Edith Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever” depicts how temperatures rise between Mrs. Alida Slade and Mrs. Grace Ansley when the pair, by an accident of fate, reunites in Rome after twenty-five years. The café terrace becomes an arena where the two women inflict wounds upon one another, often deliberately and subtly, through conversational weaponry. Wharton summons the reader to witness this competitive “duel of rivalry” between these socially elite women by cleverly intermingling setting, symbolism, and foreshadowing.
Wharton unequivocally contrives the women to come together in Rome because this setting was the locale where Alida and Grace, during their youth, felt romantic love for Delphin Slade. Rome is an appropriate place to rekindle feelings of long ago and ignites these emotions into full exposure. Rome, literally in itself, is full of ancient history, romanticism, and conspiracy (Bauer 681).
The narrator vicariously describes the similarities of these sophisticated women, ostensibly so that one can see their dramatic differences later on within the narrative. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have known each other since childhood, but each actually knows very little about the other. Both have been married and widowed about the same time and have lived “opposite each other – actually as well as figuratively – for years” in America (Wharton 2 of 10). They also have daughters that are close in age, vacationing with them in Rome.
Throughout the writing, Wharton includes numerous examples of symbolism that, upon the reader’s reflection or second reading, reinstate the obscure relationship between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley. For instance, the Roman ruins might relate to the breakdown of the women’s friendship after each reveals her secrets to the other. Mrs. Slade’s revelation “ruins” the cherished memory for Mrs. Ansley concerning Delphin’s letter, and a consuming disease of jealousy “ruins” Mrs. Slade’s hope for ever acquiring much happiness. In addition, the Colosseum, an arena where ferocious battles have taken place, connotes the internal warfare within Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade. Each believes that she has withheld the “secret weapons” for years, making her victorious over the other. The Colosseum also denotes a site of passionate love and vengeance for Grace and Alida, also illustrated in the story between Great-aunt Harriet and her sister many years prior.
Early within the story’s action, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley overhear a brief conversation on the stairway between their daughters Barbara and Jenny. Barbara implies that their ineffectual mothers can just sit around, being bored, knitting the day away. At this point, the reader has no idea about the complex dimension of Grace’s knitting or the importance that her daughter, Barbara, plays in the story’s plot.
Critic Jamil S. Selina also agrees that knitting has weighted meaning throughout the story. From the phrase, “Half-guiltily she drew from her handsomely mounted black handbag a twist of crimson silk run through two fine knitting needles,” the uneasiness that Grace is feeling becomes apparent (Wharton 1 of 10). Selina suggests “if the black color of the handbag signifies the gloom of guilt, then crimson signifies the heat of sexuality and risqué youthfulness of romantic passion.” “And the act of bringing out the yarn, which is exquisitely delicate (‘silk’), is the act of bringing the delicate thread out of the past into the present or bringing the present into the past,” (Selina 99). The knitting becomes a defensive shield for Grace, hiding behind it whenever Alida makes reference about their younger years shared in Rome or as tension builds between them. Alida definitely finds Grace’s hobby a source of irritation. Alida’s blatant annoyance implies that Grace’s knitting is more than a way to avoid conversation. “Those needles are effective physiological weapons against a woman who is deliberately tormenting her for once having loved Delphin Slade,” (Petry 165).
Wharton further promotes a backdrop of tension throughout the piece by shifting the setting from daylight hours, building suspense as twilight envelopes. As seen throughout the storyline as the glow of day diminishes toward night, the ladies become more deliberate with their words and thoughts. Mild implications are made during the daytime regarding the moon motivating the protagonists to show actions and reactions. For example, the waiter welcomes the “old lovers of Rome,” to sit as long as they’d like, mentioning that there is an expected full moon (Wharton 2 of 10). Several references occur about the moonlight that brings aggression between the women. The reader begins to see a rising shift in each woman’s demeanor. Mrs. Slade’s brows furrow, marking her augmented exasperations. Alida makes “small talk” by asking Grace if she knows of their daughters’ whereabouts. Grace, still blushing, says that they have flown to Tarquinia with the young Italian aviators and probably won’t return until moonlight. Mrs. Slade exclaims, “Moonlight – moonlight! What a part it still plays. Do you suppose they’re as sentimental as we were?” (Wharton 2 of 10).
Upon the reader’s reflection, Alida cunningly spurts out this remark because of the romantic connotations of moonlight. The word “moonlight” dredges up thoughts about Grace’s love for Delphin, years ago – furthering Alida’s deep seated bitterness and desire to reveal the true writer of the letter. Mrs. Ansley replies, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t in the least know what they are.” “And perhaps we didn’t know much more about each other,” (Wharton 2 of 10). Mrs. Slade’s retorts, “No, perhaps we didn’t,” (Wharton 2 of 10). Giving the jab right back at Alida, Grace sarcastically verbalizes that she never took her to be the sentimental type. An understanding is evident to the reader that these two women have a distantly remote shared past. The narrator describes that the two ladies have a narrow vision and skewed perception of one another as they “visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope,” (Wharton 3 of 10). The ladies’ pace of mental gymnastics exceedingly picks up the pace in the story from this point forward. The reader also takes note that unlike both women’s guarded upbringing, it is evident that their daughters are free from stringent guidelines concerning where and with whom they do things.
Wharton utilizes foreshadowing throughout the piece which proposes that competition for love is repetitive among women in all generations, past and present. As a case in point, Wharton chooses the narrator to bring more light to the malicious darkness dwelling inside Alida and Grace. Mrs. Slade’s thoughts express that her daughter, Jenny, is no match to Mrs. Ansley’s vivacious Barbara, also known as “Babs.” Babs, although not as beautiful as Jenny, clearly “was more effective – had more edge, as they say,” (Wharton 2 of 10). According to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “edge” is defined as “an audacious, provocative, original quality or manner that someone possesses or someone having an advantage competitively” – traits much like Mrs. Slade.
The author seems to have mismatched the mothers and daughters, somewhat foreshadowing the story’s plot. This becomes obvious through Alida’s thoughts, insinuating that Grace and her husband Horace, “two nullities” and “Museum specimens of old New York,” could not have possibly produced this extraordinary girl (Wharton 2 of 10). Sadly, Alida even says that she envies Grace for having a daughter who possesses brilliant qualities, but she got angelic Jenny instead. With youth behind Alida and no husband to reinforce her established identity as “the Slade’s wife,” her life seems empty and full of resentment (Wharton 3 of 10). Mrs. Slade appears to be a jaded “has-been” with her newfound identity as a mother to Jenny, evidenced by her wishes that Jenny would even go as far as would fall in love with the wrong man, just to create excitement in her own life. Alida’s dullish existence at now being “the Slade’s widow” has given her time to brood and repeatedly think of one cut-down after the other, personifying just how envious she is of Grace (Wharton 3 of 10).
Although the narrator expresses some of Mrs. Ansley’s viewpoints, the reader might conclude that the purpose for this omission is because Wharton wants the reader and Mrs. Slade to have a reciprocal response as both learn the unanticipated plot. Grace’s reflection of Alida is much less detailed through her mask veil of knitting as she sits contemplating how Alida’s life was “full of failures and mistakes,” (Wharton 3 of 10). Grace’s pity for Alida is exposed early on in the first part of the narrative. The reader is clueless as to why she is sorry for her, but it foreshadows the twist in the plot to come.
For instance, all the while Grace sits knitting in silence, the narrator expresses motionless Alida’s assumption that “Babs would almost certainly come back engaged to the extremely eligible Campolieri,” and poor Jenny is an outmaneuvered “foil” (Wharton 5 of 10). Preceded by her malevolent thoughts and laughter, Alida says that Babs will most certainly win over the affections of the affluent Campolieri boy. Grace, dropping her knitting at her laugh, responds, “Yes-?” (Wharton 4 of 10). Alida, in response, impolitely says, “I was wondering, ever so respectfully, you understand â€¦ wondering how two such exemplary characters as you and Horace had managed to produce anything quite so dynamic,” (Wharton 4 of 10). Surely these callous remarks are targeting Grace’s heart, escalating her centralized anger. All the while, she is wishing that she could be courageous enough to speak out the truth concerning Barbara’s biological father Delphin.
Often times, Wharton has Mrs. Slade bring up the cold after sunset – the deathly cold and dampness particularly in relation to the Colosseum. Essentially, these references set the stage for challenging events both in the past and also preface the present “dynamitic duel through dialogue” that is about to occur between Alida and Grace.
In an effort to take away Grace’s happiness and to “cut” her to the core, Alida divulges that all these years Grace had thought Delphin had written the letter suggesting a rendezvous, when in fact Alida is the true writer of the letter. Alida had wanted to punish Grace for loving her fiancé. The thought delighted Alida, remembering how her friends had said that Grace had taken ill from the cold damp air. However, Grace, a not-so-sheltered and prudent girl (as Alida thought), gives a revelation that Delphin responded to the letter and met her that night at the Colosseum – a counter stab to Alida. As a consequence of Grace’s response, Alida’s thoughts stagger her speechless temporarily. Wharton has Alida declare herself the winner by stating that Delphin was her prize for twenty-five years and Grace only had the falsified letter.
At the story’s end, the power structure shifts and dominantly Grace inflicts wounds upon Alida’s heart. Each woman’s festering emotional wounds seep until her composure ruptures, ending this challenging game of uncontrolled verbal one-upmanship. Wharton depicts Grace standing confidently, leaving behind her puddle of knitting. Years of guilt slip from Grace as she victoriously reveals, “I had Barbara,” (Wharton 9 of 10). The reader witnesses Grace ascending up the stairway higher than her defeated rival. Wharton masterfully contrives this wonderful read, full of twists, as she boldly tells the story through implied messages and literary techniques. The competition is accelerated through setting, symbolism, and foreshadowing. The reader hears squelched cries of envy, passion, love, and deception until that piercing final jab that leaves Alida Slade and the reader stunned.
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