18 September 1996
Interpreting Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"
Definitive criteria for judging the success or failure of a work of fiction are not easily agreed upon; individuals almost necessarily introduce bias into any such attempt. Only those who affect an exorbitantly refined artistic taste, however, would deny the importance of poignancy in literary pieces. To be sure, writings of dubious and fleeting merit frequently enchant the public, but there is too the occasional author who garners widespread acclaim and whose works remain deeply affecting despite the passage of time. The continued eminence of the fiction of Edith Wharton attests to her placement into such a category of authors: it is a recognition of her propensity to create poignant and, indeed, successful literature. The brevity of her "Roman Fever" allows for a brilliant display of this talent3/4in it we find many of her highly celebrated qualities in the space of just a few pages. "Roman Fever" is truly outstanding: a work that exposes the gender stereotypes of its day (1936) but that moves beyond documentary to reveal something of the perennial antagonisms of human nature.
From the story's first sentence, upon the introduction of two women of "ripe but well-cared-for middle age," it becomes clear that stereotypes are at issue (Wharton 1116). This mild description evokes immediate images of demure and supportive wives, their husbands' wards. Neither woman is without her "handsomely mounted black handbag," and it is not until several paragraphs into the piece that Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley even acquire first names (1117). Thus, without even disclosing any of the ladies' thoughts to the reader, Wharton has already revealed a great deal of their personal worlds. They live in a society which expects women to act largely as background figures, thoroughly engaged with furthering their husbands' careers and the constant struggle to remain pretty. Indeed, little else is desired or even tolerated3/4and Grace Ansley and Alida Slade appear, at first glance, to conform to this image perfectly.
As the workings of the characters' minds are revealed, the extent to which they have internalized these values becomes apparent. Each, in their brief description of the other, mentions that her acquaintance was quite beautiful in her youth. Alida recalls how much she enjoyed having been married to a famous lawyer; she misses being "the Slade's wife" (1119). Startlingly, now that their husbands are dead, we find that the women consider themselves to be in a state of "unemployment" (1118)!
But just as it begins to seem as if these women have wholly adopted their societally prescribed personas, one begins to see deviations from the stereotype. "Alida Slade's awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks," decides Mrs. Ansley (1119). One had begun to expect these "ripe but well-cared-for" women capable only of suitably "feminine" mediocrities, but this comment reveals an insightful intellect hidden beneath the personality's surface. Mrs. Slade, worrying that Mrs. Ansley's daughter "would almost certainly come back engaged to the extremely eligible Campolieri," and concerned that her own daughter may be serving "as a foil" for the young Ansley's beauty, reveals the grim seriousness with which a woman was forced to take marriage (1121, 1120). One begins to realize the lengths to which females put themselves in order to conform to a decidedly cartoonish gender role as Wharton begins to expose the shortcomings and paradoxes of this sexual stereotype.
The story's climax3/4Mrs. Slade's confession of forgery and Mrs. Ansley's shocking announcement3/4delivers the coup de grâce to society's outmoded impositions upon females. The myth of sedate and subservient women is exploded as one realizes them fully possessed of those traits previously held to be the exclusive property of men: cunning, ruthlessness, and deceit. Wharton's story is groundbreaking in its presentation of two female characters who are not defined, first and foremost, by their sex, but by their species. "Roman Fever" allows its women to be human, but, alas, all too human.
Here, however, is the reason behind the piece's continued success. Not content with simply an exposé of the tribulations of her times, the author has infused the story with an ageless significance. Grace and Alida, the two ladies who "had live opposite each other3/4actually as well as figuratively3/4for years," serve also as symbols of the ongoing conflict between those two fundamental divisions of the human psyche: introversion and extroversion (1118).
Alida Slade, the "fuller and higher in color" of the two, is outgoing and excitement loving, a classic extrovert (1117). Few social nuances escape her notice, and she always looked forward, when married, to "the impromptu entertaining of eminent colleagues from abroad" (1119). She finds life as a widow so dull that she wishes her daughter would fall in love, "with the wrong man, even," simply so "that she might have to be watched, out-maneuvered, rescued" (1119). Grace Ansley, "the smaller and paler one," on the other hand, is a much more solitary, introverted figure (1117). She is "less articulate than her friend," and her lack of overconcern for others can be seen in her "mental portrait[s]," which are "slighter, and drawn with fainter touches" than Mrs. Slade's (1119). Indeed, she is sufficiently withdrawn into her thoughts that even as Mrs. Slade begins to steer the conversation to a discussion of that fateful night when Mrs. Ansley went to the Colloseum, we find that "the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting." "One, two, three3/4slip two," is her only initial comment (1120).
Wharton's treatment of this theme is fascinating and insightful. We find that Mrs. Slade, despite her dismissal of Mrs. Ansley as "tame and estimable," chides herself for the fact that she will "never cure herself of envying her" (1118, 1121). Mrs. Ansley, furthermore, regards Alida's life as "full of failures and mistakes" (1119). Mrs. Slade has imagined for years that her letter-forging scheme successfully removed Mrs. Ansley from competition for Delphin, but we find that, in reality, in backfired upon her in the worst of all possible ways. Ultimately it is Grace Ansley, the more reserved of the two, who has the last word and who suffers the smallest defeat.
The author's interpretation of the conflict between outgoing and solitary personalities amounts to the defusing of another myth. Mrs. Slade, precisely because of her gregarious nature, is wholly dependent on society to find enjoyment in life. Alone and in her middle age, she is constantly observing others to glean their view of her. Despite her self-confident ways, she is trapped within the traditions of society and is thus the more conventional of the two. Mrs. Ansley is revealed as a character who has become self-dependent and able to overcome societal pressures. Grace, with her knitting needles and quiet demeanor, establishes the introvert as the more radical character.
"Roman Fever," then, is a work deserving of its place among acclaimed literature. Its brevity, rather than stifling artistry, serves instead to showcase the skill of an adept author. It is a multifaceted story and will doubtless continue to be enjoyed by future generations.
Wharton, Edith. "Roman Fever." 1936. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul
Lauter, et al. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Lexington: Heath, 1994. 1116-1125.