Roman Fever” is an outstanding example of Edith Wharton’s theme to express the subtle nuances of formal upper class society that cause change underneath the pretense of stability. Wharton studied what actually made their common society tick, paying attention to unspoken signals, the histories of relationships, and seemingly coincidental parallels. All of these factors contribute to the strength and validity of the story of Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley.
“Roman Fever” at first strikes the reader as the simple, rather dull story of two middle aged women sitting on a veranda. The inactiveness of the situation appears to be evident in Mrs. Slade’s comment, “Well, I don’t see why we shouldn’t just stay here”, reflecting that she and Mrs. Ansley have nothing else to do but to sit through the afternoon, overlooking Rome (779). Nothing seems to be going on in this opening sequence, yet nothing could be farther from the truth. The two women have been involved in a battle for the past twenty years, whether they were fully aware of it or not. Subtle signs, such as Mrs. Ansley’s slight stress on herself with her response, “It always will be, to me” (779), and Mrs. Slade’s recollection of a joke she made years ago regarding her friend’s home being raided for a speakeasy express to the reader the feeling of unrest, distrust, and dislike that exists beneath the genteel surface of the relationship of the two women (780). She thinks of Jenny Slade, the child of a couple that prided themselves on their exceptional social graces own mother as “a little boring” (781), a description she also considered for Mrs. Ansley when recalling that she “had grown bored” with Mrs. Ansley’s mundane life long ago (780). Barbara Ansley, on the other hand, was everything that Jenny Slade was not. Mrs. Slade wondered how such a beautiful, exuberant young woman came to be, “with those two nullities as parents” (780). The reader might consider how it seems that the mothers and daughters were mismatched, a concept that is clever foreshadowing by the author, hinting at the scandal and instability lurking underneath the facade of morality and perfection worn by Slade’s and Ansley’s upper class society.
By noting the subtitles of human conditions under the stress of strict societal control, Edith Wharton created literature that is true to the society she portrayed. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley probably would have liked to cause each other bodily harm, yet their society ruled that such behavior would not be tolerated. Therefore, they buried their feelings and expressed them only in subtle movements and off the cuff remarks, bits and pieces of communication that most people would overlook. However, Wharton realized that these fragments composed the only true communication and therefore composed the real story of Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley.
Wharton takes the much-admired upper crust of society and exposes them, not in a hurtful world, but an objectively world. Wharton writes: “I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t in the least know what they are,” said Mrs. Ansley. “And perhaps we didn’t know much more about each other.”(780) This one passage serves as a direct commentary on both the bonds of friendship and family life. Wharton’s language is objective, straightforward. The character speaks these alarming words, not the writer, and the statement carries the tone of fact without any melodrama involved. The two women had been discussing their time as young women in Rome, the night, the moonlight–all part of a very romantic setting with two Italian men on their arms. But with this comment, Mrs. Ansely seems to say all that glitters…and Wharton lets the reader come to his own conclusion.
Late in the story, Wharton writes: “It was a big drop from being the wife of Delphin Slade to being his widow…”(781) This entire passage paints a marriage based not on love, respect or commitment, but one based on status and wealth. Wharton shows a woman who lived her life for prestige, and now is left to feel the loneliness and emptiness that accompanies that life. This is a woman who rattles around the big house, full of possessions, and with nothing else to console her. And of course, as the story progresses to its brilliant and inevitable conclusion, Wharton skillfully continues on her path of breaking down the romantic illusion of the upper class. Roman fever may be a metaphor for transgress sexuality, for sexual rivalry, or even for the hostilityamong women that the social pressures of courtship catalyzes. Wharton’s fiction is famous for defying unitary interpretations, and this story is no exception.
Petry, Alice Hall. “A Twist of Scarlet Silk: Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever.'” Studies in Short Fiction 24, no. 2 (1987):