To start this analyzation of “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton, one must consider the setting of the story. Taking place in Rome in the early 1930’s the story is about two acquaintances who have known each other for an extended period of time. The two ladies, Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, each have a daughter, Barbara and Jenny respectively. The setting of Rome is important because of the romanticism associated with the city. This comes into play when Grace and Alida converse about the relationships they have had and how they all relate back to Rome. In addition, where both Grace and Alida found love in the city’s walls, their daughters are off with suitors of their own.
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More important to the setting than the location is the time of day the story takes place. At the start of the story it is late afternoon and it slowly progresses to night as the story goes on. The significance of this relates to the relationship between the two ladies. Hostilities between the two seem to grow as the night wears on, the setting sun symbolizing the steady decline of their relationship as it heads to an end. As the eve approaches and is upon them their relationship becomes shattered when Alida reviles her secret to Grace about the actual origin of the letter sent to Grace by Delphin Slade, Alida’s late husband, so many years ago. This exposure of the secret then leads Grace to revile that her daughter was actually fathered by Delphin as a result of the letter. This presumably would lead to the end of the ladies’ relationship but is not addressed in the story.
The title of the story “Roman Fever” is a term used to describe malaria, a disease once prevalent in Rome. The often deadly disease begins its deadly journey in the human body when a female mosquito, that carries the disease, bites someone and transfers the malaria parasite. The parasite travels to the liver of the host where it then begins to divide. The new, smaller, cells then go to attack red blood cells and use the cells as breeding grounds for many new malaria parasites. The disease quickly spreads and often results in the death of the infected.
The title is appropriate because it closely resembles the story line. The mosquito, Alida, sends the parasite, Grace, to the body, the coliseum. The parasite then goes to the liver, Delphin, and creates new parasites, Barbara. The new cells then go and the new cells then go and find red blood cells, the suitors, and divide, the future. This comparison, although gruesome in the actual malarial form, fairly accurately describes the relationships of each of the individuals involved.
Irony plays a huge role throughout the story. The full value of the irony, however, is not fully realized until the story’s end. In the elder generation, Alida is very spirited and smart, where Grace was the most aesthetically pleasing of the two but more ordinary in personality. Strangely, their daughters are unlike their mothers at all, but more like the other parent instead. Barbara is the more vivacious and intelligent of the two where Jenny is the better looking but more ordinary. Alida notes this and we know she is rather bothered by this fact when she is thinking to herself on page 552. She is thinking about how her daughter has no chance against Barbara when it comes to pursuing the same man. She wonders if Barbara only hangs out with Jenny to make herself seem even better by using “Jenny as a foil.” (552) This idea may be a result of Alida, herself, having used Grace as a comparison. She even goes as far as calling Grace out on it. She was “wondering how two such exemplary characters as you and Horace (Grace’s late husband) had managed to produce anything quite so dynamic.” (552) She distastefully calls Grace and Horace boring and wonders how they could have raised someone like Barbara where as her and her husband raised such a plain daughter their selves. It should be noted that the evening draws near at this point in the story.
The topic of conversation then shifts to the danger of the night and the story of Grace’s Great-Aunt Harriet and her devious method of taking her sister out of the competition for a man’s affection. The aunt convinced the sister to go to the coliseum to find flowers that bloomed at night for a scrapbook collection of dried flowers. While looking, the sister caught an illness that eventually resulted in her death. While the idea that the aunt sent the sister to get rid of her was not verified fact, it was, however, the popular belief on the matter. This was a story familiar to Alida for some time. Alida admits that this story inspired her when she tells Grace that the letter Grace received from Delphin so many years ago was actually from her. She had written it as a way to test Grace to see if she loved her Alida’s fiancé. When Grace fell ill the next day, Alida knew that Grace had gone to meet with Delphin and became sick while doing so. At hearing this, Grace begins to cry. The letter that she held so dear in her heart was not from Delphin at all. When Alida sees how much this revile upsets Grace she becomes angry because she always believed that Grace loved Alida’s husband but did not realize that Grace still did. Grace claimed it was the memory she cared for, not the man.
As the conversation develops, Grace states that she did not end up waiting for Delphin but he was actually there. When Alida calls Grace a liar, she rebukes “But of course he was there. Naturally he came-.” (557) She goes on to say that she replied to the letter and was actually met by Delphin. This display of deceit comes to an end when Grace reviles that as a result of the encounter, Barbara was born. The great irony of this situation was that in attempt to keep Grace from Delphin, she actually instigated the birth of the girl she was now so jealous of. The truth that Grace had so long deceived Alida from was actually a result of Alida’s deceit to Grace.
The character of Alida is a jealous one. This much is fairly obvious. She manipulated Grace to get her out of the way of her and Delphin. She still holds a grudge against Grace for even going. When the waiter says that it’s alright that they loiter and encourages them to stay for dinner, she reacts in disgust when the waiter mentions that there will be a full moon. The comment was “out of place and even unwelcome.” (549) This reaction could be because of Grace. When Grace was sick from being out at night, she claims she went out to see the moon rise. Because Alida knew the truth of the midnight excursion she seems to hold resentment to any comment to the moon. She even makes reference to the role moonlight plays in romanticism. While these reactions and comments may be purely coincidental, her actions and opinion of Grace seem to hint otherwise.
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One bold statement about the character of Alida would be that she did not actually love Delphin. Although both women would have been devastated about the deaths of their husbands, only with Alida does the author comment about the repercussions of death to their lives. The socialite life she lived with Delphin ended when he died. She went from the wife of the famous corporate lawyer to being a widow that has to take care of her children alone. She could no longer afford the time to attend lavish parties. Her life was “dullish business after that.” Even with her son’s death, she had to make a point in saying that he seemed to have inherited his father’s gifts, presumably in social graces. I’m not saying that she was not distraught with her son’s death, but the comment seems unneeded otherwise.
Alida enjoyed being the center of attention and could not stand it when she was out of the limelight. She would revel in the passing comments made about her when at parties, complimenting her style and the status of her husband. When he died, so did the comments with him. She was elated when her husband finally acquired the means to move and get away from Grace and her family. She was able to show off to Grace that her family was wealthy and she had means that Grace clearly did not. She was so worried about not being the center of attention she played her “joke” on Alida, which was meant to get her out of the picture long enough to solidify her relationship with Delphin.
Grace, although being just as secretive, showed more compassion and emotion when she learned that the letter from Delphin, that she treasured so much was not actually from him. Her face was streaked with tears. Her relationship with him, however so brief, was actually perpetrated by Alida and not Delphin himself. This shows how much she cared for Delphin, or at least the memory as she herself claims.
This ending leaves a few questions open for analysis. There is the question if Alida told Delphin or not. Does Barbara know? Does Horace? This ending also leaves the interpretation of what happens to the relationship between Grace and Alida. One would assume they would break their ties with each other based on their past relationship but that is not for certain. In the end, the only thing keeping Alida from completely ending her friendship with Grace was Grace’s lack of anything with Delphin, but with her efforts to keep it as such backfiring she actually perpetrated what she feared the most.
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