A Short Story by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
.......From the terrace of a Roman restaurant, two middle-aged women gaze down on the splendor of Rome and its ancient ruins. The narrator describes one of the women as small and pale and the other “fuller” and “higher in color.” On the stairway leading to a courtyard below, two young girls hasten off to an adventure. The women overhear one of them saying, “Well, come along, then, and let’s leave the young things to their knitting.”
.......The pale woman, Mrs. Horace (Grace) Ansley, recognizes the voice as that of her daughter, Barbara. The other woman, Mrs. Delphin (Alida) Slade, says, “That’s what our daughters think of us.”
.......Mrs. Ansley says the girls were really speaking of mothers in general, but then she withdraws from a handbag some red silk pierced with two knitting needles, confessing that she sometimes tires of doing nothing but looking at the sights. Alida laughs.
.......It is late afternoon, long past the lunch hour, and the last of the other diners have moved on. But Alida suggests that they remain on the terrace to enjoy the view. They met at the restaurant in their youth, when both were younger than their daughters are now. Mrs. Slade asks the head waiter to grant them permission to linger on the terrace, providing him a gratuity, and he says they may stay as long as they like–perhaps to eat dinner later on under the moonlight.
.......“Well, why not!” Mrs. Slade says. We might do worse. There's no knowing, I suppose, when the girls will be back. Do you even know back from where? I don't!"
.......Mrs. Ansley says she thinks they are with Italian aviators they met at the embassy. The young men invited the girls to fly with them to Tarquinia for tea.
.......When Alida Slade asks her companion whether she thinks the girls are sentimental, Grace says she hasn’t the slightest idea “what they are,” adding that “perhaps we don’t know much more about each other.” They muse for a while on their limited knowledge of each other even though they have known each other for a long time.
.......Alida Slade recalls how beautiful Grace was as a girl, more beautiful than her daughter, Barbara, is now. Barbara, however, has “more edge,” Alida thinks, wondering where she got it. After all, Barbara was the offspring of “nullities . . . museum specimens of old New York,” Alida observes to herself. For years, the Slades and the Ansleys were neighbors on East Seventy-Third Street in New York. Then came the year when Horace Ansley and Delphin Slade died only months apart. The two women commiserated with each other.
.......“[A]nd now, after another interval," the narrator says, "they had run across each other in Rome, at the same hotel, each of them the modest appendage of a salient daughter."
.......Mrs. Slade admits to herself that the loss of her husband was a social setback. As the wife of a corporation lawyer with international clients, she had entertained and traveled often, receiving compliments on her looks and her fashions. Now, she has only her daughter, Jenny. There was a son, full of promise, but he died very young.
Alida wants to mother Jenny. But Jenny, a very pretty young lady, is so perfect in every way that she needs no mothering. It is Jenny who watches out for her mother.
.......And what does Grace think of Alida? That she is “awfully brilliant, but not as brilliant as she thinks.” But she has a “vividness” lacking in Jenny. However, Grace feels sorry for Alida, for she has had a “sad life” with many “failures and mistakes.”
.......Bells ring. It is five o’clock. Grace takes out her knitting as Alida observes that Rome means different things to different generations:
To our grandmothers, Roman fever; to our mothers, sentimental dangers—how we used to be guarded!—to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street. . . . [O]ur mothers had a much more difficult job than our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in—didn't they!.......Engrossed in her knitting, Grace answers yes perfunctorily between stitches, as if she is really not that interested in Alida's observation. Her attitude annoys Alida, who then shifts her thoughts to her companion’s daughter. Barbara is out to snare one of the fliers, a marchese, Alida thinks, and her poor Jenny cannot compete with her. Perhaps Jenny’s inability to compete is the reason that Grace Ansley wants Barbara to befriend Jenny—Barbara will always stand out in comparison.
.......“That Campolieri boy is one of the best matches in Rome,” she tells Grace, then compliments Barbara as being “dynamic.”
.......“I think you overrate Babs, my dear,” Grace says.
.......Her companion then compliments Babs on her intelligence and notes that the thought of their daughters and the young men in a romantic setting by the sea evokes memories of the past “too acutely.” Alida imagines that Grace is thinking that Babs will return engaged to Campolieri. She also imagines that Grace will sell her New York home and move to Rome to be near her daughter. However, she then reproaches herself for such thoughts, thinking she has no right to think unkindly of Grace.
.......As the sun sets, Alida reminds her friend of her delicate throat. The evening chill could cause her to come down with Roman fever or pneumonia. But Grace says, "Oh, we're all right up here. Down below, in the Forum, it does get deathly cold, all of a sudden... but not here."
.......Alida says whenever she looks at the Forum, it reminds her of the story about her friend’s “dreadfully wicked great-aunt.”
.......“Oh, yes; Great-aunt Harriet,” Grace recalls.
.......It seems that Harriet supposedly sent her sister one evening to pick a certain flower in the forum so that Harriet could save it in her collection of dried flowers. But her real motive in sending her out was to expose her to Roman fever, for she and her sister were in love with the same man. The girl caught it and died. So says the story handed down. Alida says she became frightened when Grace told her the story “that winter when you and I were here as girls. The Winter I was engaged to Delphin.”
.......Alida also reminds Grace about her own visit to some ruins one chilly evening. Afterward, she became ill for a while but thankfully she got well. When Grace asks why Alida brought up the story, Alida says she can no longer bear keeping to herself the fact that she always knew why her friend went out that night—to go to the Colosseum to meet Delphin, the man Alida was engaged to.
......."And I can repeat every word of the letter that took you there."
.......Shaken, Grace rises, letting her knitting and gloves fall from her lap. Alida then repeats words from the letter, which she had memorized. Grace, regaining her composure, says, “I know it by heart too.” However, she says she burned the letter immediately and wonders how Alida found out about it.
......."Well, my dear, I know what was in that letter because I wrote it!"
.......Grace sits back down. Tears streak her face as she says, “[I]t was the only letter I ever had from him!”
.......Alida says she hated Grace because she knew she was in love with Delphin. Filled with envy, she wanted Grace out of the way.
.......“Just for a few weeks; just till I was sure of him.”
.......So she wrote the letter. Now, she says, she can’t explain why she’s telling Grace about this incident. The latter concludes, “[I]t's because you've always gone on hating me." Either that, says Alida, or “I wanted to get the whole thing off my mind . . . Of course, I never thought you’d die.”
.......Alida feels a bit remorseful for a moment, but her animosity returns when she considers that Grace harbored secret love for her husband over the years and “had been living on that letter."
......."You tried your best to get him away from me, didn't you? But you failed; and I kept him. That's all," Alida says.
.......After recovering from her illness, Grace married Horace Ansley in Florence, leading Alida to believe at that time that she never really cared for Delphin.
.......Alida then says she wrote the letter as a joke and took pleasure in picturing Grace waiting alone in the darkness for someone who would never come.
.......“Of course I was upset when I heard you were so ill afterward,” Alida says. But Grace tells her she did not have to wait. Delphin was there. Alida does not believe her. But Grace say he was indeed there because she answered the letter.
.......“Oh, God—you answered! I never thought of your answering...."
.......It is now cold on the terrace. Grace gets up and wraps her fur scarf around her.
.......“We'd better go.... I'm sorry for you,” she says.
.......Getting up to leave, Alida acknowledges that Grace got the better of her that night long ago, but she adds that she herself came out better in the long run.
.......“After all, I had everything; I had him [Delphin] for twenty-five years. And you had nothing but that one letter that he didn't write."
.......Grace moved toward the terrace door, then turned around and said, “I had Barbara.”
.......The action takes place in the afternoon and evening on the terrace of a Roman restaurant with a view of the Forum, the Colosseum, and other sights. Although no scenes take place elsewhere, the narration refers to activities in Tarquinia, a small town about fifty miles northwest of Rome, and to events that took
place years before in New York City.
Alida Slade: Middle-aged widow of Delphin Slade, a corporation lawyer. While she is dining in Rome with her old friend, Grace Ansley, the narrator reveals that she really despises Grace, who once was intimate with Delphin before he married Alida.
“Roman Fever" is a short story centering on the relationship of two women. The story has a surprise ending. It first appeared in Liberty magazine in 1934.
Wharton wrote the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling her to reveal the thoughts of the two main characters.
.......Wharton’s plot is like a house of cards. Every card supports the structure; remove one and the house collapses.
.......The climax occurs when Mrs. Slade reveals what she knows about Mrs. Ansley’s late-night excursion to the Colosseum twenty-five years before to rendezvous with Mrs. Slade’s fiancé, Delphin. Some readers may regard the shocking denouement (conclusion) of the story—revealing that
Mrs. Ansley’s daughter is the child of Mrs. Slade’s late husband—as the climax.
Roman Fever: Grace's desire for Delphin; the ill will that poisons Alida against Grace. (See also the entries under Roman Fever and Its Significance, below.)
.......The term Roman fever was coined to describe malaria, outbreaks of which occurred frequently in Rome over the centuries. The city was a hotbed of the disease because of the swampy areas in it that became breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying disease-causing parasites. The term malaria itself derives from the Italian words mala aria, meaning bad air. Malaria is an infectious disease caused by a single-celled parasite that enters the bloodstream primarily via the bite of the female anopheles mosquito. The parasite invades the liver and divides. Then the new, smaller parasitic cells enter the body’s red blood cells and produce so many additional parasitic cells that the red blood cells rupture and discharge whole armies of parasites into the bloodstream. The body reacts with chills, high fever, shaking, and sweating. When the sweating lowers the body’s temperature, the symptoms subside. However, renewed attacks by the multiplying parasites cause a reoccurrence of the symptoms, and the cycle repeats itself again and again. Severe anemia (in which there is a significant reduction in the number of the body’s red blood cells) eventually develops, leading to serious complications that can kill the patient. Eventually, drugs were developed that halt the multiplication of the parasitic cells.
.......In Wharton's story, Roman fever symbolizes the passion that drives the plot. This passion manifests itself in the Colosseum tryst between Grace Ansley and Delphin Slade and in Alida Slade's long-suppressed enmity for Grace and jealousy of Grace's daughter.
Grace and Alida as Victims of Roman Fever
.......Grace developed Roman fever figuratively when she burned with love for Alida's fiancé, Delphin. Alida developed the fever figuratively when Grace's love for Delphin fired her with enmity for Grace and a desire to get even by writing the letter. Alida later suffered from
complications of the fever when she became intensely jealous of Grace's daughter. Roman fever simmers secretly within both women for the next twenty-five years.
.......Intense passion in the forms of love, fear, vengefulness, enmity, and jealousy poisons the relationship between Alida Slade and Grace Ansley. First, Grace falls in love with Alida’s fiancé, Delphin. Out of fear of losing Delphin and out of a desire for revenge, Alida executes a plot exposing Grace to an evening chill that sickens her and isolates her from Delphin. For the next twenty-five years, Alida seethes with enmity for Grace while pretending to be her friend. She also develops intense jealousy of Grace’s daughter, Barbara, because of her obvious superiority to her own daughter, Jenny. Meanwhile, Grace endures life with Horace while Delphin—who fathered her child—lives nearby as the husband of Alida.
.......It appears that Alida Slade's happiness when Delphin was alive centered primarily on the social advantages she derived from being his wife, not on love. The following passage reveals her attitude in this regard:
It was a big drop from being the wife of Delphin Slade to being his widow. She had always regarded herself (with a certain conjugal pride) as his equal in social gifts, as contributing her full share to the making of the exceptional couple they were: but the difference after his death was irremediable. As the wife of the famous corporation lawyer, always with an international case or two on hand, every day brought its exciting and unexpected obligation: the impromptu entertaining of eminent colleagues from abroad, the hurried dashes on legal business to London, Paris or Rome, where the entertaining was so handsomely reciprocated; the amusement of hearing in her wakes: "What, that handsome woman with the good clothes and the eyes is Mrs. Slade—the Slade's wife! Really! Generally the wives of celebrities are such frumps."Deceit
.......Alida Slade forges a letter to lure Grace Ansley to the Colosseum. Then, for the next twenty-five years, she pretends to be Grace's friend. Alida's behavior calls to mind Shakespeare's observation in The Merchant of Venice: "A goodly apple rotten at the heart: / O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!" (1. 3. 80-84). It also calls to mind words in his play Macbeth: "Away, and mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1. 7. 94-95)." The narrator does not disclose whether Grace had deceived Horace into believing that Barbara was his child, although Grace allows Alida to believe so until the latter provokes her.
The Ever-Present Past
.......The past haunts Alida; it is always there to roil her emotions and embitter her against Grace. When Alida can no longer contain her corrosive memories of long ago, she reveals them to Grace—perhaps in an attempt to exorcise her demons and transfer them to Grace. But Grace counters with revelations of her own, one of which promises to make the painful past an unwelcome companion of Alida for the rest of her life.
.......Irony is a powerful figure of speech in the story, especially its occurrence in the last sentence. Other examples of irony in the story build up to, and rely on, that sentence for effect. An example is this observation of Alida Slade regarding Barbara: "I was wondering, ever so respectfully, you understand... wondering how two such exemplary characters as you and Horace had managed to produce anything quite so dynamic [as Barbara]."
.......Wharton hints at the possibility that Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade will repeat the actions of their mothers. She does so by creating the following parallels between Grace's daughter and Alida and between Alida's daughter and Grace:
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Why didn't Grace publicly acknowledge her love for Delphin and force him to choose between her and Alida?
Yes; being the Slade's widow was a dullish business after that. In living up to such a husband all her [Alida's] faculties had been engaged; now she had only her daughter to live up to, for the son who seemed to have inherited his father's gifts had died suddenly in boyhood. She had fought through that agony because her husband was there, to be helped and to help; now, after the father's death, the thought of the boy had become unbearable.6. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the psyches of Alida Slade and Grace Ansley.
7. Write an essay explaining the extent to which Edith Wharton drew upon her own experiences when she wrote "Roman Fever."