Roman Fever


Edith Wharton

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Roman Fever Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edith Wharton's Roman Fever. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones, the only daughter of a wealthy and powerful family in the upper echelons of New York society. She spent much of her childhood and adolescence touring and studying in Europe. She married Edward Robbins Wharton at the age of 23. Despite restrictions placed on her due to her gender, Wharton published a successful nonfiction book, The Decoration of Houses, in 1897. A lover of architecture, gardening, and the decorative arts, Wharton devoted a great deal of time and care to designing “The Mount,” her home in Lenox, Massachusetts. During the ten years she lived at The Mount, Wharton wrote some of her most important works of fiction, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). Following her divorce in 1913, Wharton moved to France, where she devoted herself both to writing and to humanitarian causes. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her service to the country during World War I. Wharton continued to write and publish extensively throughout her life, and in 1921 became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She was also the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University, and to receive full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Wharton died in France in 1937 at the age of 75.
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Historical Context of Roman Fever

Wharton was living in Paris when World War I began in 1914. Rather than return to the relative safety of the United States, she chose to stay in Europe in order to offer humanitarian assistance and to report on the events of the war from the frontlines. Although “Roman Fever” does not deal directly with the war, readers can be certain that Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade have felt its effects in their own lives. Some of the differences Mrs. Slade perceives between the Rome she knew in her youth and Rome as it appears to her in middle age may be testaments to the ravaging mental and emotional impacts of the war. Separately, the history of the disease known as Roman Fever (a particularly deadly strain of malaria) is also important context for understanding the story. Rome has a long history of being afflicted by periodic outbreaks of Roman Fever—one of which is even credited with helping to bring about the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century AD. In Wharton’s story, Mrs. Slade takes inspiration from a grim story about an outbreak of Roman Fever that afflicted a previous generation.

Other Books Related to Roman Fever

Wharton’s cutting take on the lives of the upper classes owes a debt to the social novels of the Victorian era, most notably the work of Jane Austen. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility both portray a similarly convoluted game of courtship involving duplicitous characters. Additionally, many of the short stories and novels of Wharton’s close friend and contemporary Henry James—most notably The Portrait of a Lady—chronicle the lives of Americans in Europe during this same historical period.
Key Facts about Roman Fever
  • Full Title: Roman Fever
  • When Published: 1934
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short Story, Realistic Fiction
  • Setting: A terrace in Rome, Italy
  • Climax: Alida Slade reveals that she was the author of a love letter Grace Ansley received many years before the story begins.
  • Antagonist: Although the story follows the thoughts of Mrs. Slade more closely than those of Mrs. Ansley, neither character is quite sympathetic enough to be called the protagonist—making it difficult to name one of them antagonist. Each of the two women sees the other as an antagonist, and therefore the spirit of competition that exists between them could be seen as the story’s clearest antagonist.
  • Point of View: Third person limited, restricted mostly to Mrs. Slade’s perspective.

Extra Credit for Roman Fever

Roman Fever in History. “Roman Fever,” the particularly deadly strain of malaria from which Wharton’s story takes its name, may have played a role in the collapse of the Roman empire. Some historians speculate that a rash of deaths from malaria may have contributed to social instability in ancient Rome, leaving the city (and, by extension, the vast and powerful empire) vulnerable to attacks from foreign invaders.

Keeping Up With The Joneses. Wharton’s father, George Frederic Jones, was descended from a family of substantial wealth and social prestige. The idea of “keeping up with the Joneses”—an idiomatic expression that describes the pressure many people feel to compare their material possessions to those of their neighbors—is thought to have originated as a reference to Wharton’s paternal relatives.