The fine line between the fear of the unknown and what is known can sometimes become blurred. In the short story “Roman Fever”, Edith Wharton does just that by telling the story of two ladies who were ‘childhood friends’. Both are recently widowed, and encounter each other in Rome by coincidence while traveling abroad with their daughters Jenny and Barbara. One of the ladies, Alida Slade, has long suspected that her intimate friend, Grace Ansley was involved with her fiance many years ago and has been harboring some sort of dark secret about that liaison. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Slade and Mrs.
Ansley wonder about the familiar situation they have found themselves and their daughters in while in Rome. The similarity between the two holidays has brought many of Mrs. Slade’s lingering doubts back to the surface. Mrs. Slade’s actions throughout the story are motivated by the fear of what she does not know and the fear of what she suspects to be true. In addition, Mrs. Slade’s inherent dislike of Grace, her feelings of insecurity, jealously, and their current circumstances will force her into revealing a long kept secret of her own that she hopes will reveal the truth she has sought all these years. Mrs.
Slade’s peculiar behavior throughout the story is directly motivated by all of these factors. Jealousy and envy have always played a major role in the intertwined lives of Alida Slade and Grace Ansley. The feelings of jealousy and envy date back to when Alida and Grace first met while on a holiday in Rome as younger women. As they begin to reminisce about the onset of their friendship many years ago, they realize that although they have been friends for many years, they are relative strangers. Sitting outside in silence, the two women, “who have been intimate since childhood, reflect how little they knew each other” (Wharton 1368).
Slowly, the reader begins to understand that there had been a subtle, hidden competition for Alida’s fiance, Delphin. Alida worried that Grace was attempting to steal her fiance from her. This fear fuels the jealousy and envy Alida feels towards Grace and the resurfacing of those feelings motivates Alida’s odd behavior of revisiting the past in the story. Although Alida Slade projects an image of well-bred confidence, she is actually very insecure and relentlessly compares her life to that of Grace’s.
Seeing as they end up living across the street from one another, the reader soon realizes that although their lives are ironically similar, Alida considers hers to be lacking by comparison. The only big diffence is that of how Alida feels. Grace does not show the same feelings as Alida. From the onset of the story, Alida’s thoughts are in the forefront, while Grace’s thoughts assume a lesser role. The readers automatically make more of a connection with Alida more so than Grace. This leads the readers to feel what Alida is feeling and thinking instead of Grace, allowing more of an eventful feel to the story.
Through Wharton’s use of the third person omniscient point of view, the reader senses the underlying competition between the two women. Alida sees Grace and her husband Horace made a “good-looking, irreproachable, exemplary”, (Wharton 1368) couple, stereotyping them as “museum specimens of old New York”, (Wharton 1368), which in itself is exactly like her, yet she does not see it. After further analyzing the story, the reader realizes that Alida’s envy of Grace, compounded with her own doubts of fears about the past intensifies her hatred for Grace and her desire for revenge.
Alida Slade had long speculated that Grace and her fiance, Delphin, were once romantically involved, and even after all these years married to Delphin, she still feels inferior to Grace because of her doubts. Additionally, since the death of her well known husband, Alida’s life seems dull and she craves the attention that was part of that lifestyle. By creating drama with Grace, she hopes to at long last discover the truth and feed her need for attention at the same time. During the conversation on the terrace, Alida begins to make subtle comments, as if she is trying to make Grace irritated and admit to the affair.
These elusive comments eventually substantiate the dramatic conclusion between the two friends, although the reader may miss many of the comments because of their subtlety. Alida mentions a story about Grace’s Great-aunt Harriet that Grace’s mother had once told them. As Grace is commenting on the tale, Alida stops her mid sentence and purposely adds, “but she really sent her because they were in love with the same man”, (Wharton 1372), as if to nudge Grace’s confession along. As the conversation progress, so does the underlying tension.
Alida’s comments to Grace become short and terse, almost to the point where she is bluntly stating her true feelings; something Alida has never done with Grace. Alida wants Grace to admit to the affair with Delphin and when she does not, Alida clearly says, “ You had been out late sight-seeing, hadn’t you? ”(Wharton 1373) Grace still does not admit to the affair and Alida finally plays her trump card, telling Grace that is was she who wrote the letter that proposed the secret meeting, not Delphin.
An outside source, James Phelan, point of view claims “Alida seeks to injure Grace and establish her own power over her by telling Grace about the forgery” (343). In other words, Alida knows telling Grace will put the feelings of being jealous and envious out of the way, even if it was momentary, making Alida feel better about herself. Alida craves the powerfulness between the two. In another telling comment, Alida reveals another purpose of her writing the letter.
She hoped that Grace would go out into the damp night to supposedly meet Delphin and catch a cold or “Roman fever” as one would say and be out of the picture for a few weeks, but then goes on to say, “Of course I never thought you’d die”, (Wharton 1374), subconsciously imitating Great-aunt Harriet story about sisters (or friends) in love with the same man. Alida was motivated by jealousy and fear to attempt to rid herself of Grace. Mrs. Slade’s socio-economic class also indirectly motivates her jealousy of Mrs. Ansley. Wharton often wrote about things that she was familiar with and her lifestyle is reflected in the story “Roman Fever”.
Edith Wharton was “born to wealth and privileged in the leisured society of the nineteenth-century Old New York” (Benstock vii), as was Alida Slade and Grace Ansley. People from such an entitled background have certain expectations. When these expectations are not fulfilled, people can rebel against their moral upbringing and seek retribution. This is the case with Alida Slade and her desire to feel superior to Grace Ansley. Although Alida does not find out until the end of their time together in Rome, Grace does not feel the same way Alida does seeing as Grace ultimately got whar she wanted.
Unfulfilled expectations also feed Alida’s insecurities about the relationship between Grace and Delphin. Alida expects to marry well and continue to lead the lifestyle that she is accustomed to and Grace may have cause a disruption in those plans. Wharton also skillfully convolutes the seemingly separate stories of the two main characters and that of their daughters by comparing illusive similarities and linking Alida’s motivation to both. History seems to be repeating itself when the reader takes a step back from the story and compares the women’s lives and the similar circumstances their daughter’s now are experiencing.
Alida envies Grace’s daughter Barbara and in her mind, her own daughter Jenny pales in comparison. She drops hints of her true feeling to Grace when she thinks aloud “how two such exemplary characters such as you and Horace had managed to produce” a daughter like Babs (Wharton 1371). This not only is a subtle foreshadowing, leading to the ending of the story, but exemplifies exactly how Alida feels. As seen throughout the text, “This type of resentment toward the envied person, ‘agent-focused resentment’, when the envious person feels that another has acquired superiority unfairly” (Comins 10) provides Alida with added motivation.
Alida even catches herself thinking “Jenny [is] such a perfect daughter that she needed no excessive mothering. ‘Now with Babs Ansley I don’t know that I should be so quiet”, (Wharton 1369). Then when Grace defends her own daughter, Alida very bluntly says, “I appreciate [Babs]. And perhaps envy you” (Wharton 1371) and “I have always wanted a brilliant daughter … and never quiet understood why I got an angel instead” (Wharton 1371). Alida is fearful that her daughter will experience the same type of self-doubt she experienced when competing with Grace.
Wharton’s title, “Roman Fever” is symbolic to the story because Roman fever, which used to refer to Malaria, represents the burning desires that are left unstated between the characters. Grace Ansley figuratively developed Roman fever when she burned with love for Delphin. Alida Slade figuratively contracted it when Grace’s love for Delphin filled her with hatred and the desire to seek revenge by writing the letter. Roman fever secretly continues to simmer below the surface for the next twenty-five years.
It flares up again when the two friends encounter each other in Rome and the similarities between their daughters and their current situation threatens to make history repeat itself. The “fever” motivated both women to exorcise the demons from their past, each with the hopes of hurting the other, just as they had been hurt themselves. The reader has to wonder, if Alida had never written the letter in the first place, would any of this had happened? Delphin may have desired Grace, but since he was already engaged to Alida, so he may have never acted upon those desires. That is until Alida wrote to Grace, posing as Delphin and Grace replied.
Now, although she has had Delphin all these years, she still feels the need to punish Grace and attempt to recover the feelings of superiority she lost when Delphin died. She subconsciously attempts to achieve this by revealing her secret and fails. This illistrates the age-old saying, “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”.
Works Cited: Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance a Biography of Edith Wharton. Austin: University of Texas, 2004. Print. Bowlby, Rachel. “‘I Had Barbara’: Women’s Ties and Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17. 3 (2006): 37-51. Print. Comins, Barbara. “‘Outrageous Trap’: Envy and Jealousy in Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’ and Fitzgerald’s ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair'” Edith Wharton Review 17. 1 (2001): 9-12. Print. Phelan, James. “Narrative as Rhetoric and Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever: Progression, Configuration, and the Ethics of Surprise. ” A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. Walter Jost, and Wendy Olmsted. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. , 2004. 340-353. Print. Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever. ” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 8th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 1366-1375. Print.