Roman Fever and Other Stories
Literary Realism: Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever”
In the short story, “Roman Fever,” Edith Wharton portrays a daily life situation between two wealthy middle-aged women talking in Rome. The morals and struggle of upper-class women to succeed and stand out at that time period are revealed in the story. This story fits with the literary movement of Realism due to the realistic portrayal of common everyday life for women in society. It demonstrates hypocritical friendship, the rivalry between high-class women, betrayal among “friends”, and the superficial ideas of middle-aged women.
Realism’s primary concern is championing the “small” lives of unexceptional human beings and representing the necessity for socioeconomic reforms outside the text in the “real” world (Hirsch 676). “Roman Fever,” an example of realism, reflects the real lives of high-class women in the eighteen hundreds. It starts with two American ladies who had known each other for a very long time, sitting at a restaurant table. Grace Ansley and Alida Slade were both widows. They had married Horace Ansley and Delphin Slade respectively. From the beginning of the story, it is shown that their friendship is not very sincere. Mrs. Slade thought Mrs. Ansley was old-fashioned (Wharton 874). Mrs. Ansley, on the other hand, thought that Mrs. Slade had an overall sad life. She considered it to be filled with failures and many mistakes to the point that she pitied her (Wharton 875). Most of her life, Mrs. Slade had envied Mrs. Ansley for her sweetness. She truly hated her, and their friendship was nothing more than a mask. They had both fallen in love with the same man. Delphin Slade was an example of a successful man in society. He was a famous cooperate lawyer and probably desired by many women at the time so it is very probable that these two friends would fall in love with him. It was not morally correct but can happen in a real-life situation. People can pretend to be friends with one another and be the complete opposite as much as they could love the same person. Human error is natural.
Another thing that is noticeable in “Roman Fever” is how these two women competed against each other like most humans do. They each wanted the perfect man, the perfect children, and the perfect life. They judged their success based on the person they married and the children they had. Since Mrs. Slade had married Delphin, she considered herself to be the winner of the competition. She was proud of the false letter she sent to Mrs. Ansley in order to get her out of the way. However, she was disappointed at the fact that her daughter was not brilliant like Barbara. She described her daughter as an angel, but Barbara was an angel with rainbow wings (Wharton 877). Mrs. Slade’s feeling of triumph had finally collapsed when she found out that her groom to be had not only met with Ms. Ansley that night but that he had also given Ms. Ansley a child (Wharton 881). Even with these terrible revelations, none of them really won. It does not have a happy ending, which is a more realistic point of view. Life is full of surprises, and not all of them are good.
Betrayal, for example, is a terrible thing to find out yet can happen to any individual anytime if they are not careful with whom they trust. Mrs. Slade was betrayed by two people in the story. She was betrayed by Delphin and Grace. Ideally, it would have been better for Mrs. Slade to leave Delphin and find a man who truly loves her and respects her. Realistically though, divorce was not well looked at and she had more than one motive to stay with him besides love. It was greed and envy that led her to marry him. She wanted to keep Delphin and defeat Grace no matter what happened. Even though it may be sad, people do marry others because of economic interests and social status. Mrs. Ansley was not innocent either. She had betrayed Mrs. Slade regardless of the connection they had. She had fallen in love with him passionately enough that she did not care to lose a friend in order to have a night with him. People usually think about their own benefits before thinking of others.
One last detail reflected in the story is the idea that women did not serve for much more than “knitting” at an older age. Women were suppressed to marry young and have children. They were not encouraged to follow a profession such as writing. They were supposed to stay home and dedicate themselves to their children or keep themselves occupied by cooking, laundry, cleaning, knitting, and any other house activity. In other words, “Of all the crossroads in the life of a woman, becoming a mother is one of the most powerful and most political. Raising a daughter in a society that has been largely constructed by white men and is still, for the most part, run by them and their desires is a political act” (Jones 218). Men had a lot of control over their wives, and Edith Wharton also portrayed this in some of her writing.
Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” described many aspects of day-to-day life not limited to wealthy women, but can also be found in every human being. Realism tries to show the most truthful representation of the world and “Roman Fever,” does this very well. It demonstrates how humans are not morally perfect and how we can make mistakes that harm ourselves and other people as well.
Alexa Stephens Truth and Envy in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever”
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.
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.
Egocentrism Inhibits Camaraderie in “Roman Fever”
Throughout Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” Mrs. Alida Slade experiences the consequences of an inflated ego as she fails to fully understand her companion, Mrs. Grace Ansley. She is consumed with egocentric priorities, like superiority, deception, and jealousy. While Slade’s egocentrism can be interpreted as purely superficial vanity, this story proves it to be a deterrent to true friendship in “Roman Fever” in its entirety, by making honesty, equality, and selflessness nonexistent qualities in her relationship with Ansley.One core aspect of any friendship is a sense of equality and shared experience with the other individual. Despite the fact that they live parallel lives, Slade’s egocentrism pushes her to believe that she is in fact superior to Ansley. The two “…had been intimate since childhood…” and “…lived opposite each other – actually as well as figuratively- for years”. These two women have both known a privileged New York lifestyle, love and loss of a husband, and motherhood. Slade recognizes these similarities, but fails to attribute the likeness to equality. Instead, she constantly places herself on a high pedestal. She reflects that “she felt her unemployment [the death of her husband] more than poor Grace ever would”. Here, it is evident that Ansley has more self-pity than empathy for the suffering of others. She casts the Ansley’s possible pain aside, under the assumption that the change was much more detrimental for her. Also, in her reflection she describes her companion as “poor Grace”. In context, this phrase does not indicate sympathy or compassion, but rather it takes on a patronizing tone. Slade describes her as “poor” in a way that belittles Ansley and suggests that the circumstances of death cannot come as a shock to one that already lives a life of disappointment.Furthermore, the assumption that Ansley leads a life that is dull or disappointing is one that stems from Slade’s egocentric attitude of superiority. According to her, a life of fullness and happiness is one that constantly dabbles in high society affairs. Slade and her husband are an “exceptional couple” that frequently traveled “on legal business to London, Paris or Rome…”. She views her relationship with her husband as something far better than the average marriage. Using the elite phrase “exceptional” to describe it, she highlights the idea that she truly believes that she is superior to most people, including Ansley. Also, she often refers to the busy and expansive life she lives as the wife of a successful lawyer. Unlike Ansley, she travels the world, mingles with people of high authority, and is even complimented by the high society folks. These aspects of her life give her reason to believe that Ansley’s life can just not compare to the excitement that she knows and loves. In her thought process, Slade takes the similarities between herself and Ansley and completely disregards them, because she is under the delusion that her lifestyle is far more superior to any other. As this holds true, at least in her mind, she cannot find true common ground with Ansley in order to form a deeper bond with her.Another deterrent to true friendship that Slade’s egocentric attitude invokes is selfishness. A key principle to having a friend or true companion is a sense of selflessness and ability to think of others before oneself. Slade cannot grasp this concept in the story, but rather, embraces her selfishness and fails to disband her envy for Ansley. The root of her envy lies in the realization that Slade was in love with Ansley’s fiancé. She claims that “I found out – and I hated you, hated you. I knew you were in love with Delphin…I wanted you out of the way…” (785). This envy, or even hatred, is a major factor as the lives of these two women unfold. Slade, never able to truly forget the jealousy and hatred she held for Ansley upon this realization, fosters hardened feelings for her long-time companion. The initial jealously motivated Slade to become selfish and do all in her power to be rid of the competition. Slade does not consider the outcome or consequences that Ansley may have to suffer through due to her selfishness. She falsifies a letter to Ansley, hoping that she will go to the Colloseum at night and become humiliated when Delphin does not meet her there as promised in the letter. She hopes that this humiliation and failure would trigger Ansley to give up on Delphin and longer be an obstacle for Slade. Selfishly she considers these benefits to herself, but does not think twice about the pain she causes Ansley. She even claims “I remember laughing to myself all that evening at the idea that you were waiting around there in the dark…”. She shows no remorse or regret for her childish and self-centered actions in the past, but reflects carelessly without sparing the feelings of Ansley. The lack of shame attributed with this statement further proves that the selfishness that Slade emits prohibits any relationship to form between her and Ansley.Slade’s selfishness is not mutually exclusive to this situation. This attribute of her egocentrism is also manifested in her opinion of Barbara and Jenny, the daughters of Grace and Alida. She does not appreciate her own daughter Jenny, because I her opinion, Barbara, is a far more interesting individual. Slade, under the belief that she is superior to Ansley, also admits that she would rather be Barbara’s mother. She speaks of her daughter as if she has been cheated something. She states “I always wanted a brilliant daughter…never quite understood why I got an angel instead”. Here, she selfishly covets the kind of daughter that she does not have, but Ansley does. Though she does refer to her own daughter as “an angel,” it is clear that Jenny simply does not qualify as good enough in her mother’s eyes (782). Slade wants what she cannot and does not have. Her own life is not satisfactory unless every aspect of it is comparatively superior to Ansley’s. Barbara is exciting, fresh, and vivacious, while Jenny is dedicated, simple, and boring. She figures that with the loss of her husband and son, she deserves a daughter that will keep her on her toes and give her a reason to flaunt and brag about her life. Jenny’s perfection and simplicity cannot possibly measure up to the vivacity of her former high society life, while Barbara could introduce a new round of adventures to Slade. This is all she considers when voicing her inappropriate feelings to Ansley. The only person that Slade considers in this thought process is herself and her own source of pride. Selfishness, as another facet of egocentrism, blinds the carrier from the feelings and opinion of others. One cannot truly develop a healthy relationship without taking on selflessness in an attempt to put the success and happiness of others before one’s own. Another aspect of egotistical thinking is lies and deception in an attempt to get ahead. Honesty is a basic core value that all friends share, but the egotistical individual overlooks honesty and replaces it with deceit. Slade’s dishonest behavior from her youth is clear and vivid. She admits to falsifying the letter to Ansley from Delphin, but she is still not redeemed in the truth. First off, she went through a lot of trouble in order to trick a supposed friend into believing that her affection for a man was reciprocated and that he wanted more from the relationship than what was already established. These ideas, presented in the letter, were nothing but dishonestly from Slade. This act of deceit is not one that is simply forgiven or brushed away, for it was life changing for all the parties involved. Her deception resulted in an affair, illegitimate daughter, and unnecessary friction between the two women. True friends are not as vindictively manipulative and spiteful, even if they are not always completely honest with each other. Secondly, even in her admittance to the truth, Slade fails to admit her mistake. Instead of apologizing for the deceit, she admits to it, and then continues to pity herself and defend her actions. Slade says “well, girls are ferocious sometimes, you know. Girls in love especially” (786). This comment is made in an attempt to prove that her actions are in fact justifiable. She cannot comprehend that she should feel ashamed for her lies, but instead continues to believe that her dishonesty was well-deserved and acceptable behavior under the circumstances. Her inability to understand that she was in-fact in the wrong, even though she admits the truth now, proves that the idea of dishonesty as a destructive force to relationships is not something that her egocentrism can comprehend. Honesty and the guilt of deception are not truly present in Slade; therefore she cannot and will not connect with Ansley on the emotional level necessary to qualify them as true friends.In “Roman Fever” many aspects of egocentrism are manifested within one of the characters, Alida Slade. Egotistical attitudes are a common thread in the human psyche that constantly tears apart relationships and inhibits deep understanding. One cannot truly attain friendship if egocentrism has taken residence in his or her being. Slade exemplifies this idea through her inability to truly connect with Grace Ansley. The character’s egocentric traits of deception, superiority, and selfishness prove to be deterrents to true a true emotional connection or sense of camaraderie between her and Ansley.Following the examination on Ansley and Slade’s personal reactions to the effects of the rhetorical issue at hand and subsequently, my personal reaction to the rhetoric, one is prompted by Royster to consider the cultural lessons extrapolated by the text.