Form In Fiction
An essay analyzing Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"

In her short story, Roman Fever, Edith Wharton guides the reader through the events of an evening conversation between two estranged middle-aged women. Throughout this conversation Wharton reveals to the reader that one of the women, Mrs. Ansley, suffered from a sickness when her and the other woman, Mrs. Slade, were last together in Rome, as they are now. Not long after this revelation it is revealed that Mrs. Ansley developed this sickness on the night that she was to meet with Mrs. Slade's husband, and that not only did Mrs. Slade know of this, but she had also written the letter that prompted this meeting in an effort to embarrass Mrs. Ansley. But only after when Mrs. Slade reveals this to Mrs. Ansley, does Mrs. Ansley reveal to Mrs. Slade that not only did she end up meeting with Mrs. Slade's husband on that night, but she may have also conceived of her daughter, Barbara, on that night.
In her short story, Roman Fever, Edith Wharton often used the setting as a lens to both clarify and further explain aspects of the theme. Edith Wharton often did this by making the setting serve as a representation of the characters past and present perspectives, motivations, and inner revelations. In combining these three elements, and juxtaposing them against the setting of Rome, Wharton was able to provide a clear step by step explanation of why we should be quick to recognize and confront envy — in ourselves and in others — before it can take on a life of its own.
Wharton often used the setting as a means to communicate the nuances of the outlooks and perspectives of the characters that would've lacked verisimilitude if described directly through dialogue or narration. One of the clearest examples of her doing this is in the line where she writes "The dark lady laughed again, and they both relapsed upon the view, contemplating it in silence, with a sort of diffused serenity which might have been borrowed from the spring effulgence of the Roman skies" seemingly to communicate to the reader that aspects of the setting can be borrowed to serve as explanations for the outlooks of the characters. In this line, where she writes "Mrs. Slade leaned back, brooding, her eyes ranging from the ruins which faced her to the long green hollow of the Forum, the fading glow of the church fronts beyond it, and the outlying immensity of the Colosseum." It appears that the ruins can serve as a representation of how Mrs. Slade may view what has become of her past circumstances, and that the "long green hollow of the Forum" can represent how she may now perceive her life as being hollow after the death of her husband. Another example of where this technique is present is in the line in which Wharton writes "Mrs. Slade sat quite still, her eyes fixed on the golden slope of the Palace of the Caesars" to portray how Mrs. Slade has become fixated with on what she considers to be a backstabbing on the part of Mrs. Ansley.
In addition to using the setting to communicate information about the characters perspectives, Wharton also used the setting to communicate the unsaid information regarding the characters motives. When describing Mrs. Ansley thoughts regarding the ruins, Wharton writes "too many memories rose from the lengthening shadows of those august ruins" seemingly to communicate that Mrs. Ansley may have something to hide, and may be motivated to steer the conversation away from her shadowy past. When describing the church and colosseum as they relate to Mrs. Slade, Wharton writes "Mrs. Slade leaned back, brooding, her eyes ranging from the ruins which faced her to the long green hollow of the Forum, the fading glow of the church fronts beyond it, and the outlying immensity of the Colosseum" appearing to imply that after contemplating the events of her life, Mrs. Slade may feel that her chance to gain satisfaction from addressing a colossal moment in her past, may be fading. Wharton's usage of this technique is further exemplified in these lines, where she writes "But instead of tranquilizing her, the sight seemed to increase her exasperation. Her gaze turned toward the Colosseum" to explain how Mrs. Slade's motivation to address the events surrounding the Colosseum, only further exasperates the longer she surrounds it.
In addition to using aspects of the setting to clarify the outlooks and motivations of the characters, Wharton also borrowed aspects of the setting to emphasize the significance of the revelations resulting from the actions that were caused by the characters outlooks and motivations. A clear example of Wharton's usage of this technique, are in these lines, where she writes "Her gaze turned toward the Colosseum. Already its golden flank was drowned in purple shadow, and above it the sky curved crystal clear, without light or color." seemingly to signify that Mrs. Slade may have found a sense of clarity upon surrendering to her motivation to move the conversation towards the events surrounding the Colosseum. Wharton's usage of this technique is further exemplified when she later writes the characters as being enveloped in a literal "golden light" to emphasize the significance of Mrs. Slade's illuminating of Mrs. Ansley to her long-held secret. And finally, the implications of Wharton's use of the setting reaches a totality when she writes Mrs. Slade to confess to being blind to the ramifications of her decisions that were motivated by her egotistically construed thinking, authoring her to profess to have been "blind with rage" only to then become illuminated to the consequences of her malevolent actions.
When analyzed through the lens of the setting, it becomes apparent that Wharton left a clear trail for the reader to see how the characters outlooks influenced their intentions, and how their intentions influenced their actions, and how those actions spawned both the conflicts and revelations that Wharton used to convey the moral of the story. This moral being that had Mrs. Slade not been possessed by her sick, fever like hatred for Mrs. Ansley, she could've avoided every conflict that she encountered in this story. And that is why, to me, Roman Fever is a cautionary tale. Or, more simply put, a commentary on the consequences of jealousy. But more importantly, I believe that in providing an earnest take on the nature of jealousy and envy, Wharton was able to provide a lesson that can be exemplified even more so, in our modern times. Because, in a society where commentaries have been reduced to comments, and, envy itself, has been engineered and commodified in the form of social media — it seems that in no clearer of a case has envy come to life, than in the form of our social media personas. But, unlike the writing of Mrs. Slade to observe a secondary character to allow her to view the physical consequences of her actions, we haven't been afforded the luxury of an omniscient author. As a result, the personas that we've created have become so linked to how we perceive ourselves, that to most, the two have become nearly indistinguishable from each other. Thus, in some ways, it seems we have become our own Barbara's.
Text Author: Antjuan Finch

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