Literature Annotations


Wharton, Edith
Roman Fever


Genre Short Story (11 pp.)
KeywordsAdolescence, Disease and Health, Infectious Disease, Love, Mother-Daughter Relationship, Sexuality
Summary

Wealthy American widows Alida Slade and Grace Ansley have taken their two marriageable daughters on a Continental tour. As the story opens, the older women linger at a restaurant with a view of the Forum while their daughters leave for an unchaperoned outing. The women talk of how carefully their mothers guarded them, and how their own mothers were in turn warned of Roman fever to keep them in at night.

Alida pushes the talk back to their girlhood, and Grace’s illness after a nighttime sightseeing trip; she reveals her knowledge that Grace had really gone to the Forum to meet Alida’s fiancé, Delphin Slade. Impelled by a mixture of jealousy, guilt, and vengeful satisfaction, Alida declares that she, not Delphin, wrote the letter summoning Grace to the tryst. This initial crisis is followed by a much more powerful one when Grace makes her own revelations about that night at the Forum.

Commentary

Written after Wharton was ill with the grippe on a visit to Rome, "Roman Fever" is most significant for its brilliantly subtle plotting and its deliciously shocking denouement, which are reminiscent of O. Henry, Colette, and Wharton’s friend, v1072v. The character development is also very full for a work so economically written.

The status of illness in the story is metaphoric rather than material; the transgressively sexual content of Roman fever is developed by its modern parallel in the "cold" Grace catches, whose implied etiology and outcome mark it as a cover story for a quite different bodily condition. While Roman fever probably refers to malaria, Wharton’s metaphoric use of illness in this story corresponds with the historical treatment of cholera.

In the early nineteenth century, Charles Rosenberg asserts in Explaining Epidemics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), physicians were likely to believe that the person who caught cholera had "predisposed himself to disease" through sin, including "sexual excess" (114). The transgression of sexual mores and the transgression of other values--sisterhood or friendship--are so intertwined in this story that the definite meaning of the title is unclear.

Roman fever may be a metaphor for transgressive sexuality, for sexual rivalry, or even for the hostility among women that the social pressures of courtship catalyzes. Wharton’s fiction is famous for defying unitary interpretations, and this story is no exception.

SourceRoman Fever and Other Stories
PublisherCollier
Edition1997
EditorsCynthia Griffin Wolfe
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published 1934, in Liberty magazine.
Annotated by Holmes, Martha Stoddard
Date of Entry 09/09/98
Last Revised 04/13/01