I just taught Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” (1934) to my college students and had a fairly good reception, considering that it’s a story about two well-to-do middle aged women chatting. About a third of one class liked it, and about two thirds of my other class liked it. Even though I taught it in college I really think the story works for the High School classroom because, believe it or not, students should actually really closely identify with the characters.
The horrid behavior between two friends over nothing less important than a youthful ‘relationship’ should be immediately recognizable to students. If not in their own life, they should certainly see it in the lives of the students around them. See also Sula, by the way. Women’s friendships should endure, but, instead, womanhood is the battleground whereupon we commit some of our worst atrocities as maturing women.
Enter Edith Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever,” and be ready to explain who the heck everyone is because I heard only two complaints: it’s confusing and/or it’s boring. It’s confusing if readers put no effort into understanding it, and it’s boring if they didn’t catch on to the fact that there’s a multi-generational murder-attempt tradition in place. I strongly suggest starting a lesson on this brilliant story by putting full names and relationships on the board. Here’s what I make the students tell me so I can write it on the board (“D” indicates “deceased”):
Alide Slade married to Delphin Slade (D): son Unnamed (D) and daughter Jenny.
Grace Ansley married to Horace Ansley (D): daughter Barbara aka Babs.
So who the heck are these people? (Spoilers below.) There are six main players in this drama, and two of them (and all the men in the story except a waiter) are dead.
Mrs. Alida Slade: That name! Honestly, it’s a great name, it just feels rich and cold with Slade evoking slate. She’s the widow of Delphin Slade, and yes, she’d list that first, because Alida is finding her life a bit of a snooze without her husband around to make her feel important. She thinks that her daughter, Jenny, is a yawn-snooze-bore and wishes she’s get into a dustup over a man or something. Not to say that Alida’s without depth; having lost a son who seemed like his father’s natural successor, she bore it well, until her husband passed as well. That the son’s name, like the details of his passing, are unknown, in a story that dwells on cruel details, makes it important. There is something inside Alida Slade besides just meanness (though that’s there too). She has hated Grace for 25 years and is holding onto a secret in the hopes of crushing her spirit. The secret? That she tried to sort of murder Grace 25 years ago, no big deal! On first reading, no one
likes sympathizes with Alida.
Mrs. Grace Ansley: Longtime frenemy of Alida whose husband has also recently passed away. She knits throughout the story, which is symbolic, but it’s low-hanging symbolic fruit (what a tangled web we weave …). Grace had a thing for Delphin Slade when she was younger, but, after Alida and Delphin were married, she married three weeks later. Grace’s name evokes the virtue of grace, but also a quiet simplicity, reinforced by the less-posh sounding last name Ansley. She, too, has a secret that she’s been holding onto: no less than sleeping with Alida’s fiancee and having his baby, aka Barbara. Grace seems innocent and simple the first read through, a second reading will show a more complete picture of her character.
Delphin Slade: A fancy name, if there ever was one. Delphin was a lawyer and rich man until he passed away, which is a shame because he really should have gotten in trouble for his youthful hijinx.
Horace Ansley: A humbler name for a quieter man; he’s really not characterized at all, but it’s implied that he might be impotent since he and Grace were married for 25 years and never had children.
Jenny Slade: The extremely underrated daughter Alida and Delphin; her mother says that she’d be great if she needed a nurse. Basically, Jenny is pretty and dependable, which Alida considers boring, which is unfortunate. Jenny and Barbara are friends, but they have no idea that they’re also half-sisters.
Barbara Ansley: Grace’s daughter with Delphin (though no one except Grace knows this at the beginning). Alida is jealous that Jenny isn’t a pretty and charming as Barabara, not knowing that Barbara aka Babs is really Delphin’s daughter. Barbara is the reason that Grace got married three weeks later (aka two weeks to realize she’s pregnant, one week to find a man).
Since all the men are dead, this really is a woman’s story in the most literal sense. Both women have been nursing a grudge for over two decades, and it’s presented as their generational, matrilineal legacy, starting with Grace’s great-aunt Helen. Alida takes inspiration from the story of Helen, who got her little sister out of the way … forever. She does this by tricking her into flower picking in the Coliseum – symbolism! – at night, but the poor dear gets the eponymous Roman Fever and dies. Oops! Knowing that Grace has a delicate throat, Alida writes a fake love letter from Delphin that’s meant to lure Grace into the Coliseum. All Alida knows is that Grace got sick, for sick she was, but as it turns out it was her womb coming down with a bad case of having a baby. That’s because Grace wrote Delphin back, and hanky panky ensued.
Each woman – Alida and Grace – hold on to a piece of their own destruction. In attempting to harm one another, they only harm themselves. This is a major theme of the story, as well as situational irony, and is reinforced by the symbolic knitting.
From Alida’s perspective, which is revealed first, she was doing what she felt she has to do to secure her place with Delphin. Her identity is completely caught up in being Delphin’s wife, and with him gone, she doesn’t know who she really is. The loss of her son weighs more heavily on her without Delphin around: “She had fought through that agony because her husband was there, to be helped and to help; now, after the father’s death, the thought of the boy had become unbearable” (4). The characterization of Delphin as both helped and helper is one of the small glimpses into the Slade’s relationship that the reader gets, and it’s implied that it’s a good relationship. Alida calls herself a “monster,” but then wonders who the true “monster” is, her or Grace. The answer is that it’s Delphin, but that never crosses anyone’s minds. Jealousy is clearly what has made Alida a “monster,” and jealousy has outlived Delphin. All Alida knows is that Grace got the fake letter, then got sick, which is proof that Grace was willing to meet her friend’s fiancee, damning her in the eyes of Alida.
From Grace’s perspective, which is a slower burn, she has been concealing Barbara’s origins for two decades. Both from Alida, who she looks down on, and the now-deceased Horace, who raised Barbara as his own. If the villain of the piece is Delphin, then Horace is its true victim; without either truth or catharsis, Horace demonstrates, perhaps, that ignorance truly is bliss. Grace seems to be the victim since Alida strikes first, but Grace looks down on Alida because of her false idea that Delphin reciprocated her feelings. Re-reading the story, Grace’s dialog takes on the most double meaning, with many of her lines clearly illustrating verbal irony. Grace is even described as “the dark lady,” which is ostensibly a reference to her dark hair, but implies that she has the darker of the two secrets (1).
Returning to my previous assertion that each woman destroys herself, Grace does so by thinking Delphin loves her and having the affair that results in Barbara. However, the truth is that Delphin slept with Grace not because he loved her, but because he was presented with the opportunity. Grace rushes off to marriage, has Barbara, raises her, and look down on Alida for decades because she thinks that Delphin really cared for her. It’s not implied that her marriage to Horace was bad, but it was hasty in order to trick him into thinking the baby was his. When Alida reveals that it was she who wrote the letter, Grace is genuinely hurt and shocked, because it reveals that major events in her life were based on false pretenses. This is supported by the text because she jumps up (as both women do at different parts of the story) and her knitting slides off her lap onto the ground.
Alida, jealous without knowing why, feels a nagging desire to crush Grace’s spirit. She attempts to – at least – get Grace very sick in their girlhood by luring her out to meet Delphin. When Grace tells Alida that Delphin was there, she leaps up in surprise, and Grace pretends to be shocked that Alida didn’t know. Of course, how could Alida know? Grace is affecting innocence, something the reader will realize she’s been doing throughout the story. Alida also does this when she asks Grace questions that she already knows the answer to. Alida is her own undoing because if she didn’t write the letter, Grace wouldn’t have had the affair that lead to Barbara, who Alida also envies. Indeed, if Alida hadn’t told Grace about the letter, she would have never learned the truth, and it’s her desire for revenge that ends up being the cause of her devastation. In revealing herself to be the author of the letter, Alida ends up hearing the revelation that will destroy her fond memories of Delphin.
This story is like the Inception of irony, layers upon layers it goes. This is why, I feel, students are so confused by it. You cannot phone in reading this story, but it looks like a story that you can skim. The story itself is a trick, seemingly dull, but actually quite dark. The situational irony is covered in the section above, where Alida’s intentions spectacularly backfire, and Grace does a very bad thing for a completely wrong reason. Additionally, the verbal irony is laced throughout the dialogue between the women. For example when Grace states that Delphin showed up, “But of course he was there. Naturally he came” (11). The “of course” and “naturally” are clearly misleading now that Grace knows Delphin didn’t write the letter. How would it be “natural” for him to show up when he didn’t write the letter to begin with? The verbal knife twisting is something both women participate in.
This is similar to Alida’s statement that Grace wouldn’t go out at night because of her throat, “naturally, you’re so prudent!” she says to Grace with a sneer (8). This is ironic because Alida knows that Grace wasn’t prudent, just as she knew of her throat troubles that would have almost certainly lead to illness. Earlier in the same section, Grace explains that even “the most prudent girls aren’t always prudent” (8). Grace is implying the affair with Delphin, but doesn’t know about the letter yet.
Arguably, one of the cruelest statements comes from Alida when she explains to Grace that she write the letter out of fear: “I was easily frightened because I was too happy. I wonder if you know what that means?” (7). Alida’s pointed question implies that Grace has never felt transcendent happiness, and is answered with a short, stuttered reply.
While I enjoyed the story on first reading, subsequent readings have really made me appreciate the nuance of Wharton’s story. There are complex motivations at play and no one ends up happy. One has to wonder what Jenny and Barbara have in store for one another off stage, but the reader can hope that their friendship is genuine. After all, they are sisters.