Roman Fever Summary

Edith Wharton

Roman Fever

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Roman Fever Summary

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Roman Fever is a 1934 short story by American writer Edith Wharton, first published in the magazine Liberty and later included in Wharton’s final short-story collection, The World Over. Focusing on a pair of middle-aged American women on a trip to Rome with their daughters, it explores a long-time rivalry between the women and the way their conflict has shaped their lives and the lives of their daughters. Over the course of the trip, long-held secrets are revealed that call into question all the beliefs they’ve held about their conflict and their lives. The story explores themes including female relationships and the tensions lurking underneath, societal norms and expectations, marriage, conflicts between generations, hypocrisy, and the evolution of relationships and society. Like in many of Wharton’s stories, the location, in this case Rome,  plays a prominent role and is seen by many as a character in its own right.

The story begins with two American women, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, enjoying the view in Rome. Their respective daughters, Barbara and Jenny, are having fun and preparing to go socialize among the Romans. However, the older women are content to simply enjoy their beautiful surroundings. Mrs. Slade sees her friend as old-fashioned, and reminisces about their time together in Rome when they themselves were teenagers. The two reminisce and wonder if their daughters will choose to stay in Rome, as both are being courted by handsome Italian aviators. Mrs. Slade thinks to herself that she and Mrs. Ansley don’t know each other very well. They knew each other since they were young, and lived near each other during their married life. They became widows roughly the same time, left to raise their daughters. Mrs. Slade, whose husband Delphin Slade was a prominent lawyer, regrets that her husband’s death has robbed her of the social prominence she used to have.

Mrs. Ansley pities her friend, and the two women muse about what Rome means to them and means to their daughters. They see a lot of themselves when they were young in their daughters now. The two talk about their daughters, and Mrs. Slade says that she sees her daughter Jenny as merely an enabler for the more dynamic Barbara. She states that she’s amazed that Mrs. Ansley and her late husband Horace were able to produce a daughter as extraordinary as Barbara. Mrs. Ansley tries to play it off, but Mrs. Slade continues to talk glowingly about the Ansley girl. They discuss romantic rivalries in their family, and the so-called “roman fever” that makes people fall in love in Rome. They continue to reminisce, and their conversation turns to a knight when they were young that Mrs. Ansley snuck out of the house and caught a chill. Mrs. Ansley denies remembering, but is clearly hiding something.

Mrs. Slade bursts out that she knows that Mrs. Ansley once snuck out to meet with Delphin Slade while he was already engaged. Mrs. Ansley tries to calm her friend down, but Mrs. Slade recites the words of a letter that Delphin sent to Mrs. Ansley one night, asking her to meet him at the Colosseum. Mrs. Ansley says this is impossible, because she burned the letter and Mrs. Slade shouldn’t know it. Mrs. Slade reveals that she was the one who wrote it, not Delphin. Mrs. Ansley is devastated and confesses that she did go to meet Delphin when she got the letter. Mrs. Slade, her anger fading, admits that she saw Mrs. Ansley as a threat, and tried to get her out of the way with the fake letter. She asks if Mrs. Ansley thinks she’s a monster. Mrs. Ansley doesn’t answer, although she states that she still treasures the memory of the letter even if it wasn’t real.

Although Mrs. Slade feels pity for her friend, she can’t help but gloat and remind her that she wound up with Delphin. She assuages her guilt by saying that Mrs. Ansley wound up with Horace anyway, so her infatuation with Delphin didn’t hold her back for long. She says she wrote the letter as a joke and was amused by the idea of Mrs. Ansley trying to sneak into the Colosseum for a tryst and winding up alone. Mrs. Ansley reveals that Delphin did actually meet her at the Colosseum. Mrs. Slade accuses her of lying, but Mrs. Ansley reveals that she sent a reply to the fake letter and Delphin responded.

Mrs. Ansley states that she feels sorry for her friend, but Mrs. Slade expresses disbelief. After all, she says, she had Delphin for twenty-five years, and Mrs. Ansley had nothing to remind her of Delphin besides a letter that Delphin didn’t actually write. Mrs. Ansley’s final cutting reply is “I had Barbara.” before she walks away, revealing that Delphin was the father of both girls.

Edith Wharton is a three-time Nobel Prize nominee for Literature who is considered one of the most successful and accomplished American novelists of her era. In an era where female novelists were still rare, especially in the United States, her novels achieved success and many are considered American classics today. She was also an extremely prolific writer despite not publishing her first novel until she was 40, writing twenty-three novels in her life including Pulitzer Prize winner The Age of Innocence, as well as three collections of poetry, sixteen short story collections including The World Over, and nine volumes of nonfiction, the majority based around interior design and architecture.