Michael J. Cummings...©
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.”
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.
Campolieri boy is one of the best matches in Rome,” she tells Grace, then
compliments Barbara as being “dynamic.”
think you overrate Babs, my dear,” Grace says.
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.
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."
says whenever she looks at the Forum, it reminds her of the story about
her friend’s “dreadfully wicked great-aunt.”
yes; Great-aunt Harriet,” Grace recalls.
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.”
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
I can repeat every word of the letter that took you there."
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.
my dear, I know what was in that letter because I wrote it!"
sits back down. Tears streak her face as she says, “[I]t was the only letter
I ever had from him!”
says she hated Grace because she knew she was in love with Delphin. Filled
with envy, she wanted Grace out of the way.
for a few weeks; just till I was sure of him.”
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.”
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."
tried your best to get him away from me, didn't you? But you failed; and
I kept him. That's all," Alida says.
recovering from her illness, Grace married Horace Ansley in Florence, leading
Alida to believe at that time that she never really cared for Delphin.
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.
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
God—you answered! I never thought of your answering...."
is now cold on the terrace. Grace gets up and wraps her fur scarf around
better go.... I'm sorry for you,” she says.
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.
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."
moved toward the terrace door, then turned around and said, “I had Barbara.”
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.
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
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.
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
of Work and Year of Publication
“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.
plot is like a house of cards. Every card supports the structure; remove
one and the house collapses.
opening scene in which their daughters, Barbara and Jenny, run off to meet
young men triggers Mrs. Slade’s memories of her and Mrs. Ansley’s 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 “edge.” How could
this be? After all, Mrs. Slade thinks, Barbara is the offspring of “nullities.
. . museum specimens of old New York.” 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 scene—in Mrs. Slade’s mind—to Manhattan, where they were neighbors
in an upscale neighborhood. In turn, the thoughts of Manhattan call up
memories of the women’s lives there and the deaths of their husbands, Delphin
Slade and Horace Ansley. .......Mrs. Slade
then recalls the effect of her husband’s death on her social life. And
so the story goes, with one thought or one line of dialogue linking the
plot to the next development—until Mrs. Slade reveals her knowledge of
Mrs. Ansley’s nighttime visit to the Colosseum twenty-five years before
to rendezvous with Mrs. Slade’s fiancé,
a revelation that leads Mrs. Ansley to reveal her own secrets about that
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.
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
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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,
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.
The last hours of cordiality that Alida and Grace show for each other on
the terrace of the restaurant.
The entry of Alida and Grace into each other's dark secrets.
Fever and Its Significance
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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]."
the Mothers' Past the Children's Future?
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.
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.
may speculate that Wharton must have created all these similarities for
a reason—namely, to suggest that circumstances are right for the past to
Study Questions and Essay
1. Why didn't Grace publicly
acknowledge her love for Delphin and force him to choose between her and
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."