Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever develops plot in an interesting way. We see the present situation unfold through the internal dialogue of Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, and the tension that mounts between them. But Wharton also weaves in the past actions of the two friends, showing the years of insecurity, jealousy, and secrecy that lead to their revelations. Alida and Grace spend the entire story sitting on a restaurant terrace overlooking the hills of a Roman village. It has been years since they have seen each other, but there is a building tension between them, subtle at first.
When they discuss their daughters’ lives and the romanticism of moonlight, they realize how little they know about each other. We soon see that this tension has always existed between the supposedly intimate friends, as they sit in silence, each reflecting on their view of the other. Alida has always been envious of Grace. They both come from the same social class and had successful husbands, but to Alida, Grace always had something she didn’t. She called Grace and Horace irreproachable and entertained herself with the thought of them being raided.
Even in her youth, Alida was jealous of Grace. The letter she forged from Delphin urging Grace to meet him at the Coliseum was motivated solely by her insecurity about her relationship. Long after being widowed, Alida finds herself envious of Grace for new, but similar reasons. She doesn’t like that Grace’s daughter Barbara is more assertive when it comes to men. She wishes that her daughter, Jenny, would fall in love and lead an exciting life, but she knows that Barbara will be the one who marries a wealthy man. Alida despises Grace’s contentment with life as she quietly knits.
Alida still clings to the prominence she had when her husband was alive, while Grace has learned to accept her new life. Grace’s reflection on Alida is much less detailed, but we see that she pities her and feels her life was “full of failures and mistakes. ” The first part of the story then concludes in a significant way, when we learn Grace has always felt sorry for Alida. At the time, we don’t know what exactly she is sorry for, but it foreshadows the twist in the plot to come. When the second part of the story begins, the present plot seems more defined now that we have been introduced to the past.
The tension continues to build between Alida and Grace, and Alida becomes increasingly uncomfortable. It is obvious she still envies Grace, and she is in conflict with herself over whether she should tell her she wrote the letter. She says she “must make one more effort not to hate her. ” By revealing to her that Delphin never wrote the letter, and reminding her she could never have him, she could feel superior to her. For once, she could make Grace envy her. At this point in the plot, suspense is at its highest.
We are left wondering for several minutes what “effort” Alida will make not to hate Grace, and as she reminds her of the story of her great-aunt, the tension between them reaches its breaking point. Alida says she can’t bear it any longer and confesses the truth to Grace. This moment builds in the present plot, but it is propelled by the events of the past. Alida makes her revelation thinking it will devastate Grace and shake her life to the core. To think for many years that the letter was from him, when in fact he never wrote it, was sure to take away from Grace’s happiness, Alida thought.
But Grace’s revelation that Delphin responded delivers a blow to Alida instead. As Alida becomes dumbfounded by Grace’s response, Grace becomes the more dominant and assertive of the two. Eventually, she builds up the confidence to suggest Barbara resulted from her fling with Delphin. After many years apart, it seems a strange coincidence the two women would meet at the same place and time. But the improbability of this meeting does not hinder the plot. The setting is meaningful to them both– a place filled with memories and simpler times, so it isn’t surprising they would meet there, of all places.
If the setting had been somewhere such as a circus or the middle of the desert, their meeting would be a bit more random and hard to believe. But their history in Rome makes it conceivable. If anything, the setting propels the plot to pick up pace. The views of the Palatine and the Coliseums intensify Alida’s jealousy and rage, and the unbearable tension leads her to confess. Wharton’s inclusion of the past plot interspersed between the events of the present plot is an effective way to make the climax compelling.
There isn’t one thing in the story that doesn’t have a purpose, as everything the ladies say to each other and feel about each other, tie in with the events of the past. But the surprise ending revealed by Grace in the last line leaves us with an indeterminate ending. Grace does not clearly state that Barbara is her daughter with Delphin, but it opens up the possibility. For many years, knowing Delphin was the one thing Grace could never have was what kept Alida from completely hating her. This irresolution leaves us wondering not only how far their relationship really went, but what effects it will have on Alida now that she knows the truth.