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EDITH WHARTON’S ROMAN FEVER
Roman Fever by Edith Wharton is a story about two well-to-do American widows who escort their unmarried daughters on a grand vacation. Alida Slade and Grace Ansley are the primary characters in Wharton’s tale that incorporates love, mother/daughter relationships and sexuality into a compelling piece of literary work. The story’s beginning finds the older women partaking of the glorious view of the Forum from their restaurant seats. The younger ladies, on the other hand, have announced that they plan to take an excursion without their mothers’ supervision. While alone, the mothers compare with each other the extent to which their own mothers hovered over them, so overprotective and confining. They point out that this behavior comes from a long line of family mothers who, too, were just as protective over their daughters, as well. It is then that the concept of Roman fever is mentioned as a way in which to keep women from venturing out at night.
It is difficult to ascertain which of the two older women is the true antagonist and protagonist, as they both accomplish some unfriendly activities within the story line. As one of Alida’s encounters as antagonist, she attempts to harness her jealousy, guilt and vindictive gratification regarding the fact that Grace double-crossed her in love. It seems that Grace feigned an illness one evening in their youthful years, begging off any further activities following a late night sightseeing expedition. What really occurred, which did not escape Alida’s knowledge, was the fact that Grace had a rendezvous with Alida’s fianc , Delphin Slade. Alida barely controlled her anger enough to compose a letter that she penned as though she were Delphin, beckoning Grace to a prearranged meeting. The reader then considers which character is the most illicit in her actions: Grace for undermining Alida’s relationship with Delphin or Alida for sabotaging Grace.
The setting of Wharton’s Roman Fever is instrumental to the story’s blatant theme about love, considering the fact that Rome is one of the most romantic spots on earth. It plays a significant role with respect to the mother/daughter relationship, as well as to the issue that deals with illness. This metaphoric implication of the transgressively sexual composition of Roman fever comes to life through the representative cold that Grace contracts. It is this cold, and the implications it reflects, that sparks the reader into realizing that the cold, in and of itself, is not the primary focus. It can be argued that Roman fever was just a cover for malaria and cholera, which the author discreetly masks with clever metaphor.
The understanding behind the hidden implication of such a disease is reminiscent of the fact that people who contracted it were considered to have engaged in illicit sex. This act implied that the person was not of good standing and, therefore, received what he or she deserved for such behavior. The author addresses the transgression of sexual conduct as it intertwines with the transgression of sisterhood and friendship, which makes the author’s explicit message a bit difficult to ascertain.
Indeed, the characters do not appear to experience much happiness in Wharton’s Roman Fever. They are either reliving old, painful memories, experiencing discord among family and friends or dealing with illness. The social pressures that exist among and between the women — both mothers and daughters alike — offer yet another reason for the characters to lack a genuine sense of tranquillity. To be sure, the expressive hostility that exists sets a precedence for unhappiness from the very beginning; the story does not change direction through the entire piece, because Alida is never able to shake the envy she feels toward Grace.
The climax of the story finds that Alida has dedicated her life to the sole purpose of impressing others, yet this ostentatious presentation does nothing to preserve her own identity. Indeed, such a flagrant display only brings her heightened suffering and spite. Despite the fact that she and her friend, Grace, have endured many years since Grace secretly rendezvoused with Alida’s fianc , it still never comes to pass that Alida is able to discard her intense envy and jealousy. It is interesting how the two women are portrayed as friends from the beginning of Wharton’s tale, when in actuality they represent enemies more than anything else. It is easy to see that Alida loathes the very sight of Grace but puts up a convincing facade nevertheless. The two women would never again experience a relationship as they once knew it in their youth, because they both committed sins against friendship that are difficult to atone.
As the story winds to a close, the reader is left with a definite impression: envy and competition are the forces behind what has driven the two women throughout their lives. Primarily focused upon Alida’s inability to forgive Grace, the author draws conclusions as to how Alida’s preoccupation has ultimately sabotaged any chance of a renewed friendship. The fact that the two women are drawn together for the soul purpose of finding their own daughters suitable mates — and in the most romantic of all cities — is ironic insofar as it represents the love that Alida never experienced during her long and painful life. It is a sad realization when the reader understands Alida’s ultimate motivation in life is for nothing else but trying to overcome her own hurtful envy and jealousy.
Wharton’s Roman Fever was written with exquisite and subtle plot formation, as is the tremendously surprising conclusion. Character development leaves nothing to be desired, as the author successfully envelops her readers with the utmost insight and character recognition. This development lends itself directly to the fact that the story’s personalities are quite believable in their context. It is with great appeal that Wharton’s characters reach out to the reader in a triumphant attempt to overstep the boundaries between reality and imagination. This achievement is not easily accomplished in a work so short, but Wharton effectively meets the challenge.
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