Envy In Contrast
An essay comparing Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" with Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill."
1
In her short story "Roman Fever," Edith Wharton depicts a conversation between two widowed women as they discuss their children, motherhood, and their previous times together in Rome as debutantes. One of the women, Mrs. Slade, is deeply envious of the other woman, Mrs. Ansley. Throughout this conversation, Mrs. Slade repeatedly, and compulsively interrupts and insults Mrs. Ansley. As the conversation continues, Mrs. Slade's jealousy of Mrs. Ansley grows and eventually erupts, causing her to confess to having unintentionally incited the incident that led to the conceiving of Mrs. Ansley's daughter, Barbara.
2
While, in her short story, "Miss Brill," Katherine Mansfield depicts the Sunday afternoon experience of a woman during one of her routine visits to listen to a band play music at a park. This woman, Miss Brill, is deeply insecure, and as a result, she habitually avoids interaction with the others at the park, and instead, tends to spend time romanticizing and critiquing the clothing and behaviors of them, all within her head. Although, during the evening depicted in the story, Miss Brill is feeling especially insecure, and as a result, when she is later insulted for wearing the coat that she had donned in an effort to cheer herself up, Mansfield implies that she responds to this interaction by disassociating with reality, and killing herself.
3
In their stories, Mansfield and Wharton utilize their depictions of their characters values, behaviors, and habits, to depict contrasting fates for their story's protagonist. In Miss Brill, Miss Brill's values caused her to become insecure, which caused her to habitually behave in ways that comprised her character, which eventually led to her committing of suicide. While in Roman Fever, Mrs. Slade's values also caused her to become insecure — but unlike Miss Brill — her insecurities caused her to habitually 'act out' in ways that were self destructive, which caused her to inadvertently create a human life. When analysed together, it becomes apparent that although their depictions of their character's values, behaviors, and habits led to contrasting conclusions for their story's protagonist, Mansfield and Wharton each utilized these three elements to provide synergistic depictions of what can become of us and of others, if we are to continuously let our actions become motivated by our insecurities.
4
Both Mansfield and Wharton authored their protagonists as having valued external approval, so much so that they've become incapable of producing happiness without it. In Miss Brill, in the line that Miss Brill is introduced, Mansfield writes that "Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur" (1) seemingly to convey that without the coat that Miss Brill has no reason to wear other than to impress others, Miss Brill would have nothing to be "glad" (1) about at all. Mansfield continues to display Mrs. Brill as being obsessed with how others see her, when while describing Miss Brill as petting her fur, Mansfield writes that Miss Brill "rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes" (1) showing that Miss Brill's self-esteem has become so dependent upon external approval that she's begun to project her insecurities on to her clothing. Mansfield continues to display that Miss Brill is attempting to compensate for her insecurities by dressing nicely when she writes Miss Brill to describe the coat as "Little rogue" before later describing it as "biting its tail just by her left ear" (1) leading the reader to believe that to Miss Brill, her coat is both more lifelike and adventurous than she is. In Roman Fever, Wharton displays that Mrs. Slade values others opinions more than she values being true to herself, when she describes her as being perfectly willing to guide Mrs. Ansley to believe something about her that isn't true, as long as it benefits her in making her seem as put together as Mrs. Ansley is. This is shown in when, after describing Mrs. Ansley as being "far less sure than her companion of herself and of her rights in the world," (1) Wharton describes Mrs. Slade as "stretching her hand toward a bag as discreetly opulent-looking as Mrs. Ansley's."(1) Here it seems that Mrs. Slade is attempting to signal to Mrs. Ansley that she is just as well off she is, although because Wharton later writes that Mrs. Slade "felt her unemployment more than poor Grace ever would"(2) we know this not to be the case. In both stories, we see that both of the protagonists are insecure, and because of this, both characters overvalue the opinions of others, and as a result, both characters are likely to behave in ways that will only further exacerbate their disconnect with the emotions that drive them.
5
Both Mansfield and Wharton use their descriptions of the characters behaviors and actions to show how as their protagonist continued to compensate for their insecurities, the less they came to act as themselves. In Roman Fever, when describing Mrs. Ansley's intellect in relation to Mrs. Slade's, Wharton writes that "Mrs. Ansley was much less articulate than her friend, and her mental portrait …was slighter, and drawn with fainter touches"(3) before later writing that "Alida Slade's awfully brilliant."(3) This contrasts Mrs. Slade's actions when, after failing to consider if Mrs. Ansley would respond to her letter, Ansley says that "It's odd you never thought of it, if you wrote the letter"(Wharton 8) and Mrs. Slade responds by saying "Yes. I was blind with rage"(8) displaying that she would've considered the possibility of Mrs. Ansley's responding to the letter, had the rage resulting from her envy of her not caused her to behave so stupidly. While, in Miss Brill, in an act of projection, Miss Brill is written to have imagined everyone at the park as being actors in a play, and realizes that the reason why she leaves to go to the park at the same time every week is to "not to be late for the performance" (Mansfield 3) and that "somebody would have noticed if she hadn't been there."(3) Here, it seems that Mansfield is attempting to communicate that Miss Brill acts in the way that she does because she thinks that she has to, because she's not secure enough in who she is, to behave any differently. In both stories, we see through the author's descriptions of the characters' behaviors, that the protagonists haven't just become mere actors of their envious predispositions — they've lost sight of who they are.
6
In both stories, the authors used their descriptions of the characters' habits, and routines, to display that it was their protagonists increasing inability to overcome their insecurities, that led to the incidents that came about in their stories endings. Throughout Roman Fever, Mrs. Slade repeatedly insults, interrupts, and behaves inexcusably towards Mrs. Ansley, only to later break out with a "recoil of self-disgust."(Wharton 4) It is for these reasons, that when before Mrs. Slade confesses to having written the letter that Mrs. Ansley had received, that when she says "Because I simply can't bear it any longer"(Wharton 5) that the reader is led to believe that it's not Mrs. Slade's secret regarding Mrs. Ansley that she can no longer bear, it's the fact that she can't "cure herself of envying her."(4) In Miss Brill, when while describing the people at the park, Mansfield writes Miss Brill as thinking there was "far more than last Sunday"(1), and as viewing the old people at the park as being "still as statues"(2), after having described the band director as having "scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow"(1) during his directing of the band. Together, through the author's descriptions of the character's recurring habits, we see that Mrs. Slade's habit of acting to compensate for her insecurities resulted with her being unable to act reasonably, while Miss Brill's resulted with her being unable to view how others act, reasonably. In Roman Fever, this tendency causes Mrs. Slade to become so consumed with envy, that in a shortsighted attempt to belittle Mrs. Ansley, she accidentally causes her to have a daughter of whom she will grow to like more than own. While, in Miss Brill, this tendency causes Miss Brill to become so envious of the clothing of others, that when a well-dressed couple insults her for wearing the coat that she had donned in an effort to mask her insecurities, Mansfield implied that her self-worth plummets to that of an object and that she likely does with herself, what one does with an object that is now worthless, and disposes of herself. Together, we see that Barbara was born out of envy, while, Miss Brill died because of it.
7
In both stories, the authors used their descriptions of the characters' habits, and routines, to display that it was their protagonists increasing inability to overcome their insecurities, that led to the incidents that came about in their stories endings. Throughout Roman Fever, Mrs. Slade repeatedly insults, interrupts, and behaves inexcusably towards Mrs. Ansley, only to later break out with a "recoil of self-disgust."(Wharton 4) It is for these reasons, that when before Mrs. Slade confesses to having written the letter that Mrs. Ansley had received, that when she says "Because I simply can't bear it any longer"(Wharton 5) that the reader is led to believe that it's not Mrs. Slade's secret regarding Mrs. Ansley that she can no longer bear, it's the fact that she can't "cure herself of envying her."(4) In Miss Brill, when while describing the people at the park, Mansfield writes Miss Brill as thinking there was "far more than last Sunday"(1), and as viewing the old people at the park as being "still as statues"(2), after having described the band director as having "scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow"(1) during his directing of the band. Together, through the author's descriptions of the character's recurring habits, we see that Mrs. Slade's habit of acting to compensate for her insecurities resulted with her being unable to act reasonably, while Miss Brill's resulted with her being unable to view how others act, reasonably. In Roman Fever, this tendency causes Mrs. Slade to become so consumed with envy, that in a shortsighted attempt to belittle Mrs. Ansley, she accidentally causes her to have a daughter of whom she will grow to like more than own. While, in Miss Brill, this tendency causes Miss Brill to become so envious of the clothing of others, that when a well-dressed couple insults her for wearing the coat that she had donned in an effort to mask her insecurities, Mansfield implied that her self-worth plummets to that of an object and that she likely does with herself, what one does with an object that is now worthless, and disposes of herself. Together, we see that Barbara was born out of envy, while, Miss Brill died because of it.
Conclusion
In the stories, Roman Fever, and Miss Brill, the authors created protagonists that valued what others thought of them, more than what they valued what they thought of themselves. And as a result, the protagonists acted in ways that caused them not to see themselves clearly. And consequently, as their insecurities grew, their behaviors became habits, and their values became real, and — in one way or another — eventually came to take on a life of their own. In real life, communities have become so large, that the act of communicating within in them has become surreal, and as a result, we flee to online communities, to say to what we could never say really. And consequently, the way others see us, is dependent upon how we see ourselves. And because we value being seen, more than what we value being seen for who we are, like Mrs. Slade and Miss Brill, we too don't see ourselves clearly. But instead, we see ourselves through the distortions of Instagram filters, and through the lenses of how we wish that others might view us. For many Americans, the first thing that they see in the morning is the blue light that emits from either Facebook or Twitter. So, like Mrs. Slade and Brill, we've made a habit of making sure that our insecurities will continue to have more control over us than we do. Similar to how Mrs. Slade's envy led to the creation of a person — this person being Barbara — our envy of each other has led to the creation of personas, these personas being the personalities that others view us as having after having viewed our social media accounts. But, to maintain these personas, we have to pretend to be something that we're not. So, like Miss Brill, with every day that we continue these habits, we compromise our character and grow a little bit closer to killing the person that we were the day before. Furthermore, because these communities exist online, every interaction is interconnected, and as a result, the manifestations of our insecurities have a potentially infinite amount of influence. And because the maintaining of our social lives is dependent upon how we act on social media, and that our acting on social media is what influences others to act on it also, when we become actors of our insecurities — unlike Miss Brill — we don't just kill ourselves, we kill each other.

Text Author: Antjuan Finch


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