Alexa Stephens Truth and Envy in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever”

June 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

Edith Wharton published an enticing tale of two older women looking back on their pasts titled “Roman Fever” in 1936, only a year prior to her own death. The short story took place in Rome with both women looking out onto what is called “Memento Mori”, or reminder of human mortality. After years of not seeing each other, Mrs. Grace Ansley and Mrs. Alida Slade decided to share a well over due lunch. After civil conversations about the lives they led, the two begun to delve deeper into certain issues that have developed decades before. Twenty-five or somewhat years ago, Grace had been having an affair with Alida’s fiancé, Delphin. When Alida became aware of the situation, she forged a letter under Delphin’s name in hopes to lure Grace out into the cold where she would wait for Delphin until she fell ill and died. However, Grace wrote in response to Delphin and met him where they engaged in sexual activity. That night, Grace fell pregnant with Delphin’s child. The dramatic climax and surprise ending in “Roman Fever” fed into the worldly idea that the truth will always prevail, and that envy can be a cruel and terrifying thing.

To touch on the idea of envy, throughout the entire story, there is a hint of jealousy between the two women. More so, this jealousy is prominent in Alida. She spoke of how her daughter bored her, and how she would much rather have had a daughter like Grace’s. She said, “I always wanted a brilliant daughter… and never quite understood why I got an angel instead” (123). Alida went on about how her daughter, Jenny, was nothing like Grace’s beautiful daughter. Alida, at one point, even undermines Grace by believing there is an underlying motive to why the two daughters spend time together. Alida thought to herself, “Jenny has no chance beside her. I know that too. I wonder if that’s why Grace Ansley likes the two girls to go everywhere together? My poor Jenny as a foil…” (123). The apparent jealousy is so strong in Alida that she carried it over into her daughter’s life. Grace probably had other means in mind as to why the two girls should hang out together, none of which had anything to do with using Jenny as a foil. The envy that Alida carries over Grace’s daughter is somewhat troubling to the reader. She mentioned how she would love to have a daughter like Barbara, while her own daughter should have been the light of her life. Alida most definitely wanted Barbara to be her own. As it turns out, Alida’s jealousy over Barbara played a key stroke in this short story since Barbara is found out to be the product of Grace’s and Delphin’s affair. Meaning that Barbara, in a sense, could have been Alida’s child had Grace not have seen Delphin that one night twenty-five years prior; had Alida never wrote that letter under Delphin’s name calling upon Grace to come to the Colosseum. In some ways, Alida is the reason that Delphin and Grace had a sexual encounter, meaning that she is the reason Barbara was ever born.

The end of the tale carried out envy to a larger level. As the story moved on, Alida’s jealousy became more and more apparent, and in effect, more and more dramatic. At one point near the end, it was revealed that the letter Grace received from Delphin was actually written by Alida In her heat of envy and anger when she found out of the affair, Alida basically plotted the death of Grace. Under Delphin’s name, she requests Grace to meet her at the Colosseum after dark alone. Alida knew that Grace would have waited hours for Delhpin to show, and ultimately would have fell ill and died. Also in telling Grace that she was the one who wrote the letter, she was trying to gain an upper hand. James Phelan wrote in his article, “Alida wants to triumph over Grace”. Alida wanted Grace to know that she knew everything, and that Grace knew very little. More of Alida’s jealousy came out when she explained why she wrote the letter. “’You do understand? I’d found out – and I hated you, hated you. I knew you were in love with Delphin – and I was afraid; afraid of you, of your quiet ways, your sweetness… your … well, I wanted you out of the way, that’s all” (126). Alida was afraid that Grace had the ability to steal her fiancé from her, as if people could be stolen. She needed to find a way to cement her place with Delphin, and with Grace in the picture, Alida felt as though she never had a fighting chance.

The string of envy and jealous rage led into the idea that the truth would always prevail. Alida was determined to be ahead of Grace with every step she took, however, it turned out that Grace was never even walking the same path. “The story, in effect, shows the lingering effects of the past on the Present,” Phelan wrote. “More specifically, as the tensions surrounding the events of twenty five years ago slowly get resolved, we also recognize that both Alida’s and Grace’s knowledge of those events has been partial.” As mentioned above, Grace never knew that Alida was actually the one who wrote the letter, and Alida saw that as her advantage. Alida thought the affair between Grace and her fiancé ended there. However, Grace revealed at the end of the story that she wrote back to Delphin, and that night at the Colosseum he had arrived to meet her there. Alida, in yet another fit of rage and envy, said, “At the end of all these years. After all, I had everything; I had him for twenty-five years. And you had nothing but that one letter that he didn’t write” (128). Alida believed again that she had the last laugh, the last word, and the upperhand. She believed that the truth had been revealed, and that was that. But in a shocking ending, Grace replied, “I had Barbara” (128). The truth was finally uncovered and Alida was left with envy over the daughter made from her fiancé’s and best friend’s affair. “As the story closes, Grace realizes that she has the upper hand, having not only slept with Delphin, but also given birth to the daughter whom Alida so covets” (Petry 166). All of the time Alida spent trying to convince Grace that she knew all of the truth, and that she held all of the power, turned out to be an unforgiving mistake. Grace, despite not knowing about the letter, knew what had actually happened that night at the Colosseum, and what she left there with to have forever. These two women never knew the whole story, until it all came out twenty-five years later over lunch in Rome.

This short story displayed an overall theme of how cruel envy could be, and also represented the idea that the truth would always come out in the end. Both Alida and Grace lived the majority of their lives believing that their side of the story was the only side, which turned out to be wrong on both their parts. Most of Alida’s actions were fueled by her jealousy; whether it be over Grace’s personality, her looks, or her daughter. Alida’s envy almost led to Grace’ intentional death. Grace knew nothing of Alida’s involvement in the affair and never even thought to share to her what had went on. Somehow, it all became clear and it would be fair to believe that Alida’s jealousy never ended, and probably never will. As for Grace, it is clear that she came out on top, whether she chose to view it that way or not.

Works Cited

Petry, Alice Hall. “A Twist Of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’.” Studies In Short Fiction 24.2 (1987): 163-166. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 31 Aug. 2015.

Phelan, James. “Progressing toward Surprise: Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever.’.” Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2007. 95-108. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 120. Detroit: Gale, 2009. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 Aug. 2015.

Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever.” The Norton Production to Literature. 11th ed. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 118-128. Print.

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