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In the story "Roman Fever," Wharton writes a tale of a typical love triangle sided with dishonesty and angled with jealousy. The two protagonists of this short story, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, finalize their past as they each reveal their own secret truths about the man they both loved, Mr. Delphin Slade. As the friends inform each other, as well as the reader, about their contradicting points of view, complementary elements of fiction arise in the reading. James Phelon furthers this point, "The audience can recognize that the necessary reconfiguration caused by the surprise actually fits well with the beginning and the middle of the progression" (Phelon 91). Wharton skillfully structures "Roman Fever" with such elements that gain insight and suspense for the climax. Symbolism, such as Mrs. Ansley's knitting, is supported by Jamil Selina as she states, "As the emblematic action of dropping her knitting indicates, she learns, as the knitter, to accept the gradual uncovering of the linkage between the past and present" (101). Being evident in the title, setting is apparently important in this narrative due to the fact that the story takes place in Rome, the hub of the past and the present for these women, which contributes the central theme of the story. Both of these critics help confirm the importance behind such elements in Wharton's short story. Through the use of setting and symbolism in Wharton's "Roman Fever," jealousy and truth is brought to the surface of Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slades' relationship.
Rome, being one of the oldest and most historic places of the world, frames "Roman Fever" as its ruins bring out the jealous memories of the ladies. The city is home to many original churches, famous statues, and the birthplace of many myths. Rome holds the façade of Greek gods and fables, the Roman Empire, and an overabundance of romantic scenery such as the famous ancient ruins. Wharton sets the two wealthy American women in such a setting due to its heavy influence of the past. Rome is also convenient for Wharton as its romantic reputation contributes to the central theme of the story; the past and present unite as the secrets of both women's past actions are revealed on the roman terrace. Such setting provides the backdrop for the emergence of long-buried stories (Selina). Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade sit on the terrace of a Roman restaurant that overlooks the ruins of Rome. As they behold the view with "time to kill," their daughters are out with young Italian men, just as their mothers in the same city some near thirty-years earlier (Bowlbey 37). As the girls behave as their mothers once did and interact with the same kind of boys as their mother's did, a hint of foreshadowing is cast upon the two ladies (Bowlbey 43). Bowlbey believes this hint is also a benefactor of jealousy as the two ladies speak of their past courtships in Rome with a touch of insecurity. Rome's setting allows the women to remember their courtship days while refurbishing the jealous and dishonest behaviors they had and still have for each other.
After talking about their loves of Rome Mrs. Ansley comments on the beauty of Rome, "After all, it's still the most beautiful view in the world" Grace replies "It always will be, to me." This stress on "me" is caught by Mrs. Slade, yet she regrets it as a possible accident like the "random underlining of old-fashioned letter writers" (Wharton 305). This foreshadowing ties in with the previous foreshadowing of the young girls' courtship. The women are both hinting at the romance they both had with Mr. Delphin Slade which took place long ago in Rome. Mrs. Grace recalls Rome as always being the most beautiful because it holds the memory of her night of love with Mr. Slade. Mrs. Slade's comment is the first indication that she knew about the affair as she was the secret writer of the love letter of many years ago (Phelan). Being Rome is deeply connected with romance, setting the scene in Rome rather than the hometown of Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley furthers the central theme of infidelity and the connection between jealousy and dishonesty between the two ladies. The most important aspect of setting in "Roman Fever" is the Colosseum. Not only is the Colosseum an ancient ruin of Rome but it is also the place Mrs. Slade sent Mrs. Ansley in the letter and where Mr. Slade and Mrs. Ansley met each other in the middle of the night. Bowley believes the Colosseum could be the link Wharton was making between the "modern troubles of love circles" along with those in the ancient days, such as in Sophocles drama, Oedipus the King. Even hierarchy cannot escape the course of fate just as Mrs. Ansley tries to divert her fiancé from her friend. "The theme of Oedipus is how fate nevertheless runs its course. Without his knowing, the adopted Oedipus kills his own birth father, marries, and bears children with his birth mother" (Bowley 41). Mrs. Slade, enraged with envy and posing as Mr. Slade, writes a letter to Mrs. Ansley, to lure her out in the freezing cold meet in the middle of the night. Without her knowing, Mrs. Ansley responded to the letter, thus Mr. Slade received the letter and met Mrs. Ansley in the freezing Colosseum.
Mrs. Slade gets her idea from Mrs. Ansley's own great aunt who sent her own sister out in the deathly-cold Forum because they were in love with the same man (Wharton 308). This event is what is understood as "Roman Fever." This fever is caused by those who wait until the dead of night to meet with their lovers in order to keep the affair secret. Mrs. Slade uses the Roman ruins along with the past stories to cure her jealousy of Mrs. Ansley. Unfortunately for her, in actuality she causes the two to meet and bear a child. As the ladies bask in the beauty of Rome's sites, they cease conversation with each other and replace it with thought, as Wharton sums up the end of part one with the paradox, "So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope" (302). The fact that the simple outing is in Rome is what provokes such reminders of the past that these ladies now rekindle their feelings of jealousy and dishonesty between themselves. Even though it is not yet apparent to the reader, Jamil Selina notes the attitudes of the ladies during the turning point. When the past catches up to the present as Mrs. Slade begins the conversation, "both women reject proceeding into the connection between the past and present" (Selina 100). Although the women appear to have been intimate friends from a young age, it becomes clear how little they trust each other. Phelan states, "The paradox of course is the combination of intimacy and ignorance, and the tension involves the explanation for that paradox--and more generally, a question about the precise nature of their relationship. In turning to their judgments of each other, the narrator develops Alida's sense of superiority at some length as she interweaves exposition with instability" (95). His observation notices how Mrs. Slade feels superior of Mrs. Ansley while at the same time she feels envy for her. He also finds Mrs. Ansley as "underestimated" and "a woman of guilt" who actually feels sorry for Mrs. Slade. Purposely being dishonest with each other, these women mix up their emotions and create more tension by retaining their pieces of the past (Phelan).
Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade reawaken their feelings for one another as the story unwinds in part two. As Mrs. Ansley questions Mrs. Slade about the past, Mrs. Ansley noticeably fidgets with her knitting. Knitting is usually thought of as a simple act of passing the time by elderly women and crimson is the color of romantic passion (Selina 99). Wharton uses crimson silk in "Roman Fever" as a symbol of faults between the two friends. The uncomplicated yet symbolic notion of knitting takes place in the beginning of the story, "..and let's leave the young things to their knitting," and a voice as fresh laughed back: "Oh, look here, Babs, not actually knitting-" "Well, I mean figuratively," rejoined the firstâ€¦" (Wharton 298). This early recognition of knitting aids the reader's perception of the women's role in the story as well as the hidden jealousy between the women. "Wharton is predisposing the reader to perceive the ladies as stereotypical matrons; to exposing the intense passions which have been seething in both women for more than twenty-five years" (Petry 163). Knitting is further used during Mrs. Slade's interrogation of Mrs. Ansley's as Mrs. Slade speaks of Mrs. Ansley's night in the Colossuem and Mrs. Ansley's knitting "slid in a panic-stricken heap to the ground" (Wharton). The knitting itself symbolizes how trapped Mrs. Ansley is in the defeat of Mrs. Slade and the action of dropping the knitting symbolizes the end of their relationship. Mrs. Ansley has just now realized her "false memories" with which she has clung to for many years now (Selina 101). It is now that the whole truth has been revealed to Mrs. Ansley as she "experiences this event twenty-five years later" to find her love was not true (Phelan 96). Though knitting only seems to be a peaceful pastime, in this story knitting is the primary action that correlates with the emotions of the women.
Mrs. Slade is shown as the most jealous as she, herself, even states, "Would she never cure herself of envying her!" (Wharton 299) Out of jealousy, Mrs. Slade provokes the secret affair committed by her friend by writing the letter to Mrs. Ansley in hopes of her catching a deathly illness. James Phelan resembles this action while stating how unstable the relationship between the two ladies has been for many years now. "Mrs. Slade's attack heightens our awareness of her envy, hatred, and cruelty, while Mrs. Ansley's response has the character of an open admission of her transgression, one that she neither apologizes for nor defends" (Phelan 96). While it is obvious that Mrs. Slade has revealed her actions by taking out many years of hidden jealousy on Mrs. Ansley, it is also noteworthy and just as important for the reader to see the dishonestly Mrs. Ansley has as she never admits to her sins. The difference in cruelty between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley is the way of which they show it. Mrs. Slade is "effectively malicious" while Mrs. Ansley is just as "effective through her dishonesty" (Phelan 97). Jealousy and dishonesty work hand-and-hand with Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley as they both dominate one of the traits and are broken down by the opposing characteristic.
As Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley sit above the historic sites of Rome, their true feelings for each other are revealed as Wharton uses symbolism and setting to portray the envy and guilt with which they bestow on each other. Wharton skillfully structures "Roman Fever" with two elements that would only enhance the central theme of her story. Without Rome, this story would have no connection to the past or to the Colossuem, which was the primary holder of love and the corruption between Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade. Without the knitting, the reader would have difficulty connecting the intimacy in the friendship between the two ladies. Symbolism, such as knitting, creates the reunion between the past and the present by incorporating the degrading characteristics of these women with common conversation. Jealousy and honesty are the reoccurring themes behind each action of Wharton's characters. Jealousy lead to dishonesty and dishonesty lead to a twenty-five year relationship between two women who held more hatred and secrets from one another because they simply could not be honest with each other.