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 talent in 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 tolerated¾and 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 climax¾Mrs. Slade's confession of forgery and Mrs. Ansley's
shocking announcement¾delivers 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 other¾actually as well as figuratively¾for 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, three¾slip 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
"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.