Critical Responses to "Roman Fever"

See also the current bibliography on short stories and the bibliography on "Roman Fever."

The following summaries and quotations provide a sample of the critical perspectives on this story.

Bauer, Dale M. “Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever”: A Rune of History.” College English 50.6 (1988): 681-692.

Bauer’s “Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’: A Rune of History” examines Wharton’s story in terms of its social and political context. Bauer’s article begins with discussing the rumors of Wharton’s own illegitimacy and accusations of being an anti-Semite. However, Bauer contends that the reasons she was looked at as having anti-Semitic ideas were due in large part to the positions the characters in her works held. Bauer next provides a summary of “Roman Fever” and then examines, in depth, how it reflects social foundations and myths as being arbitrary in nature. Further, Bauer examines how Wharton critiques history, social institutions such as marriage and patriarchy, and rivalry between women as caused by sexual jealousy. Bauer closes the article with the assertion that Wharton’s writing is an observation of the society in which she lived: a society of violence, hatred, paranoia, and anger. Bauer’s article references many other authors to support his claims and assertions. His arguments are well written, informative and prove to illuminate the many dimensions and layers of symbolism that occur below the surface of Wharton’s “Roman Fever.”

1. “‘... Her ‘Roman Fever’ questions origins, persecution, and sexual violence -- Rome itself being a powerful site of primal violence. Her story interrogates society’s periodic demand for an ultimate return to origins: whether it be racial purification or sexual housekeeping.” (681)

2. “As I see it, Wharton does not align authorial voice with her characters’, but orchestrates the cultural contradictions she foregrounds through narrative voices. In order to illuminate Wharton’s politics, we need to look in other, less stereotypical places.” (682)

3. “Wharton’s story [‘Roman Fever’] investigates a general force -- call it fascism or patriarchy or discipline and repression -- operating in culture. Wharton sees cultural origins as fictive rather than as mythic and pursues the danger of ignoring the difference.” (683)

4. “In the act of writing, we re-member what has been dis-membered through experience; Wharton’s storytelling here is an act of piecing together the histories of these women competing for Delphin Slade and for authority. Wharton's task is to remember the function of these Roman ruins both as a symbol of Western civilization’s origins and as a place where young American women would go to make love. The history of Roman treachery is repeated in a pale and humorous parody.” (684)

5. “The letter that Alida forges, too, has a similar place and function in the story, precisely because Alida seems to have cleverly turned [Grace’s Grandmother’s] story against Grace. The same story has several different narrative uses depending on the situation: in the first case, the story is intended to discipline the daughters. In the second instance, the story is used as a vehicle for Grace’s aggression against her rival, Alida. In the third instance, the story is re-appropriated by Alida in order to thwart -- if not kill -- her rival. In fact, the very act of storytelling on the terrace after dusk recalls the various levels of treachery that belong to their shared history.” (685)

6. “Since the entirety of the story plays itself out against the backdrop of ‘the great accumulated wreckage of passion and splendor’ in Rome, I am suggesting that Wharton means to put into some relation of the fortunes of civilization and the fortunes of these two families, the Slades and the Ansleys (17). The story insists, first of all, that our own myth of origins -- from which we get all our founding or inaugurating force, our authority -- is inherently arbitrary... Wharton’s fiction, therefore participates in a kind of demystification (destructive) process; both women believe their own inaugural myths about their daughters... Both are wrong about the order of things, and Wharton uncovers a profound emptiness at the heart of history since chance seems to rule.” (685-86)

7. “The surprise of the story demonstrates how hopelessly enmeshed they are in the fictions about women’s place, the fictions their mothers told, for instance the one that Great Aunt Harriet enacted when she arranged for the death of her sister, her rival.” (687)

8. “Mrs. Slade still continues to think of marriage in terms of social hierarchy, just as she had thought about her own marriage to Delphin as the mark of social superiority over her rival. Although she notices that Roman fever has changed over the years, and the girls are no longer in danger of catching malaria, she does not notice that her account of Babs and Jenny -- as rivals for the same man -- dooms her to a repetition of her own history.” (687)

9. “Neither Mrs. Slade nor Mrs. Ansley can keep herself in check any longer after twenty-five years of silence. Hence, in their discussion, they let loose with what Wharton herself calls ‘violence.’ Although Alida realizes somehow that her aggression is misdirected, she is powerless to control it.” (687)

10. If women as signs represent American culture, then Grace Ansley’s gesture can only mean that this character rejects the domestic harmony and opts, instead, for the scene of destruction, the scene of confrontation with the other (Alida Slade) who represents the repressions of patriarchal culture that has infected them (like the fever itself). By throwing the whole notion of paternity in doubt, and therefore throwing up her daughter’s name for grabs, she displaces herself as sign of American culture and becomes the signifier of the disruption of the proper name, of paternity, of patriarchal codes by which women are conventionally signified.” (689)

11. “Wharton’s short story reproduces, at the level of form, the metaphor of the inverted telescope that describes the vision of the two women: it reduces the social landscape many times over and thereby participates in the scene of destruction.” (690)

12. Mrs. Slade refuses to think through to the source of her hatred for Mrs. Ansley; she does not want to acknowledge that her paranoia about Mrs. Ansley’s smile or offhand comments emerges from her dis-ease with the social law she is compelled to follow. Wharton demonstrates the lack of self examination at the heart of all social relations -- between the anti-Semites and the Jews, and between these two little women here -- Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, looking at each other through the wrong end of their telescopes.” (692)

Berkove, Lawrence. “‘Roman Fever’: A Mortal Malady.” CEA Critic. 56. 2 (1994): 56-60.

Lawrence I. Berkove’s“‘Roman Fever’: A Mortal Malady,” looks at Edith Wharton’s story in terms of the moral concepts that “Roman Fever” examines. First, Berkove notes the greatness of this work, saying that it is one of her best known and most frequently anthologized stories but points out the little critical attention it has received. Next, he claims that one cannot read this work as merely a critique of manners and social strictures. Rather, one should read it in terms of the moral undertones present throughout the work. Berkove gives the reader several clues as to the “ominous level of immorality” in the title of the story alone (56). He provides a concise definition of the phenomenon of Roman fever and how it was virtually used as a weapon by the characters on the work, against their rivals. Also, he examines how the character of Adila Slade deliberately repeats history and how this history could be repeated with her daughter Jenny with Grace’s daughter, Babs. Berkove then examines the moral character of the figures in the work in order to depict the level of immorality present throughout the story. He points out that the women in the work participate in savage cruelty on the same grounds as Roman gladiators in ancient Rome. He discusses the mixture of Roman and pagan vales with that of Christian ideals, which present themselves in the passions of the women in this story. Berkove closes the article by examining Wharton’s view of women as being not necessarily morally superior to men in that deception and lies are at the center of the character’s relationship in “Roman Fever.”

1. “‘Roman Fever,’ judging by the frequency with which it is included in anthologies of short stories and American literature, is undoubtedly one of Edith Wharton’s most respected stories. Edith Wharton, too, has been subject to a recent revival of interest. It is therefore surprising that the story has received so little critical attention.” (56)

2. “Wharton’s genius, it turns out, is moral as well as aesthetic; the story besides being artistic is a powerful exemplum about the dangerous susceptibility of human nature to the mortal diseases of the passions.” (56)

3. Alida consciously and deliberately repeated the act of Aunt Harriet and hopes at the time for the same consequence to result. That Grace did not die does not exculpate Alida; the malicious intent was there.” (57-58)

4. “The central action of the story takes place in the Colosseum, a place where gladiators fought. Unbeknown to themselves, Alida and Grace continue the gladiatorial tradition. They have been relentless and unscrupulous, using their bodies, their husbands, their daughters, and their lives of lies as weapons to score on each other. In the name of love, they have been rivals for twenty-five years and sought to kill each other, one literally and the other figuratively.” (59)

5. “In selecting two such women to be the protagonists of ‘Roman Fever,’ Wharton demonstrates he distance from the position that women are by nature morally superior to men. She also conveys her seriousness about the moral standards that women as well as men must obey to rise above the natural tendency to savagery. ” (60)

Petry, Alice Hall. “A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever.’” Studies in Short Fiction 24.2 (1987): 163-166.

Alice Hall Petry’s “A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’” argues for more critical and serious reading of the text. That is, “Roman Fever” is one of Wharton’s most widely anthologized and acclaimed work, though there has been very little critical examination of the text. The main focus of Petry’s article is on the role of knitting as a stereotypical activity of “older” women. However, one finds that it possesses much more significance upon closer inspection. Wharton is able to destroy the stereotype by placing it in stark contrast to the interior lives of the characters as passionate individuals, which also reveals the actual events of their past. Petry shows a number of different ways in which knitting is used throughout the story. First, Grace knits with crimson silk, which suggests several layers of passion. Grace uses knitting to occupy herself as a kind of nervous fidgeting to cover any signs of guilt she may have concerning her past. Also, knitting enables her to be distant without actually seeming as though she is ignoring questions and answers. It further is an aid for Grace in avoiding eye contact with Alida. Perty also notes that as Grace gains more confidence through the progression of the story, she relies less and less on her knitting. In fact, by the end of “Roman Fever,” she has abandoned it knitting and leaves it for Alida to pick up as she walks away. This implies that Grace no longer needs to knit and Alida will soon turn to the activity as a pastime. Petry examines knitting as a symbolic imagery pattern in the effort to elaborate the point that “Roman Fever” is a multi-layered piece that deserves more critical attention.

1. “It is curious that so widely-anthologized a work has generated such a paucity of critical interest, and even more curious that the few appraisals which it has received have been so tepid...” (163)

2. “The implication clearly is that the ladies are physically, emotionally, and intellectually capable of nothing more than the traditionally passive, repetitive and undemanding task of knitting. By having the daughters patronize their mothers in this fashion, Wharton is predisposing the reader to perceive the ladies as stereotypical matrons; and the rest of the story will be devoted to obliterating this stereotype, to exposing the intense passions which have been seething in both women for more than twenty-five years.” (163)

3. “The ‘evidently’ is eloquent, for although Grace may seem embarrassed by her hobby, the physical objects themselves tell a far different story about her: she has chosen ‘crimson’ silk, an intensely passionate color; and the skein has been ‘run through’ by needles, a startlingly assertive image. The sensuality and forcefulness suggested by her knitting materials will help render plausible her passionate moonlight tryst with Delphin Slade twenty-five years earlier, as well as her capacity to stand up to the vicious taunts of Alida, the ‘dark lady’ (833) of the piece.” (164)

4. “Alida’s palpable annoyance suggests that Grace’s knitting is more than just an evasion tactic: those needles are effective psychological weapons against a woman who is deliberately tormenting her for having once loved Delphin Slade. In fine, the fact that Grace knits under duress indicates that she is vastly different from the pale, cringing matron of the story’s opening paragraphs.” (165)

5. “As the story closes, Grace realizes that she has the upper hand, having not only slept with Delphin, but also given birth to the daughter Alida so covets. Grace’s newly dominant status is signified by changed body language; but more importantly, Grace is no longer associated with knitting. She departs from the restaurant terrace apparently without bothering to pick up her dropped knitting materials. Further, she wraps her throat in a scarf -- not a knitted scarf, but one of sensuous fur. And as a subtle underscoring of the reversal of the two women’s roles, it is the defeated Alida who picks up her hand-bag -- presumably to do some knitting (of the usual mundane kind) of her own.” (166)

Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. “Edith Wharton’s Case of Roman Fever.” Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe. New York: P. Lang, 1993. 313–31.

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney's “Edith Wharton’s Case of Roman Fever” looks at the meaning of the title of “Roman Fever” as both ironic and autobiographical. Sweeney takes care throughout the article to provide both and explanation of the title within the historical context of Rome and the fear of Roman fever, as well as the technical, medical phenomenon of this malady. Sweeney also provides an excellent summary of Wharton’s story. Another interesting aspect of this article is the discussion of Henry James, “Daisy Miller” as a possible influence on the writing of “Roman Fever,” and the relationship between James and Wharton. Sweeney further examines the relationship Wharton experienced between literature and sexuality. Also, she provides a discussion of the role of letter writing and “secret letters” found throughout the works of Edith Wharton. In sum, Sweeney provides a very accessible article concerning many different thematic and autobiographic elements found in “Roman Fever,” as well as providing an interesting examination of the historical context in which this story was written.

1. “The term [roman fever] evokes contagion, promiscuity, even sexual disease -- as well as other ‘different things’ that women experience in Rome in Wharton’s story. (‘Fever’ itself connotes excitement, passion, and irreducible desire as much as it does high body temperature.) And because contagious malaria was usually fatal, Wharton’s title also alludes to the punishment for such indiscretion. “Roman fever” thus functions as a metaphor for both the seductive nature of illicit knowledge and the punishment for experiencing it.” (315)

2. “Wharton’s visits to Rome in 1932 and 1934 inspired the story’s setting, imagery, and tone. For Wharton, as for her characters Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, returning to Rome was “another instance of backward glancing” (Lewis, Edith Wharton, 522), marked by ambivalent memories of an earlier visit that evoked, in turn, a former marriage -- in Wharton’s case her 1903 trip to Italy with her husband Teddy.” (316)

3. “...In 1932 and 1934, when Wharton revisited Italy, the violent history inscribed in the ruins of the Roman arena was echoed by Mussolini’s Fascist government. It must have seemed as if Rome, too, was doomed to keep repeating the strife of earlier generation. These many, often contradictory, meanings make the Colosseum a particularly appropriate symbol, in ‘Roman Fever,’ for women’s ambivalence toward forbidden knowledge.” (318)

4. “The absurd notion of Wharton as a mere disciple or imitator of James was thoroughly laid to rest some time ago; yet this does not mean that Wharton and James did not influence each other, or that Wharton never responded to James’ fiction in her own. Given the close friendship between these two writers, it is astonishing that until not no one has noticed the similarities and differences between ‘Daisy Miller,’ James’ first critical and popular success, and ‘Roman Fever, one of Wharton’s most widely anthologized stories... However, the most profound difference between ‘Roman Fever’ and ‘Daisy Miller’ is that, in Wharton’s story, experiences prohibited to women are textual as well as sexual.” (319)

5. “Roman fever was the punishment for disobedience in the cautionary tale that Grace Ansley’s mother told her, and roman fever, apparently, was exactly what Edith herself suffered when mother once allowed her the wrong sort of reading.” (321)

6. “In Wharton’s fictional world, such love letters are as potent as a box of matches. They remain powerful even though unread or unreadable, and they affect characters’ present lives even though written in the past. One the one hand, love letters enable women to express her sexuality -- if only in secret. On the other hand, they have the power to ruin her reputation, endanger her marriage, and otherwise punish her for a long-ago indiscretion.” (325)

7. “Just as Alida’s letter is already destroyed before ‘Roman Fever’ begins, so most female writers in Wharton’s fiction are either satirically depicted or dead before the story starts. Moreover, “Roman Fever” makes it terrible clear that Alida’s writing does not belong to her: she plagiarized its plot from the women in Grace’s family, and forged authorship with Delphin’s initials. Alida discovers too late that she cannot control the masculine authorship and authority she has invoked; instead it controls her, even from beyond the grave. Nor can she control her text’s interpretation: Grace is not humiliated by the love letter, as Alida hoped, but treasures its memories for years” (326)

8. “After all, the letter’s loss turns Wharton’s general anxiety over textuality and sexuality into more specific worries about both literary and biological parentage: just as Grace receives the letter that Alida never owned to begin with, so she possesses the daughter -- brilliant Barbra, who resembles her brilliant father -- whom Alida covets instead of her own. And the purloined letter inevitably reminds us that Wharton’s own story of female transgression and its painful consequences was stolen, in part, from a text fathered by a man of considerable authority: Henry James’ ‘Daisy Miller.’” (327)

9. “We can read ‘Roman Fever,’ then, as Wharton’s own confession of purloined masculine discourse, and especially of turning the imaginary, plot, setting and themes of James’ ‘Daisy Miller’ to her own quite different purpose. We can read it as an account of the curse of patriarchy, which turns women against each other and themselves. We can also read it as yet another cautionary tale, one which illustrates what Wharton herself suffered for venturing beyond the narrow confines of proper feminine behavior.” (328)

10. “In its allusion to romance, romans, and the seductive dangers of Rome, ‘Roman Fever’ poignantly expresses Wharton’s complicated feelings about forbidden carnal and literary knowledge. By articulating her anxiety, she transformed it into art.” (328)

Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Romantic Fever: The Second Story as Illegitimate Daughter in Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever.’” Narrative 6.2 (1998): 188-98.

Mortimer’s article examines Wharton’s “Roman Fever” as a story that is structured with the concept of the “second story.” As stated at the outset of the article, “By ‘second story’ I mean a story not told outright but necessary to our understanding” (188). Mortimer discusses several dimensions of “Roman Fever,” such as a general over view of the plot, the characters, sexual content, imagery patterns, the rivalry between the two women, and the differences that are extended from generation to generation. This article provides many fascinating insights as to how one might read the story initially, and examines the notion of Wharton’s final words as essential to the reader’s impression of the work. Mortimer takes great care to use plot summary and the actual events of in the story to further her notion of the “second story” and make it very clear to the reader. Additionally, Mortimer shows other instances in literature wherein this particular concept is applicable as making the stories memorable to the reader how this concept is pertinent to “Roman Fever.” This is an excellent article in that it is accessible to the reader because Mortimer uses straightforward language in her discussion and a sufficient number of quotations from “Roman Fever,” and is careful to explain the assertions made about Wharton’s story.

1. “‘'Roman Fever’ involves the reader in building a narrative construction that fixes the anecdote in memory. It calls for a reading of the tip of the iceberg whose submerged part drives the entire story to its crashing conclusion.” (188)

2. “We see each in turn through the somewhat tainted vision of the other. Mrs. Alida Slade is darker and fuller, with high color and energetic brows over a small determined nose; Mrs. Ansley thinks her ‘awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks’ (14). She is not sentimental (she does not like the moonlight [11]), but rather is hard ruthless, unloving, superficial and external. Mrs. Grace Ansley is smaller, paler, less sure of herself, of ‘her rights in the world;’ of Mrs. Slade, who considers her old-fashioned (10). She is the sentimental one, not the particularly bright, but once beautiful, loving, faithful, and inward-turning.” (189)

3. “While the first story is staid because rule-governed and classical in design and structure, and because it has order, proportion, simplicity, and harmony, the second is feverish because it is told only in erupting elliptical fragments, apparently unintended, disguised and displaced. The disorder and disruption of romantic excess - love, passion, risk, adventure, danger, and novels of romantic style - make it a ruin of classical design. The claim on our interest arises in this central conflict, which lies both in the plot and in the narrative structure.” (189)

4. “The conversation on the terrace, which we hear most of from Mrs. Slade’s point of view, resembles a power struggle; this struggle for the uppermost hand camouflages the emerging second story; it is a structure of hiding? Wharton’s ironic treatment of the verbal sparring of the two women serves to constitute the ‘point’ of the story, a point that covers the protected second story. Mrs. Slade repeatedly lays siege to the second story, without knowing there is one. Mrs. Ansely’s defensive fortification surrounding her secret takes the form of her hesitation to reply, her ‘forgetting,’ and her refusal to speak of her memories, misread by Mrs. Slade as an inability to have memories?” (190)

5. “Not without prior announcements, the second story comes into the first via devious disguises and displacements. It is its very illegitimacy that gives this ‘daughter’ of the first story the edge - that takes her out of the stuffy milieu to which she was born and hence grants her the ability to attract. It is the illegitimate birth of the second story that boxes our ears and fixes the story in our memory. The second comes in fragments, like cards falling on the table until the final trump; or like an offspring pushed unplanned from Grace as if by an aggressive midwife, Alida. It hovers in the symbolic darkness inside the Colosseum, like the child which forms hidden from view in the womb. It smolders in Grace’s fuzzy memory, her faint, faltering murmurs, her denials, her uncertainties, her disavowals, even her dropped knitting, which point to something to hide.” (192)

6. “Paired oppositions - two women, two daughters, American propriety and Roman passion, past generations and present - illuminate the tensions in the narrative construction between the staid, correct first story and the feverish, illegitimate second story. As I have suggested, the relation of the first story to the second parallels the relation between the middle-aged widows and their modern young daughters, a comparison that also extends backward to the mothers and grandmothers of the two protagonists. These generational moments are neatly connected with the literal and symbolic meaning of the words.” (192)

7. “For the young Grace, however, Roman fever meant not only catching cold, and not just the generic sentiment risk just described, but especially the secret physical passion she shared with Delphin Slade, which occurred at dusk in the dangerous Colosseum. Slade is the dynamo of the story, the only male character with a generative power; it is also suggestive that in his material life he rises to prominence and wealth because of his abilities and successes. Horace, on the other hand, is bracketed by irreproachability (12); too respectable to have contributed any life to the second story, he sows no sexual seed, remains sterile. Only Delphin Slade’s contribution, giving Barbara Ansely two fathers, produces the illegitimate second story. Just as Grace’s sexual act has remained camouflaged by respectability, the symbolic value of Roman fever as sexual fulfillment remains in the second story; it is never part of the conversation.” (193)

8. “The narrative insists, giving significant mental space to the daughters’ story, because of the feverish light reflects on the mother’s second story. The younger generation harks back to the old: the mothers are reminded about their first meeting in Rome, in their twenties, because their daughters are now in a similar situation. Mrs. Slade’s secret envy and hatred for Mrs. Ansely hatred is brought into focus by her comparison of the two daughters... Readers have been quick to say that Jenny and Barbara reproduce Grace and Alida, as young ladies competing for the same man. Barbara White for example suggests that the ‘veritable epidemic’ of jealousy extends o the daughters (9), but I think this rivalry between them exists mainly in the mother’s minds. I find Alida’s envy, though prompted in par by her pretensions for Jenny, has much more to do with her past and continuing rivalry with Mrs. Ansley than any real rivalry between the daughters. It is Mrs. Slade who bitterly reflects that Jenny has cannot possibly win out over the brilliant, dynamic Barbara, just as Alida feared Grace’s sweetness and beauty... Nor does one daughter send the other away.” (194)

9. “If ‘Roman Fever’ is telling us precisely that sex did happen in the mothers’ generation, the “living, moving something” that makes the story memorable is the displacement of its avowal. The second story lies in the symbolic shadows of literal meanings. It displaces its sexual story onto the daughters’ free-flying courtship. It lurks in the multiple ideas of Roman fever– not just as an illness and not just as sentimental romance, but a camouflage of pregnancy and a euphemism of sex. The mechanisms of hiding reveal what they purport to hide: they are double. And because it pretends to censure an untellable, illegitimate story, this devious narrative claims space in our minds.” (194-95)

10. “To a large degree, the reader’s construction is already figured in the plot as I have shown: the story of illegal sex and pleasure, hidden passions, a bastard birth, etc., provides a thematic figure of the narration. Thus there are two moments in our reading. In the first we collect the bits of knowledge about events of the past, encoded in the language. The second story mode puts the reader in the position in seeking that particular referential knowledge and enhances our pleasure - but it endures only after the first reading, and then never returns.” (196)

11. “Like Alida, we as readers are in a state of partial misknowledge or misprision about the story until in a final blazing moment, which puts everything right in n instant, which validates the submerged impressions, the flaky layers of significance, the displacements and denegations in which our suspicions have until then floundered. Those ungrammaticalities of the first story are then satisfactorily explained by the second. In a roundabout way that is here shown to characterized a woman’s creativity, ‘Roman Fever’ stumbles to its striking conclusion and there ratifies the feverish art of the interpreter.” (197)

Other Articles of Interest:

Comins, Barbra. “ ‘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.

Hoeller, Hildegard. "The Illegitimate Excess of Motherhood in "The Old Maid," "Her Son," and "Roman Fever." Chapter 7 of Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. 140-172.

Annotations by Brian T. Anderson

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