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
“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 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 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. 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.)
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 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.”
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].”
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 reason—namely, to suggest that circumstances are right for the past to repeat itself.