Roman Fever
A Short Story by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Year of Publication
What Was Roman Fever?
Future of Barbara and Jenny
Study Questions
Essay Topics
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Plot Summary
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 u0093fulleru0094 and u0093higher in color.u0094 On the stairway leading to a courtyard below, two young girls hasten off to an adventure. The women overhear one of them saying, u0093Well, come along, then, and letu0092s leave the young things to their knitting.u0094
.......The pale woman, Mrs. Horace (Grace) Ansley, recognizes the voice as that of her daughter, Barbara. The other woman, Mrs. Delphin (Alida) Slade, says, u0093Thatu0092s what our daughters think of us.u0094
.......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 likeu0096perhaps to eat dinner later on under the moonlight.
.......u0093Well, why not!u0094 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 hasnu0092t the slightest idea u0093what they are,u0094 adding that u0093perhaps we donu0092t know much more about each other.u0094 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 u0093more edge,u0094 Alida thinks, wondering where she got it. After all, Barbara was the offspring of u0093nullities . . . museum specimens of old New York,u0094 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. 
.......u0093[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 u0093awfully brilliant, but not as brilliant as she thinks.u0094 But she has a u0093vividnessu0094 lacking in Jenny. However, Grace feels sorry for Alida, for she has had a u0093sad lifeu0094 with many u0093failures and mistakes.u0094
.......Bells ring. It is five ou0092clock. 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 dangersu0097how we used to be guarded!u0097to 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 inu0097didn'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 companionu0092s daughter. Barbara is out to snare one of the fliers, a marchese, Alida thinks, and her poor Jenny cannot compete with her. Perhaps Jennyu0092s inability to compete is the reason that Grace Ansley wants Barbara to befriend Jennyu0097Barbara will always stand out in comparison.
.......u0093That Campolieri boy is one of the best matches in Rome,u0094 she tells Grace, then compliments Barbara as being u0093dynamic.u0094
.......u0093I think you overrate Babs, my dear,u0094 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 u0093too acutely.u0094 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 friendu0092s u0093dreadfully wicked great-aunt.u0094
.......u0093Oh, yes; Great-aunt Harriet,u0094 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 u0093that winter when you and I were here as girls. The Winter I was engaged to Delphin.u0094 
.......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 nightu0097to 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, u0093I know it by heart too.u0094 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, u0093[I]t was the only letter I ever had from him!u0094
.......Alida says she hated Grace because she knew she was in love with Delphin. Filled with envy, she wanted Grace out of the way.
.......u0093Just for a few weeks; just till I was sure of him.u0094
.......So she wrote the letter. Now, she says, she canu0092t explain why sheu0092s telling Grace about this incident. The latter concludes, u0093[I]t's because you've always gone on hating me." Either that, says Alida, or u0093I wanted to get the whole thing off my mind . . . Of course, I never thought youu0092d die.u0094
.......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 u0093had 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.
.......u0093Of course I was upset when I heard you were so ill afterward,u0094 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.
.......u0093Oh, Godu0097you answered! I never thought of your answering...."
.......It is now cold on the terrace. Grace gets up and wraps her fur scarf around her. 
.......u0093We'd better go.... I'm sorry for you,u0094 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. 
.......u0093After 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, u0093I had Barbara.u0094 

.......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. 
Delphin Slade: Late husband of Alida.
Grace Ansley: Middle-aged widow of well-to-do Horace Ansley. When Alida Slade reveals her long-simmering enmity for Grace, the latter counters with a shocking revelation. 
Horace Ansley: Late husband of Grace.
Barbara Ansley: Vivacious daughter of Grace Ansley. Alida Slade resents her because of her obvious superiority to her own daughter. The last sentence in the story reveals that Barbara is really the daughter of Delphin.
Jenny Slade: Daughter of Alida Slade. She is beautiful but lacks the charisma and charm of Barbara Ansley.
Headwaiter: Supervising waiter at the terrace restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and other ancient ruins. After receiving a gratuity from Alida Slade, he invites Alida and Grace to remain at the restaurant to enjoy the view.
Son of Alida Slade: Child who "inherited his father's gifts," according to Alida, but died while still a boy. 
Harriet: Deceased great-aunt of Grace. According to a story handed down, Harriet and her sister loved the same man. To get rid of her sister, Harriet supposedly tricked her into exposing herself to Roman fever. She later died of the disease.

Type of Work and Year of Publication

u0093Roman 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. 


.......Whartonu0092s plot is like a house of cards. Every card supports the structure; remove one and the house collapses. 
.......The opening scene in which their daughters, Barbara and Jenny, run off to meet young men triggers Mrs. Sladeu0092s memories of her and Mrs. Ansleyu0092s romantic adventures in Rome twenty-five years before. Mrs. Slade recalls that Mrs. Ansley was more beautiful then than Barbara Ansley is now. However, she notes to herself that Barbara is more vivacious; she has u0093edge.u0094 How could this be? After all, Mrs. Slade thinks, Barbara is the offspring of u0093nullities. . . museum specimens of old New York.u0094 Her observation introduces the secret rancor she feels toward her companion and foreshadows ever so obliquely the ironic ending. Moreover, the reference to New York enables the author to shift the sceneu0097in Mrs. Sladeu0092s mindu0097to Manhattan, where they were neighbors in an upscale neighborhood. In turn, the thoughts of Manhattan call up memories of the womenu0092s lives there and the deaths of their husbands, Delphin Slade and Horace Ansley. .......Mrs. Slade then recalls the effect of her husbandu0092s death on her social life. And so the story goes, with one thought or one line of dialogue linking the plot to the next developmentu0097until Mrs. Slade reveals her knowledge of Mrs. Ansleyu0092s nighttime visit to the Colosseum twenty-five years before to rendezvous with Mrs. Sladeu0092s fiancé, a revelation that leads Mrs. Ansley to reveal her own secrets about that night. 
.......Perhaps the one flaw in the plot is the contrived chance meeting of Alida Slade and Grace Ansley at the same restaurant of the same hotel in Rome. 


.......The climax occurs when Mrs. Slade reveals what she knows about Mrs. Ansleyu0092s late-night excursion to the Colosseum twenty-five years before to rendezvous with Mrs. Sladeu0092s fiancé, Delphin. Some readers may regard the shocking denouement (conclusion) of the storyu0097revealing that Mrs. Ansleyu0092s daughter is the child of Mrs. Sladeu0092s late husbandu0097as the climax.

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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.) 
Grace's Knitting: The troubled, intertwining lives of Alida and Grace. Grace knits the pattern of their lives with crimson silk, symbolizing the passionate feelings of the two women. When Grace drops the knitting, the knitting symbolizes the wreckage of Grace and Alida's relationship.
The Ancient Ruins: Perhaps the crumbling relationship between Alida and Grace.
Afternoon Light: The last hours of cordiality that Alida and Grace show for each other on the terrace of the restaurant.
Evening Darkness: The entry of Alida and Grace into each other's dark secrets.

Roman Fever and Its Significance 


.......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 bodyu0092s 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 bodyu0092s 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 bodyu0092s 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.

Symbolic Meaning

.......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. 


Destructive Passion

.......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 Alidau0092s 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 Graceu0092s daughter, Barbara, because of her obvious superiority to her own daughter, Jenny. Meanwhile, Grace endures life with Horace while Delphinu0097who fathered her childu0097lives nearby as the husband of Alida. 

Social Status

.......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. Sladeu0097the Slade's wife! Really! Generally the wives of celebrities are such frumps."

.......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 knowu0094 (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 Graceu0097perhaps 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]." 

Is the Mothers' Past the Children's Future?

.......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:
1. Both girls are receiving the attentions of young men, as their mothers did twenty-five years before.
2. One of the girls, Barbara, is vivacious and very smart, as Alida was.
3. The other girl, Jenny, is very beautiful but otherwise ordinary, as Grace was.
4. Barbara is likely to become the fiancée of a promising bachelor, according to Alida. She muses that "Babs would almost certainly come back engaged to the extremely eligible Campolieri." Twenty-five years before, Alida herself was engaged to a promising bachelor.
.......Add to these parallels this circumstance: As daughters of Delphin Slade, Barbara and Jenny are half-sisters. This fact is significant in relation to the story about Grace's Great-Aunt Harriet. While competing for a man with her own sister, she deliberately tricked the girl into exposing herself to Roman fever. 
.......One may speculate that Wharton must have created all these similarities for a reasonu0097namely, to suggest that circumstances are right for the past to repeat itself. 


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?
2. Do you believe Grace told Delphin about her pregnancy?
3. Do you believe Grace told Horace that he was not Barbara's biological father?
4. Do you believe Grace told Barbara that she was Jenny's biological half-sister? 
5. What is the meaning of the underlined words in the following paragraph from the story:

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."