Style and Technique

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The style of the story in its serenity, its quiet setting, and its almost total lack of action well matches the calm control exhibited by Grace Ansley, who turns out to be the victor in the contest initiated by Alida Slade. Although the reader is told that Alida is the dominant, vivid personality, and she clearly takes charge of both the activities (or lack thereof) and the conversation, her attacks on Grace are quietly rebuffed, and she is finally the loser as they mutually reveal information about their past activities.

The story is carefully wrought, so that the shift in sympathy to the timid Grace occurs fairly early, and it comes as a surprise to learn that she was so unconventional in her behavior as to undertake an assignation with another woman’s fiancé. Then the final surprise, which is so quietly, and characteristically, announced to the arrogant Alida, serves to end the story with a dramatic flourish that has even more impact because it is so subdued.

Historical Context

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Old New York
‘‘Roman Fever’’ was written in the 1930s and is set in the 1920s, but the story's characters and values reflect the attitudes of upper-class society in New York in the last half of the nineteenth century. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are the product of that environment of affluence and relative ease. The author Wharton belonged to this circle and was able to make this society come alive in her story. In Wharton's world, families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts could be found at the height of the social ladder. In addition to this aristocratic class of people who came from old names and old money were the arrivistes. These arrivistes had earned their fortunes more recently and were often richer than the aristocrats. These members of high society entertained themselves by attending the theater and opera, by paying and receiving social calls, by attending lunch and dinner parties and house parties, by traveling abroad, and by summering in such fashionable spots as Newport, Rhode Island.

In this society, women were seen as moral judges. But, despite this important role, most families did not believe that girls needed to be educated. Instead, they felt that education should be acquired only for womanly purposes, for instance, to fulfill her future husband's needs. A woman's role in life was to be a homemaker, and her single-minded purpose was to make a good marriage.

American Women in the 1920s and 1930s
The roles and accepted forms of behavior of American women in the 1920s and 1930s changed. After decades of struggling, women had won the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Young women, known as "flappers," exerted their greater independence by wearing shorter dresses, wearing makeup, and cutting off their long hair into bobs. They drove cars, played sports, and smoked cigarettes in public. Young women also increasingly worked outside the home, which brought them greater economic and social freedom. When a woman married, however, she was expected to quit her job and function solely as wife and mother. Thus, despite the achievements of women and changes in society, the homemaker still remained the ideal of American womanhood.

American Writers Abroad
Wharton was not the only American writer to spend a significant part of her life abroad, traveling and writing. Many of the writers known as the Lost Generation, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in Europe during the 1920s. Gertrude Stein, an American, even hosted a salon in Paris, where some of the greater artistic names of the day met and discussed ideas. Many of the writers of the 1920s were haunted by the death and destruction of World War I. They also scorned middle-class consumerism and the superficiality of the post-war years. Expatriate writers often chronicled the changes that were rapidly taking place in society and culture, emphasizing the new standards that were emerging.

Italy in the 1920s and 1930s
Italy was undergoing many political and social changes in the 1920s and 1930s. Italians felt bitter about their experiences in World War I, particularly as the Versailles peace treaty failed to give Italy the
territory it wanted around the Adriatic Sea. In the years following the war, Italy entered a period of economic hardship, rising inflation, and workers' strikes. The government seemed incapable of resolving these problems. Under these conditions, Benito Mussolini emerged as a new and powerful leader. A strong nationalist, Mussolini founded Italy's Fascist Party, which rose to power in the early 1920s. Beginning in 1921, the Fascists and the Communists engaged in violent clashes. The situation in Italy quickly bordered on civil war.

Mussolini soon became the Italian premier. As early as 1925, he expressed his desire to create a complete dictatorship. He gained control of parliament and established a secret police. These measures allowed him to crush all dissenting members of society. Mussolini transformed Italy into a totalitarian state, meaning the government controlled all aspects of society, including politics, the economy, and culture.

Mussolini also expanded the Fascist Party's militia, and in the 1930s, he followed his plan for expanding Italy's territory and making the country an imperial power. In 1935, Italian forces invaded Ethiopia, and the African kingdom fell the following year. Italy also took control of Albania on the Adriatic Sea, and controlled territory in Northern Africa. Italy's increased aggression was coupled with the rise of a totalitarian government in Germany and the rise of militarism in Japan. By 1939, Europe was in the grip of World War II.

Literary Style

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"Roman Fever'' is set in Rome, Italy, around the mid-1920s. On the one hand, the ruins of Rome become the focus of Wharton's skill at descriptive writing. On the other hand, the ruins of Rome remind both women of an earlier time spent in Rome together when their friendship and rivalry both began. More generally Wharton shows the kind of life a woman of independent means could lead in Rome at that time.

The setting of Rome is contrasted with the home neighborhood of the two women on Manhattan's East Side in New York. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have lived across the street from each other so close that each woman knows all the mundane details of the other's everyday life. But this setting is too confining to allow them to communicate their true feelings. It is only in Rome that Mrs. Slade feels able to reveal the truth to Mrs. Ansley.

Point of View
The story is told from a third-person, omniscient point of view. This means that readers see and hear what the characters see and hear, and that readers are also privy to their thoughts. However, in this case, the interior life, motivations, and reactions of Mrs. Slade are revealed to a greater extent than those of Mrs. Ansley's. For example, readers know that Mrs. Slade decides to tell the truth about the letter Delphin was supposed to have written 25 years ago because she is envious of her rival and dislikes her, though at the same time she believes she is a good person. Readers also know that she regrets her words after she has said them. On the other hand, not much is revealed about Mrs. Ansley's motivation. Readers do not know, for instance, why Mrs. Ansley decides to reveal the truth about Barbara's parentage.

Although the story is relatively brief, it is divided into two sections. The first section provides the background and history of Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley. The second section develops the theme of the rivalry between the two women, concluding with the truth about Barbara's parentage. The two parts also represent the past and the present.

In the first part of the story, Mrs. Slade notes Mrs. Ansley's odd emphasis on the personal pronoun me when she talks about the view of Rome from the terrace. She also notes Mrs. Ansley's emphasis on the personal pronoun I when she says ‘‘I remember’’ in response to Mrs. Slade's comment about the summer they spent in Rome as girls. Although Mrs. Slade attributes this emphasis to Mrs. Ansley's being old-fashioned, the emphasis really alludes to Mrs. Ansley's fond memories of the time she spent with Delphin.

In the second part of the story, Mrs. Slade's musings show that she is gearing up toward something more significant than a simple conversation about malaria. At one point, she watches Mrs. Ansley knitting and thinks, ‘‘She can knit—in the face of this!'' The reader wonders what this refers to, since up to this point the women are simply having a casual conversation about the past.

Symbolism and Imagery
Wharton makes use of a number of symbols and images to reinforce the emotions of the story. The ruins that the two women are gazing at of the Palatine, the Forum, and the Colosseum symbolize the ruins of these women's perceptions of themselves and each other. Mrs. Ansley calmly knits, which would seem to be the staid activity of a middle-aged woman, but what she is knitting is described as ‘‘a twist of crimson silk.'' Her knitting can be said to represent the passionate and more frivolous side of her nature. Also, the women's actions can be viewed symbolically, to indicate their feelings toward the conversation and each other. As soon as Mrs. Slade starts to talk about their shared past, Mrs. Ansley lifts her knitting ‘‘a little closer to her eyes,’’ thus shielding herself and her reactions from Mrs. Slade. However, when Mrs. Slade learns that Mrs. Ansley did meet Delphin at the Colosseum, it is Mrs. Slade who must cover her face and hide her deepest emotions. In fact, by the end of the story, the power structure has changed, as shown by Mrs. Ansley's actions. After revealing the truth about Barbara's father, she ‘‘began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the stairway.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Malaria is a life-threatening, infectious disease. For instance, in 1914, around 600,000 Americans died after contracting malaria, primarily in the Mississippi River valley and along the East Coast. However, some of these fatal cases of malaria arose because doctors used the disease to treat another fatal disease, syphilis.

1990s: The World Health Organization estimates that there are 300 to 500 million cases of malaria reported each year, resulting in 1.5 to 2.7 million deaths. In developing countries, malaria is one of the leading causes of sickness and disease. The occurrence of malaria has actually risen in many countries in the last half of the 20th century. However, malaria poses little threat to western countries, such as the United States and Italy. In 1992, the United States reported 910 cases of malaria, but only seven of these were acquired in the country. Many of these cases occur among immigrant populations.

1920s and 1930s: Italy's government is based on totalitarianism, meaning the government controls all aspects of society, including the economy, politics, and culture. Benito Mussolini rules Italy with dictatorial power.

1990s: Italy practices a parliamentary republic. The prime minister of Italy is the head of the ruling party, while the president functions largely as a ceremonial figure. Throughout the decade, Italy's government has been somewhat unstable, changing ruling parties numerous times.

1920s and 1930s: Although figures are not available for the number of children conceived out of wedlock in the 1920s and 1930s, social stigma was attached to illegitimacy. In the early 1920s, Wharton wrote a story about a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock. This story was rejected by almost every magazine to which it was submitted, because the subject matter was too unpleasant. The number of births to unmarried women has steadily increased from 5.3 percent of the population since the mid-1900s, so perhaps the number of illegitimate births in the 1920s and 1930s was around or less than 5.3 percent of the U.S. population.

1990s: Of U.S. women giving birth, 28 percent, or 1,165,384, are unmarried. The number of illegitimate births has grown by 60 percent since 1980. While some people still attach stigma to illegitimacy, illegitimacy has become an accepted part of American culture, as witnessed by the number of famous single women who have children and by the willingness of people to talk about such matters, for instance, on talk shows.

Media Adaptations

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Roman Fever is a one-act opera based on Wharton's short story; the music is composed by Robert Ward and the vocal score is written by Roger B. Brunyate. It was published by ECS Publishing in 1993.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Butcher, Fanny, A review of The World Over, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, April 25, 1936, p. 10.

Goodman, Susan, Edith Wharton's Women, Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990.

Hutchinson, Percy, A review of The World Over, in the New York Times, April 26, 1936, p. 6.

Lewis, R. W. B., Edith Wharton, A Biography, New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

McDowell, Margaret B., Edith Wharton, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Petry, Alice Hall, "A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton's 'Roman Fever,’’' in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1987, pp. 163-166.

Review of The World Over, in Punch, May 6, 1936, p. 130.

Wharton, Edith, The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, edited and introduced by R. W. B. Lewis, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed., Edith Wharton, New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
A collection of critical essays on the works of Wharton.

Dwight, Eleanor, Edith Wharton, An Extraordinary Life, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
An overview of the life and times of Wharton. Includes personal correspondence and photographs.

Lewis, R. W. B., Edith Wharton, A Biography, New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
A comprehensive work about the life and literature of Wharton.

McDowell, Margaret B., Edith Wharton, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
A critical overview of Wharton's writing.

Nevius, Blake, Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.
Discounts prevailing critical thought and presents insightful criticism of Wharton's work.

Wharton, Edith, Collected Letters of Edith Wharton, edited by R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, New York: Scribner's, 1989.
Collection of 400 annotated Wharton's letters.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Presents a psychological biography of Wharton, as well as criticism.


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Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1997.

Bell, Millicent, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bendixen, Alfred, and Annette Zilversmit, eds. Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992.

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. 1994. Reprint. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. New York: Abrams, 1994.

Fracasso, Evelyn E. Edith Wharton’s Prisoner of Consciousness: A Study of Theme and Technique in the Tales. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Gimbel, Wendy. Edith Wharton: Orphancy and Survival. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Lindberg, Gary H. Edith Wharton and the Novel of Manners. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Pennel, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Edith Wharton. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Singley, Carol, J., ed. Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Singley, Carol, J., ed. A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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Critical Essays