27 pages 54 minutes read

Edith Wharton

Roman Fever

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1934

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Summary: “Roman Fever”

Edith Wharton wrote “Roman Fever” near the end of a career that spanned more than five decades. Like many of her works, this 1934 short story investigates the social norms of affluent people from the US, considering the forms of violence these norms tolerate and even encourage. Spare in setting and restricted in action, the story shifts between the present and the past as it depicts a love triangle’s long reverberations. As the Roman backdrop makes clear, the past can intrude on the present in ways that exceed expectations.

References in this guide are to Edith Wharton: Collected Stories, 1911-1937 (Library of America, 2001). “Roman Fever” first appeared in Liberty magazine in November 1934 and was included in Wharton’s final volume of short stories, The World Over, published in 1936 by D. Appleton-Century.

Four women have lunched together, and the meal is long over. The younger two (Jenny and Barbara) are hurrying off, their voices rising as they descend the stairs to their next adventure. Their mothers, Alida and Grace, linger on the terrace, taking in the lovely view across the city of Rome. As they have no plans, the women pass the afternoon talking and reminiscing. There is little action in the story—the women converse as darkness falls—but as the conversation unfolds, each must reassess both her life and her relationship with her “friend.”

Alida Slade and Grace Ansley have known each other for decades. They were unmarried girls together in Rome many years earlier and then lived across the street from one another as young mothers in New York City. Proximity did not cement their friendship, however, and Alida recalls feeling relief when her husband’s financial success enabled them to move to Park Avenue. Although they exchanged conventional condolences at the death of their respective spouses, the women had been out of communication again until chance brought them, and their daughters, to Rome at the same time. This accident renews their friendship and leads them to the terrace where “Roman Fever” takes place.

The story’s point of view privileges Alida’s internal world over Grace’s as they discuss what it means to be a mother and recall their younger days. Alida drives the conversation, trying to draw her friend’s attention to the scenery while making observations about Rome; in contrast, Grace “almost furtively” takes out her knitting and focuses her attention on it. Alida’s reflections lead her to think with dismay about her daughter’s marital prospects because she is so much less brilliant than Grace’s child. A “recoil of self-disgust” leads Alida to ask herself why she habitually envies Grace (756).

The view might be “the most beautiful” in the world, but it increases rather than diminishes Alida’s exasperation (750). She pursues a different line of conversation, asking Grace if she is afraid of “Roman fever or pneumonia” (756-57), recalling the serious illness she contracted many years before, a sickness that gossip attributed to an expedition to see the moon rise at one of Rome’s ruins. As Alida urges her friend to share details of this scandalous outing, they pause to relate the story of Grace’s great-aunt Harriet: “The one was who supposed to have sent her young sister out to the Forum after sunset to gather a night-blooming flower” (757). The sister became ill and died, providing a cautionary tale to frighten young women from venturing into these romantic but deadly settings. The great-aunt confessed many years later that she sent her sister on this errand not for a flower but because she was jealous—they were in love with the same man.

Alida goes on to confess to Grace. Years before, jealous of her friend’s happiness and beauty, Alida forged a letter from her fiancé, Delphin Slade, to Grace asking her to meet him at the Colosseum. Alida is unsure why she is revealing her actions now. Although Grace burned the letter, she is deeply saddened at this cutting news, for she treasured the memory of Delphin’s interest in her. Alida seeks to excuse her cruelty, noting that Grace’s marriage soon after had led her to assume that her feelings toward Delphin had not been profound. The narrator interrupts the conversation, re-establishing the setting and time. Waiters busily prepare the terrace for dinner while a woman searches for a rubber band that had held the leaves of her tattered guidebook in place.

As their conversation resumes, in the story’s final section, Alida says that she sent the letter as a joke, imagining Grace “waiting around there after dark, dodging out of sight, listening for every sound, trying to get in.” She adds, “Of course I was upset when I heard you were so ill afterward” (761). Quietly, Grace matches her cruelty, informing Alida that the outing was not in vain. She wrote to Delphin in answer to the forged letter, and he came to meet her that night. The news devastates Alida. When she attempts to shake off the feeling, noting that she had 25 years with Delphin while Grace had only had a forged letter, the latter utters a simple, sharp correction that ends the story: “I had Barbara” (762).