Interpreting Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" Essay

1181 words - 5 pages

Definitive criteria for judging the success or failure of a work of fiction are not easily agreed upon; individuals almost necessarily introduce bias into any such attempt. Only those who affect an exorbitantly refined artistic taste, however, would deny the importance of poignancy in literary pieces. To be sure, writings of dubious and fleeting merit frequently enchant the public, but there is too the occasional author who garners widespread acclaim and whose works remain deeply affecting despite the passage of time. The continued eminence of the fiction of Edith Wharton attests to her placement into such a category of authors: it is a recognition of her propensity to create poignant and, indeed, successful literature. The brevity of her 'Roman Fever' allows for a brilliant display of this talent¾in it we find many of her highly celebrated qualities in the space of just a few pages. 'Roman Fever' is truly outstanding: a work that exposes the gender stereotypes of its day (1936) but that moves beyond documentary to reveal something of the perennial antagonisms of human nature.From the story's first sentence, upon the introduction of two women of 'ripe but well-cared-for middle age,' it becomes clear that stereotypes are at issue (Wharton 1116). This mild description evokes immediate images of demure and supportive wives, their husbands' wards. Neither woman is without her 'handsomely mounted black handbag,' and it is not until several paragraphs into the piece that Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley even acquire first names (1117). Thus, without even disclosing any of the ladies' thoughts to the reader, Wharton has already revealed a great deal of their personal worlds. They live in a society which expects women to act largely as background figures, thoroughly engaged with furthering their husbands' careers and the constant struggle to remain pretty. Indeed, little else is desired or even tolerated¾and Grace Ansley and Alida Slade appear, at first glance, to conform to this image perfectly.As the workings of the characters' minds are revealed, the extent to which they have internalized these values becomes apparent. Each, in their brief description of the other, mentions that her acquaintance was quite beautiful in her youth. Alida recalls how much she enjoyed having been married to a famous lawyer; she misses being 'the Slade's wife' (1119). Startlingly, now that their husbands are dead, we find that the women consider themselves to be in a state of 'unemployment' (1118)!But just as it begins to seem as if these women have wholly adopted their societally prescribed personas, one begins to see deviations from the stereotype. 'Alida Slade's awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks,' decides Mrs. Ansley (1119). One had begun to expect these 'ripe but well-cared-for' women capable only of suitably 'feminine' mediocrities, but this comment reveals an insightful intellect hidden beneath the personality's surface. Mrs. Slade,...

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