Edith Wharton, on the surface, writes in the vein of realism that Frank Norris dismissed as “the tragedy of the broken teacup.” How intriguing then that Wharton’s work continues to resonate with readers a century later, while Norris has largely become an historical footnote, read only by specialists.
Wharton’s “Roman Fever” appears to be a very simple tale of two middle-aged widows, Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, passing an afternoon at an outdoor restaurant in Rome. What could possibly happen in a story where the only two significant participants are incapable of moving much more quickly than a stroll. All the pair do is talk and knit.
The underlying story that emerges in the course of their conversation, though, proves quite fascinating. We learn first that Mrs. Slade had sent a fraudulent note, supposedly from Slade’s fiance, to Grace, inviting her to a night-time tryst at the Colosseum. With this revelation made, some twenty years after the fact, the remainder of the story becomes clear, much to Mrs. Slade’s dismay. She learns that her fiance actually appeared at the Colosseum. As the story concludes, we learn that the pair had a sexual encounter and Mr. Slade fathered Grace’s daughter.
A great deal of ink has been spilled on this story. I do not wish to simply recap the able efforts of those critics. Instead, I’d like to spend a bit of time considering the losses experienced by Alida Slade in the course of her afternoon conversation. In reality, she loses nothing of a tangible nature, but her loss of self image is profound. Already as the story begins, she has loss much of her sense of self in the death of her husband. More than mourning the actual loss of the man, she seems to feel the loss of the prestige associated with her marriage. In the space of the afternoon’s conversation, she discovers that her own sense of cleverness has been overrated, that her opinion of Grace has been incorrect, that the fidelity of her husband was imperfect, and that Grace’s charming daughter is the offspring of her dead husband. In short, everything that Grace thought that she knew about her life has been knocked out from under her.
I’m reminded, as I read this story, of the first of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Alida Slade, by the close of “Roman Fever,” seems to have become poor in spirit. Her pride has been been systematically dismantled. We don’t learn what happens after Grace’s revelation that Delphin Slade fathered her daughter. One can imagine various possible responses, among which is an openness and humility previously foreign to her. It is ironic, I think, that Grace has led her to this point.
I don’t believe that Wharton had any of this spiritual thought in mind when she wrote “Roman Fever,” but the facts of human nature tend to lead to the Bible’s truths.