's perception of her. Not only has Mrs. Ansley betrayed a friendship (though Mrs. Slade had already done so), she has acted in a manner that completely defies societal codes. Mrs. Ansley's confession also gives Mrs. Slade more pause for thought. For there is also the implication that Jenny's lack of brilliance comes not from Delphin, who produced Barbara, but from Mrs. Slade.

In her book Edith Wharton's Women, Susan Goodman maintains that the rivalry between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley feeds their sense of intimacy. Because both women define themselves through their relationship with the other and through their competition for Delphin, their identities are "collaborative’’ and "interdependent." For the complex relationship between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley alone, "Roman Fever'' could well merit the appreciation of decades of readers. As Margaret B. McDowell points out, "Those who have re-read the story many times are still startled by the force and power of its compressed narrative as the women suddenly see beyond their familiar assumptions.’’

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Roman Fever: A Mortal Malady

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‘‘Roman Fever,’’ judging from the frequency with which it is included in anthologies of short stories and American literature, is undoubtedly one of Edith Wharton's most respected stories. Edith Wharton, too, has been the subject of a recent revival of interest. It is therefore surprising that the story has received so little critical attention. First published in Liberty magazine in 1934 and subsequently collected in her anthology, The World Over (1936), it is generally considered one of the finest achievements of her ‘‘remarkable final creative period’’. In one of the most recent articles on it, Alice Hall Petry demonstrates evidence of the story's artistic composition, but surprisingly little was done before her article and nothing has been done since to suggest what ‘‘Roman Fever’’ is artistic about. Wharton's genius, it turns out, is moral as well as aesthetic; the story, besides being artistic, is a powerful exemplum about the dangerous susceptibility of human nature to the mortal diseases of the passions.

To think of ‘‘Roman Fever’’ as a satire on the manners of the American upper class—more particularly as an expose of the bitter rivalry that cankered the lives of two society matrons beneath their veneers of supposed gentility—is to see Edith Wharton as a critic of manners, but there are even greater depths in both the story and the author. Far more central to the story than who comes out on top in the viciously catty final encounter of the two women are the moral issues at stake. The offenses committed are serious. Not only do the women violate standards of decency and social custom, but in the course of their lifetime of silent combat against each other, they also negate their marriage vows, poison their lives with hatred and deception, and—even more importantly—verge upon murder.

One clue to the ominous level of immorality in the story is implicit in its title. ‘‘Roman Fever’’ refers, in part, to a local term for malaria. Before the disease was scientifically understood, it was believed that malaria was caused by exposure to "bad air'' such as was thought to gather around marshes at night when the wind died down. Rome encompassed some marshland, including the ground on which the Forum and the Colosseum were built, and such places were regarded as dangerous, even deadly, after sunset during malarial seasons.

Another, related clue is quietly presented with seeming irrelevance in the story when Alida Slade reminds Grace Ansley of her great-aunt Harriet—a ‘‘dreadfully wicked’’ woman ‘‘who was supposed to have sent her young sister out to the Forum after sunset to gather a night-blooming flower’’—with the result that the girl caught "Roman fever'' and died. Aunt Harriet's real motive, confessed years later, was murder. Both she and her sister were in love with the same man, and Harriet maliciously deceived her sister/rival into going to the Forum, hoping to get her out of the way with malaria. Although the incident was a familiar part of Grace's family history, Alida knew of it when both women were young and single and living in Rome, and both remembered it on the fateful night recalled in the story.

The clues add up to attempted murder on Alida's part when several apparently independent incidents are linked in their proper chronological sequence and the reader is able to reconstruct the true picture. First, immediately after reminding Grace of Aunt Harriet, Alida admits that her own passionate love for Delphin Slade—then her fiance and later her husband—‘‘was why the story of your wicked aunt made such an impression on me. And I thought: 'There's no more Roman fever, but the Forum is deathly cold after sunset ... And the Colosseum's even colder and damper.'’’ Alida, it turns out, was aware that Delphin and Grace were attracted to each other, so to get her rival out of the way, she forged a note from Delphin to Grace asking her to meet him alone at the Colosseum after dark. More than twenty-five years afterward, Alida is able to repeat every word of the letter, but there is no need because Grace has also memorized it. For Alida, the memory of the letter is sweet because it accomplished its purpose: "People always said that expedition was what caused your illness.’’ Alida feels no guilt, however, because "you got well again—so it didn't matter.’’

This statement is grimly ironic. ‘‘[S]o it didn't matter'' blurs the fact that Alida, having sent Grace to a place more than ‘‘deathly cold,’’ directly purposed murder. Later, Alida confesses her awareness of what she was doing, although she couches it in a defensive protest: ‘‘Of course, I never thought you'd die,’’ but this is contradicted by her active and long-standing hatred of Grace as well as by her action. Alida consciously and deliberately repeated the act of Aunt Harriet and hoped at the time for the same consequence to result. That Grace did not die does not exculpate Alida; the malicious intention was there. It mattered a lot.

The statement is also ironic in light of the outcome of Grace's "illness." Until the story's climactic moment of mutual confession, both women have kept secret certain parts of the episode that, when put together, reveal and explain essential aspects of their lives since. Grace does not know until Alida tells her that it was Alida and not Delphin who wrote the letter appointing a meeting place. Alida does not know until Grace tells her that Grace's "illness" was not malaria but pregnancy. Grace, assuming that Delphin had written the letter, had sent him a note in reply. The next-to-last thing Grace tells Alida in the story is that she "didn't have to wait that night’’—Delphin came.

With this, Alida recognizes that her victory over Grace was not quite as full as she had supposed, but she still believes that she came out ahead: ‘‘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.'' This provides the opening for Grace's final retort: ‘‘I had Barbara.’’

In the context of the story, this admission has to be devastating to Alida on multiple levels. Alida feels that her daughter, Jenny, has an excess of virtue. She is too nice, too boringly straight-laced, too angelic. All her married life, Alida has envied the two "nullities,’’ Horace and Grace Ansley, their attractive and vivacious daughter. But now she knows that Grace's daughter is also Delphin's daughter. That has to be a terrible shock. She also must realize that inasmuch as Jenny and Barbara have the same father, the genetic difference has to have come from her. If Jenny is less "brilliant" than Barbara, this reflects—negatively—on her own contribution to Jenny. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it means that her victory over Grace was hollow.

Thus far, Alida Slade appears the villain of the story and Grace Ansley the innocent victim, but Grace, despite her name, is not entirely virtuous, either. Alida "fears" Grace for her quiet ways and "sweetness," but Grace's final retort to Alida is vengeful, and Grace has to have known how deadly it would be. That she might have been, in a measure, driven to the remark by Alida's pressure does not alter the fact that it reveals a capacity and even a talent for malice. It also reveals the fact that her
ladylike appearance is only a veneer; at heart, she is proud of having been attractive to Delphin and having had his child, even out of wedlock.

This in turn reveals what kind of lie Grace has lived for a quarter of a century. She was two months pregnant when she married Horace Ansley under pressure from her mother. There is no mention of love for Horace. On the contrary, it is obvious that Grace has never stopped loving Delphin. Were she and Horace married under false pretenses? Indeed, one wonders what sort of man he was either not to have been aware somewhere along the line that a seven months' pregnancy was suspicious, or not to have minded being drafted to marry Grace for appearance's sake. Grace has also kept from her own daughter the secret of her true father—another lie to match the cover-up of her own illicit romance with another woman's fiance. One must also wonder what sort of man Delphin Slade was to have agreed to a tryst with his fiancee's friend, to have succumbed so quickly to her charms, and to have kept this a secret from his wife. How much had he really loved Alida? Finally, one must wonder again at Grace's character, not just for having been infatuated with Delphin but also for having kept from him the truth about his relation to Barbara, for having lived as a wife with a man she does not love, and for having cherished for twenty-five years her dirty little secret about why her daughter outshines Alida's.

‘‘Roman Fever’’ opens with two ‘‘American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age'' looking down upon the "outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum.’’ Several pages later, the same scene is described as a ‘‘great accumulated wreckage of passion and splendour.'' In light of the later description, the earlier one must be regarded ironically. Only sentimental minds would deny the wreckage and think only of the glories of ancient Rome. The central action of the story takes place in the Colosseum, a place where gladiators fought. Unbeknown to themselves, Alida and Grace continue the gladiatorial tradition. They have been relentless and unscrupulous, using their bodies, their husbands, their daughters, and their lives of lies as weapons to score on each other. In the name of love, they have been rivals for twenty-five years and sought to kill each other, one literally and the other figuratively.

Edith Wharton not only reveals these women to be little better than savages at heart but also reveals what makes them so: the primitive motives and crude pride that serve them for morality. At this
point, "Roman fever'' acquires another, ironic, and dark connotation: the moral disease of pagan Rome. Rome was the center of a pagan as well as a Christian culture; it remains in the story a place where a choice is made between the two extremes of pagan self-indulgence and fevered passion, on the one hand, and Christian submission to God's laws and institutions, on the other. Nominal Christianity, Wharton shows, is no Christianity at all. In not governing their passions, the two women merely revert to becoming gladiators—sophisticated, perhaps, but pagan. Attempted murder is the ultimate step in their moral degradation, but it does not occur out of the blue; the way Alida and Grace have conducted their entire lives prepares the way. In selecting two such women to be the protagonists of ‘‘Roman Fever’’ Wharton demonstrates her distance from the position that women are by nature morally superior to men. She also conveys her seriousness about the moral standards that women as well as men must obey to rise above the natural human tendency to savagery.

There are moral depths in Edith Wharton's fictions that have yet to be examined. Beneath her social criticisms lies another level of values, a surprisingly traditional Christian one. "Roman Fever’’ is not at all an isolated instance of how Wharton's sense of morality may surface in her stories; rather, it is a reminder that art as great as hers 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.

Source: Lawrence I. Berkove, '‘‘Roman Fever': A Mortal Malady,’’ in The CEA Critic, Vol. 56, No. 2, Winter, 1994, pp. 56-60.

A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"

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Probably Edith Wharton's best-known short story is ‘‘Roman Fever,’’ the product of a 1934 trip to Rome, and the most enduring tale from her uneven late collection entitled The World Over (1936). It is curious that so widely-anthologized a work has generated such a paucity of critical interest, and even more curious that the few appraisals which it has received have been so tepid: Geoffrey Walton, for example, simply dismisses it as ‘‘a very light little comedy that can be taken as a kind of farewell skit on the decorum of the great days.’’ More appreciative are Cynthia Griffin Wolff and Marilyn Jones Lyde, both of whom—without explaining the bases of their appraisals--find the story to be one of Wharton's best works. But "Roman Fever'' is considerably more substantial than Walton's remark would suggest, and Wolff’s and Lyde's appraisals can—and should—be explored at length. One way that we can begin to appreciate the complex art of "Roman Fever'' is to examine Wharton's handling of what might at first appear to be a minor element in the story: the act of knitting.

That knitting will occupy a special position in ‘‘Roman Fever’’ is signified at the outset by the simple fact that it is the first matter to receive attention in the story. Grace Ansley and Alida Slade overhear their young daughters discussing them:

‘‘... let's leave the young things to their knitting’’; and a voice as fresh laughed back: ‘‘Oh, look here, Babs, not actually knitting—'" 'Well, I mean figuratively,’’ rejoined the first. ‘‘After all, we haven't left our poor parents much else to do....’’

Since Wharton had asserted in the brief introductory paragraph that Grace and Alida were ‘‘two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age'', it is apparent that their daughters' appraisal of them as ‘‘young things’’ is mocking. The implication clearly is that the ladies are physically, emotionally, and intellectually capable of nothing more than the traditionally passive, repetitive, and undemanding task of knitting. By having the daughters patronize their mothers in this fashion, Wharton is predisposing the reader to perceive the ladies as stereotypical matrons; and the rest of the story will be devoted to obliterating this stereotype, to exposing the intense passions which have been seething in both women for more than twenty-five years.

A major rupture in the stereotype is the simple fact that (the daughters' remarks notwithstanding) Alida Slade does not knit at all. This unexpected situation focuses the reader's attention more intensely on Grace Ansley, whose apparently passionate devotion to knitting ultimately will enable us to probe the psyches of both women and to reconstruct the remarkable events of a generation before. The complex relationship between Grace and knitting is evident in her first action in the story: "Half-guiltily she drew from her handsomely mounted black handbag a twist of crimson silk run through by two fine knitting needles’’. The sentence presents two distinct aspects of Grace's character. The phrase "half-guiltily'' is in keeping with the persona she has presented to the world throughout her adult life. ‘‘Smaller and paler’’ than the assertive Alida, Grace is ‘‘evidently far less sure than her companion of herself and of her rights in the world''. The "evidently" is eloquent, for although Grace may seem embarrassed by her hobby, the physical objects themselves tell a far different story about her: she has chosen "crimson" silk, an insistently passionate color; and the skein has been ‘‘run through'' by needles, a startlingly assertive image. The sensuality and forcefulness suggested by her knitting materials will help to render plausible her passionate moonlight tryst with Delphin Slade twenty-five years earlier, as well as her capacity to stand up to the vicious taunts of Alida, the "dark lady'' of the piece.

Quite early in the story, then, knitting has ceased to be a general symbol of complacent middle-age: it is rapidly becoming a complex personal emblem for Grace, and in fact one may gauge Grace's mental state according to how she manipulates her knitting materials. This element first becomes obvious in the second portion of the story, wherein Grace recognizes instinctively that she and Alida have reached, "after so many years, a new stage in their intimacy, and one with which she did not yet know how to deal’’. That intimacy is far from positive: both women recognize that Alida is very much in control of the situation, steadily steering the conversation to the matter of the love triangle in which they had been involved so many years before. Grace's response to Alida's catty remark that Rome is '‘‘so full of old memories''' is to begin knitting: ‘‘She settled herself in her chair, and almost furtively drew forth her knitting. Mrs. Slade took side way note of this activity, but her own beautifully cared-for hands remained motionless on her knee''. The aggressive Alida needs nothing to occupy her hands, but the guilt-ridden Grace—predisposed to "fidget"—uses her knitting as a physical means of containing her growing stress, of maintaining some semblance of order in a situation not in her control. As Alida continues to press her advantage, ironically lamenting how much modern girls were "missing'' out on in disease-free, twentieth-century Rome, Grace "lifted her knitting a little closer to her eyes''—not simply because "the long golden light was beginning to pale’’, but also because it serves as a physical barrier behind which to protect herself from Alida's probing. Closely aligned with this, the knitting offers Grace an ideal excuse for responding neither immediately nor extensively to Alida's painful interrogation. Further, it enables her to avoid making eye contact with her tormentor:

‘‘When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in—didn't they?''

She turned again toward Mrs. Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. ‘‘One, two, three—slip two; yes, they must have been,'' she assented, without looking up.

Alida Slade's reaction to this is noteworthy:

Mrs. Slade's eyes rested on [Grace] with a deepened attention. ‘‘She can knit—in the face of this!''

Alida's palpable annoyance suggests that Grace's knitting is more than just an evasion tactic: those needles are effective psychological weapons against a woman who is deliberately tormenting her for having once loved Delphin Slade. In fine, the fact that Grace knits under duress indicates that she is vastly different from the pale, cringing matron of the story's opening paragraphs.

As the strength of character of which the knitting is an emblem becomes more insistent, Grace gradually begins to rely less upon it. Alida's "hardly audible laugh’’ over Grace's imagined use of drab Jenny as a foil for lovely Barbara causes Grace, for the first time, literally to drop her knitting. Her ‘‘'Yes—?'’’ is virtually an offer of an open confrontation, and Alida seems to back down: '‘‘I—oh, nothing'’’; but Alida's painful questioning of how the "exemplary" Ansleys could have produced the exquisite Barbara is momentarily too much for Grace: ‘‘Mrs. Ansley's hands lay inert across her needles. She looked straight out at the great accumulated wreckage of passion and splendor at her feet''. Instinctively, Grace then attempts to regain her composure by knitting—an act which Alida ironically misinterprets:

Mrs. Ansley had resumed her knitting. One might almost have imagined (if one had known her less well, Mrs. Slade reflected) that, for her also, too many memories rose from the lengthening shadows of those august ruins. But no; she was simply absorbed in her work.

The temporarily thwarted Alida accelerates the process of steering the conversation to the winter evening twenty-five years earlier when the letter brought Grace to the Coliseum; and it is the fact that Alida can ‘‘'repeat every word of the letter'’’ which causes Grace to stand up: "Her bag, her knitting and gloves, slid in a panic-stricken heap to the ground''. To a certain extent, Grace's mental state (panic) is being projected onto the physical objects with which she has been associated throughout the story; but more importantly, her anxiety—like her knitting—is falling away. Alida Slade is frankly stunned by Grace's emotional strength: ‘‘Mrs. Ansley met the challenge with an unexpected composure’’; '‘‘I shouldn't have thought she had herself so well in hand,' Mrs. Slade reflected, almost resentfully’’. For the first time in the story, Alida is at the disadvantage, waiting "nervously for another word or movement,'' and Grace's revelation that she had indeed met Delphin at the Coliseum causes Alida to cover her face with her hands—just as Grace had once hid behind her knitting. As the story closes, Grace realizes she has the upper hand, having not only slept with Delphin, but also given birth to the daughter whom Alida so covets. Grace's newly dominant status is signified by changed body language (previously, Alida always stood above—and looked down upon—Grace; now, Grace "began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade’’ toward the stairway; but more importantly, Grace is no longer associated with knitting. She departs the restaurant terrace apparently without bothering to pick up her dropped knitting materials. Further, she wraps her throat in a scarf—not a knitted scarf, but one of sensuous fur. And as a subtle underscoring of the reversal of the two women's roles, it is the defeated Alida who picks up her hand-bag--presumably to do some knitting (of the usual, mundane sort) of her own.

In its way, the act of knitting is as vital to ‘‘Roman Fever’’ as is, say, the pickle dish to Ethan Frome. That so seemingly benign an activity can be utilized in so provocative a fashion is indicative of Wharton's particular interest in technique—‘‘an interest which makes ... her shorter pieces of fiction suggestive to the reader who cares, as she did, about the processes of art.'' Far from being "a very light little comedy," "Roman Fever’’ is a complex work of art, richly deserving serious critical attention.

Source: Alice Hall Petry, ‘‘A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton's Roman Fever, ’'’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 163-6.

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Critical Overview