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The significance of the title “Roman fever” by Edith Wharton

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An interesting story about two genteel ladies and their triangle love began at Rome, which is famous for its extremely romantic beauty. And twenty five years later, also by these two ladies, also at this beautiful city, all the secrets in the past are revealed. The true face of the upper class for which these two women represent as a result is exposed ironically by Edith Wharton, one of the best American writer of the twentieth century. It was not until the very end of the story that the readers recognize the insightful significance of the title ‘Roman fever’ which is not only a kind of a physical deadly disease but also a metaphor for jealousy, rivalry and hostility of women in the writer’s days.

Roman fever, first of all, refers to pneumonia which was a common fatal disease in Rome at that time. Wharton wrote in her work: ‘no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset’. That obviously showed the threatening of the ‘danger hour’ when ‘Roman fever stalked the streets’. Consequencely, girls of the noble families were carefully guarded and kept in to avoid the attack of this serious fever. However, Grace Ansley, one of the main characters of this story, once for some reason went out during the ‘danger hour’ regardless of the risk of being ill. It was one of the important elements leading to the conflict of the story.

However, Roman fever is most significant not for the ordinary meaning of a material disease but for its symbol of the obsessive jealousy and vengeful antagonism which are capable of destroying many fine relationships as well as disturbing the human’s peace of mind. The two wealthy ladies in this work are vivid oustanding examples. They had their own assessment and prejudice about each other despite their intimate friendship from childhood. Mrs. Slade’s jealousy of the beauty, sweetness and gentleness of her close friend was more and more intense and prolonged from their youngth to the old age. It even became severe and turned out to the implacable hostility when she found out that Mrs. Ansley could be a danger to her love and marriage. Correspondingly, she did anything to abolish that danger, including the cruellest expedient of indirectly killling her rival with a letter of forgery.

What could be crueller and more merciless than that! But finally, she herself suffered the heaviest defeat when the bitter truth was revealed. Read what she thought such as ‘I hated you, I hated you […] I was afraid; afraid of you, of your quiet ways, your sweetness […] I wanted you out of the way’ or ‘Would she [Mrs. Slade] never cure herself of envying her [Mrs. Ansley]’, see what she did and especially see the sequences she had to bear at the end, we are convinced that Mrs. Slade’s envy itself was the cause of their friendship’s collapse and of a disease haunting herself all her life. As a result, she was refused to enjoy the peace in mind and soul. Not only Mrs. Slade but Mrs. Ansley had to pay for her trivial passion. Even though she was aware that falling in love with her close friend’s fiancé was a great mistake, she still ignored that close friendship and came to the tryst to meet the man who did not belong to her.

Then she seemed to endure guilty feelings towards her husband, her daughter, especially her friend, Mrs. Slade. That may be the reason why she was always reserved and kept quiet in front of her friend’s blow. ‘I’m [Mrs. Ansley] not trying to excuse myself…’ was uttered as a defending or a confession? Perhaps both. In conclusion, the conversation between these widows partially exposes the nature, the true face of the upper class of the writer’s days. These mediocre natures disguised by glorious facades become a disease destroying all the unworldly value of human quality and relationships.

Wharton achieves great success in conveying the significance of the story. Roman with its ‘stupendous scene’, its ‘crystal clear’ spring sky or its wonderful ‘full-moon night’ had an uncanny attraction to everyone, especially the young. Unexpectedly, implicit in such a magnificant beauty like that is a ‘sentimental danger’, a terminal disease. Wharton has her own implication in bringing out the interestin stark contrast in the nature of Roman beauty. It is a metaphor for the true nature of the upper class at that time. Look at the familiar relationship between these two noble women who ‘had been intimate since childhood’, who is expected to think of the spitefulness, envy and deceit beneath their refined holy facade?

Noone except Edith Wharton ! With the subtle, sharp observation and with the skillfullness in the treatment of this irony, Wharton clearly hightlights the opposition between the venear and the true nature of human of that upper society. That very opposition makes the truth exposed more bitter and stinging. The significance of the story in general and of the title “Roman fever” in particular; hence, is more profound. It’s no exaggeration to say that Wharton’s ironic and metaphoric use of illness in this story contributes to her work the immortal validity.

Roman fever is an excellent story in which Edith Wharton expresses her ability in skillfully exposing the nature of the upper society. Especially, the title “Roman fever” conveys thoughtfully the significance of that theme. “Roman fever” will doubtless continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

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