An Essay on Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Prompt: Discuss how dramatic irony plays out in ROMAN FEVER. What is the full story that neither Mrs. Slade nor Mrs. Ansley knows? What prompts the two ladies to reveal what they know to each other?


Roman Fever is an exquisitely executed example of dramatic irony. Irony is defined as “a situation or statement characterized by a significant difference between what is expected or understood and what actually happens or is meant”. There are several different kinds of irony, and dramatic irony is “when there is a gap between what an audience knows and what a character believes or expects” (Glossary, A6).


In the story two wealthy women who are on the border between being middle-aged and being elderly unexpectedly meet each other on vacation in Rome. Both of them are widows of rich and powerful men. Both of them live in New York City, and they were even neighbors at one point (par. 19). These two women, Mrs. Alida Slade and Mrs. Grace Ansley have been “intimate since childhood” (par. 19), and their lives have many parallels. They both have daughters who are young adults, right at the age where a well-to-do young lady in the 1930s would be courted by possible husbands. Like their daughters, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley were both visiting Rome at the time when they were being courted by the men who would become their husbands.


The story finds Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley on a restaurant balcony just after lunch on a gorgeous Roman afternoon. Their daughters have gone off together to flirt and spend time with “young Italian aviators” (par. 14), and Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley sit on the balcony together, chatting and enjoying the view while Mrs. Ansley knits. At times they fall into silence, and the afternoon turns into evening as the two reminisce. Even though that’s all the action that occurs in the story, the dialogue between the two women and Mrs. Slade’s internal monologue (we never see Mrs. Ansley’s thoughts) are full of drama.


As the ladies’ conversation progresses they reveal a story that neither of them ever knew. Each of them knew parts of the story but had kept what they knew secret from the other for decades. Finally, at this fateful moment on the balcony, the full story is revealed to both of them. The ignorance and jealousy of Mrs. Slade’s thoughts together with the gradual piecing together of the story creates the irony for the characters and for the reader. We witness the inner workings of Mrs. Slade’s mind as it is revealed that what actually happened so many years ago in Rome is so much different than what she had understood events to be.


About two-thirds of the way through the story, Mrs. Slade, whose thoughts have been antagonistic towards the seemingly benign Mrs. Ansley, confronts Mrs. Ansley. Up until this point their conversation has been peppered with little jabs at each other, but mostly tame. Suddenly, Mrs. Slade bursts out with an accusation that Mrs. Ansley “went to meet the man I was engaged to” (par. 69). She knows that all those years ago when she and her husband, Delphin, were first engaged, he was cheating on her with Mrs. Ansley, who wasn’t yet Mrs. Ansley at that time. She knows because of what happened on a fateful night in their youth. On that particular Roman winter night, Mrs. Ansley had gone out in the cold and ended up “catching a bad chill” (par. 61). As she convalesced, she disappeared from the social scene. The reason she gave to people for having gone out that night was that she was going “to see the moon rise” (par. 61). Mrs. Slade has always known that was not the real reason the young Mrs. Ansley went out that night.


As these revelations come to light, the reader can sense that something major is brewing between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, but we don’t know what. We are in a similar position as Mrs. Slade, missing a key piece of knowledge. However, Mrs. Slade has not yet caught on to the fact that she is missing a key piece of knowledge. She is wrapped up in the drama and the energy of finally confronting Mrs. Ansley after all of these years.


The truth is that Mrs. Slade, who knew that her fiance was secretly seeing Mrs. Ansley, had sent a note pretending to be Delphin Slade, the man they were both in love with. In the note she told Mrs. Ansley to meet her at “the Colosseum immediately after dark” (par. 72). According to Mrs. Slade’s plan, Mrs. Ansley received the note and went to the Colosseum. What was supposed to happen was that there would be no one there to meet Mrs. Ansley, the excursion out into the cold would sicken her, and she would be out of the way as a romantic rival.


This is the secret truth that Alida Slade has kept to herself for years. Delphin didn’t write the letter that sent Grace Ansley out into the cold one night, she did, posing as Delphin. Then she let Grace believe that the letter had really been from Delphin. It was a cruel act committed by a desperate girl worried that she would lose the man she loved to another. After this devastating confession bursts out of Alida she finds that “the flame of her wrath had…sunk” and she wonders “why she had ever thought there would be any satisfaction in inflicting so purposeless a wound on her friend” (par. 88). Within Alida, guilt and regret are warring with jealousy and anger. Even though she got to marry and live a life with Delphin she still feels the betrayal of a young girl competing with another woman for a man’s love. She wants to shame Grace for nearly stealing her fiance away so many years ago even as she knows it is pointless.


Grace is, understandably, very shaken. She had treasured the memory of the letter that she had thought Delphin had written to her (par. 83). Seeing how devastated Grace is, Alida admits that she wishes now she hadn’t told Grace (par. 99). Despite feeling some guilt, Alida is able to feel a sense of victory over Grace. She is not able to feel it for long, though, because Grace knows a piece of the story that Alida has never known.


In Alida’s mind, and because the narration has mostly been from Alida’s point of view, in the reader’s mind, Grace was alone in the Colosseum that night. Alida’s false note sent her there, and no one ever came to meet her. Except that’s not the truth of what happened. Alida was so “blind with rage” (par. 112) that she never considered that, upon receiving the note, Grace might send a response to Delphin confirming that she would be at the Colosseum that night. Having received Grace’s reply, Delphin arranged to really meet Grace that night, and it all happened without Alida ever knowing. So, even though Alida ended up marrying Delphin, Delphin and Grace had a night together in the Colosseum that Alida never knew about.


This revelation is shocking to Alida, but she is still able to feel like the victor because she is the one who got “everything” (par. 116). She got to be married to Delphin for twenty-five years, while Grace “had nothing but that one letter that he didn’t write” (par. 116).


It seems to both Alida and the reader that perhaps she really did come out on top until Grace simply replies, “I had Barbara” (par. 118). With only three words, Grace suddenly upends everything Alida and the reader thinks they know about the situation. Everything is cast in a new light. The fact that Grace disappeared after that night in the Colosseum was not due to a chill she caught from the cold, but due to a pregnancy out of wedlock. She was wed to Horace Ansley so quickly not because she wanted to beat Alida and Delphin to marriage, but so that no one would notice that she was pregnant before the nuptials. Finally the full truth has been revealed, and then the story ends abruptly before we can see the effect that this bombshell has on Alida. The abruptness of the ending serves to compound the shock.