Category Archives: Literary Analysis

Deep-diving into texts since 1998.

“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton Explores the Cruelty of Lady Friends

Roman Fever by Edith WhartonI 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.

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“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin was published in 1894 as “The Dream of an Hour” in Vogue magazine. The story is incredibly short and takes places only in the Mallard home over the course of, presumably, an hour. Louise Mallard, who has a heart condition, learns about the untimely death of her husband, Brently. She cries, of course, but then realizes that she will actually be much happier on her own. Armed with this new realization, she descends the stairs, only to see Brently himself walk in the door, just fine, and very much alive. Realizing that he was reported dead on accident, Louise promptly dies, the doctors concluding that happiness was her undoing. Except they were wrong.

Reading about the story online, I was surprised and delighted to find out that Chopin was a fan of Guy de Maupassant. I pair “The Story of an Hour” with Maupassant’s “The Jewelry,” and have found that they go together quite well. They both show the way in which ‘good’ marriages can still be bad; Chopin’s from the wife’s perspective, Maupassant from the husband’s. I know the gentlemen in my classroom appreciated being included; I will write up Maupassant’s story at my earliest convenience (hopefully soon). I also teach this story directly after Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which has worked out well.

A lot of the depth of the story is driven by the way that the elements of literature are used. For the length of the story, the amount of characterization present is a testament to Chopin’s skill as a writer.


Louise Mallard: Louise is characterized as “young” and is “afflicted with heart trouble,” which will be of no small importance in the story. Upon hearing of Brently’s death she cries uncontrollably, in a “storm of grief,” and retires to her room. As she contemplates life alone, she slowly comes to the realization that she is much happier now that she will not have a husband. The specific reason she gives is that, without Brently around, there will be “no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence” that characterizes marriage. The issue, then, is not with Brently as a person, but with marriage. Some students get bogged down in this subtlety because they assume, incorrectly, that Louise must ‘hate’ Brently to be happy he’s gone. However, she’s not happy that he’s gone, she’s relieved, though it’s complicated, as she admits that she will cry again over his death. Her reasons for relief at the idea of being alone are never made completely clear, nor should they have to be, but are given a darker dimension when it is explained that “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” Louise, before the story has started, is unhappy at the thought of living a long life. That should be reason enough to sympathize with her feelings about her newfound “freedom.”

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Symbolism, Characterization, and Themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Below is my detailed literary analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for my students and for me … and for you. I used to review and analyze every story that I studied in graduate school, and later, every story I taught. I’ve decided that I want to do that again to help me with my own teaching. My thoughts from 2003 on this story can be found on the blog here, but I thought it was worth updating. My teaching materials for this story – which are extensive – will be available at some time, too, hopefully in the near future.


“The Yellow Wallpaper” (originally the title appeared as “The Yellow Wall-paper”) was first published in 1892 and is based largely on the author’s own experiences. Like many women of her time, including Virginia Woolf (who address this in Mrs. Dalloway), Gilman (then Stetson) was subjected to the “rest cure” a treatment for (generally postpartum) depression. Pioneered by Silas Weir Mitchell – who is called out by name in Gilman’s story – it involved keeping the woman’s mind unstimulated by forbidding reading and writing (aka thinking), and prescribing bed rest that generally included no exercise or socializing. Added to this was a diet heavy in often raw meat, and high fat foods such as butter and milk; this was due to Mitchell’s belief that women’s depression was caused by a lack of “blood and fat,” which the rest cure was meant to remedy. The treatment was worse than the disease for many women, and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was considered an indictment of the treatment, and which directly contributed to its discontinuation. Gilman also explained this in her brief essay, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,which you can read online here.


Unnamed Narrator: As tempted as everyone is to call her “Charlotte,” the narrator of the story has no name. She is taken to a house and subjected to the “rest cure,” which gradually drives her insane. She writes the story as a diary or series of letters over the period of her confinement. At the end of the story she has descended completely into madness.

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“Reasonableness and Domestic Fiction” by Amit Yahav-Brown

Another blast from the past today. When I was doing research for one of my graduate school literature classes, I decided that I would write summaries of the critical articles that I read so that I could refer to them later. In part this is because the articles are so long I needed to know what they were useful for, and in part because the information posted about them in the article databases isn’t that helpful. So enjoy (?) my discursive summary of “Reasonableness and Domestic Fiction” by Amit Yahav-Brown (2006), which can be found on JSTOR here. I hope it helps someone with their research.

Amit Yahav-Brown opens “Reasonableness and Domestic Fiction” by briefly illustrating how often iterations of “reasonable” occur in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. At first the terms “rational” and “reasonable” seem synonymous, as indeed they were becoming around the time of Clarissa, but they were still distinct in some important ways. Citing John Rawls, Yahav-Brown states: “while rationality is derived from the deliberation of a single agent, reasonableness is derived from deliberations among multiple agents. To establish rationality of an act or claim we can reason alone; but to establish the reasonableness of an act or claim we must reason with others” (806). Because of this Yahav-Brown concludes that Clarissa’s deathbed deliberations, carefully explained to Belford, are reasonable, causing Belford to acquiesce to her even though he disagrees with her actions.

Yahav-Brown then moves on to discuss John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity which is a still-different use of “rationality.” For Locke, “rationality” is “an inquiry that individuals undertake alone but that confirms both the natural and divine orders of the world” (807). This transitions into a comparison between Locke and Richardson, explaining, “for [Locke] ‘reasonableness’ marks a move from ignorance to conversion, while for Richardson it marks the move from disagreement to toleration” (808). However, both Locke and Richardson agree that there is “an aspect of reason – reasonableness – that replies not on rational inquiry but on encounters among individuals, in which one person mediates evidence for another and through this process enables the other to accept knowledge that isn’t directly available to him” (808).

Next, Yahav-Brown compares Richardson’s “reason” to Daniel Defoe’s, specifically his An Essay Upon Projects, and, briefly, the characters of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe. In contrast, “Richardson introduces point of view as a crucial variable,” “while Defoe’s novels lend themselves to a monistic conception of reason, Richardson’s Clarissa lends itself to a pluralistic one” (809).

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