Roman Fever Essays and Criticism
by Edith Wharton

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Characters Are Not What They Seem

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 5,421 words.)