Roman Fever Themes
by Edith Wharton

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of the story refers to malarial fever, which was prevalent in Rome before the draining of the swamps around the early nineteenth century. This fever was much feared by American tourists, especially those who had young, fragile daughters who might succumb to the ravages of the disease. The chances of contracting the disease were increased greatly after dark, when the mosquitoes that spread the infection were most active. Symbolically, the title also refers to the fever pitch of the passions that were engendered in the two women when they visited Rome as nubile young girls. The surface serenity and static nature of the plot provide ironic contrast to the gradual revelation of the intense emotions that the two women experienced when they were in Rome before.

The story contrasts the abiding hate of Alida Slade with the abiding love of Grace Ansley. Alida’s cruelty and hatred, aroused by her fear that Delphin might be attracted to Grace, prompts her finally to reveal her trickery to the other woman. Her intention was clearly to humiliate the other and to bask in her triumphant superiority. Grace reveals, at Alida’s goading, that the trickery not only did not work but also was actually the impetus for the birth of Barbara, the child for whom Alida has envied Grace ever since the child was an infant.

Friendship and companionship are superficial social amenities as depicted in this story. Strong emotions are suppressed or at least concealed in favor of outward tranquillity and smooth social relations. However, the deep, hidden emotions have nevertheless driven these women to actions that shaped their lives and characters in profound ways.


(Short Stories for Students)

Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been friends since they first met as young women in Rome, when Alida (Mrs. Slade) was engaged to Delphin Slade. This friendship forms the enduring tie between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley. However, their friendship is undercut by the deeper, hostile feelings they have for each other, feelings that they hardly dare to admit. Because each has something to hide about the early days of their friendship, they have not been honest with each other in their friendship.

In addition, their friendship has not been very intimate, despite their similar backgrounds and close proximity to each other on same street in New York. Mrs. Slade, in particular, strongly dislikes Mrs. Ansley, because of Mrs. Ansley's love for Delphin. She has made fun of Mrs. Ansley to their mutual friends, and she believes that Mrs. Ansley has led a much duller life than she and Delphin. At the same time, however, she cannot shake her envy of Mrs. Ansley. Mrs. Ansley, on the other hand, believes that ‘‘Alida Slade's awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks.’’ She also believes that Mrs. Slade must be disappointed with her life, alluding to undisclosed failures and mistakes.

The competitive nature of their friendship reaches a climax one afternoon in Rome. As Mrs. Slade views the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome, she cannot help but remember the anger she felt at Grace's (Mrs. Ansley's) love at the time for her fiance. She confesses, after 25 years, that she had lured Grace to the Colosseum by forging a note from Delphin. Mrs. Ansley's repsonse to this confession that Barbara is Delphin's child completely alters the relationship between the women.

Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been rivals throughout their long friendship. Sometimes this rivalry is expressed subtly, as when Mrs. Ansley says that the view upon the Palatine ruins will always be the most beautiful view in the world "to me," as if she alone is privy to the glories of Rome. Sometimes the rivalry is expressed directly through the women's thoughts. For example, Mrs. Slade compares herself directly to Mrs. Ansley. She believes that her widowhood is more difficult than Mrs. Ansley's widowhood, for she had led a full, active life as the wife of an...

(The entire section is 1,009 words.)