Since its publication in her collection of short stories The World Over (1936), Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” has been frequently anthologized. Masterfully constructed with multiple narrative voices and in a satirical tone, “Roman Fever” is the culmination of a lifetime of competition between “two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age” who had loved the same man, Delphin Slade. Using internal monologues in contrast to the spoken dialogues of Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, Edith Wharton demonstrates the hypocrisy of the women’s fondest New York values: convention and respectability, a recurring theme in Wharton’s fiction. She hints at the true violent and destructive nature of the two ladies by enclosing slay (to kill) in their names, belying their apparently civilized and genteel behavior. In fact, 25 years earlier, Alida had hoped to eliminate her rival by forging a letter from Delphin inviting Grace to a rendezvous in the night damp of the Colosseum, thereby exposing her to “Roman fever.” Little did she realize that Grace would answer Delphin, resulting in an actual rendezvous.
Beyond its social criticism, the story resonates with potentially violent historical and political allusions. It is set on a terrace overlooking the most famous historical sites of Rome, an area whose past glories and destructive powers were increasingly appropriated in the 1920s and 1930s by Mussolini’s Fascist government. The historical past suggests a threatening future event when the competitive daughters Barbara and Jenny fly with two Fascist aviators on a romantic moonlit night to Tarquinia, the ancient site associated with the rape of Lucretia and the fall of the Etruscan monarchy (510 B.C.). According to Agnes Carr Vaughn, in the Italian imagination, this event represents the struggle between dictatorial, popular power and patrician control of government. Wharton thus poses fascism as a real threat that looms just outside the story.
Alluding to Henry James’s Daisy Miller: A Study, Mrs. Slade enumerates the various meanings of Rome to four generations of American mother and daughter relationships: “To our grandmothers, Roman fever [malaria]; to our mothers, sentimental dangers—how we used to be guarded!—to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street” (10). Her words prove completely ironic when at the surprising ending we learn that Barbara Ansley, conceived in the Colosseum, is the illegitimate daughter of Mrs. Ansley and Delphin Slade. Invoking the “Name of the Father” (the oblique reference to this line from the Christian prayer, with its patriarchal underpinnings, seems intentional) Mrs. Ansley “beg[ins] to move ahead of Mrs. Slade.” In 1934, moreover, Fascist governments in both Germany and Italy were seeking to control women’s reproductive capacity for the good of the state, first to increase population for what was to become World War II and later to ensure racial purity—that is, Aryan blood untainted by Jewish blood. Therefore, Mrs. Ansley’s feminist action of producing an illegitimate child can be seen as a politically threatening act. In addition, Dale Bauer observes that in 1934 Wharton was fully aware of the impending Fascist threat to world peace; “Roman Fever” makes clear her view that any individual or nation that asserts its superiority on the basis of “the Law of the Father” or “racial purity” is fundamentally grounded on a meaningless principle.
Bauer, Dale. Edith Wharton’s Brave New Politics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
Vaughn, Agnes Carr. The Etruscans. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.
Wharton, Edith. Roman Fever and Other Stories. New York: Scribner’s, 1964.