One the terrace of an upscale restaurant in the heart of Rome, two American women — Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, both “of ripe but well-cared-for middle age” — lean against the parapet, admiring the spectacular view below. From their position, the two women can see both the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.
The first lines of the story create a picture of opulence. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are notable in being “well-cared for,” a description that hints at their wealth and leisurely lifestyles. The view from the restaurant terrace is of the tallest of Rome’s famous “Seven Hills,” believed to be the birthplace of the city’s founders, and the center of the ancient city’s social and political life. Thus, the backdrop of the story evokes a nostalgic image of Rome at the height of its power, reflecting the characters’ own nostalgia for their younger days.
From the nearby stairs, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley hear the voices of their two daughters, Jenny and Barbara. Barbara, Mrs. Ansley’s daughter, jokingly refers to their mothers, saying to Jenny that they should “leave the young things to their knitting.” Jenny gently reprimands her, insisting that the two older women are not literally knitting. Barbara remarks that their mothers have little else to do. The two girls disappear, laughing, down the stairs. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade exchange good-natured remarks about their daughters’ unflattering perceptions of them, and Mrs. Ansley confirms the truth in Barbara’s joke when she removes her knitting from her purse. She does this sheepishly, but admits that she has had “a good deal of time to kill” during this visit to Rome, and that she sometimes gets “tired just looking” at the splendor of the city.
Mrs. Ansley refers to “the collective modern idea of Mothers,” a stereotype that characterizes middle-aged women as passionless bystanders, with nothing to interest them except the lives of their children. She is aware of the ways in which she fulfills that stereotype, but does not seem anxious about doing so. This is the first appearance of the knitting that Mrs. Ansley will hold through much of her conversation with Mrs. Slade. By taking it out of her handbag immediately after hearing Barbara’s comment, she seems content to confirm that she is safe and predictable, someone whose actions others can easily anticipate.
It is late afternoon, and as the two women stand at the parapet, the few other people lunching on the terrace gather up their things to leave. Mrs. Slade suggests that she and Mrs. Ansley stay on the terrace, and pushes two chairs close to the parapet, facing the Palatine Hill. She comments that the view from the terrace is “still the most beautiful view in the world.” Mrs. Ansley agrees, saying “[i]t always will be, to me.” Mrs. Slade notes how her friend emphasizes the word “me.” Silently, she compares this unusual feature of Mrs. Ansley’s speech to the seemingly random underlining seen in old letters, and tells herself, “Grace Ansley was always old-fashioned.”
Mrs. Ansley’s unusual emphasis on the word “me” implies that she sees some difference between her experience of Rome and the experience of Mrs. Slade. It hints at the possibility of the unspoken truths that will come to light later in the story, but Mrs. Slade is too committed to her existing understanding of Mrs. Ansley—reflected in the comment that Mrs. Ansley is “old-fashioned,” a code for stodgy and boring—to realize that Mrs. Ansley’s inflection may reflect to a thought or emotion that is inaccessible to her.
Mrs. Slade begins to reminisce about the time she and Mrs. Ansley spent in Rome when they were young. Mrs. Ansley is distracted, and remarks anxiously that the head-waiter seems to be wondering about their decision to settle on the terrace. Mrs. Slade casually calls the waiter over, and explains that she and Mrs. Ansley would like to spend the afternoon on the terrace, admiring the view. She offers him a tip, and the waiter warms instantly, assuring the two women that they are welcome. He encourages them to stay for dinner, reminding them that there will be a full moon that night.
There is a telling contrast between the self-effacing behavior of Mrs. Ansley’s, who appears concerned that their presence may be inconvenient or obnoxious to the waiter, and the entitled behavior of Mrs. Slade, who correctly assumes that her money will allow her to do what she pleases. Although both women seem to be wealthy and likely have similar experiences, Mrs. Slade seems to feel a degree of confidence in herself—and also a sense of entitlement—that Mrs. Ansley lacks.
Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley discuss their daughters’ plans for the evening. Mrs. Ansley believes that Barbara and Jenny have gone out with two “young Italian aviators” who had invited them to fly to the nearby city of Tarquinia for tea. She remarks that they will probably stay late, in order to fly back by moonlight. This prompts Mrs. Slade to comment on the enduring power of moonlight, and to ask whether Mrs. Ansley believes their daughters are “as sentimental as we were.” Mrs. Ansley answers that she does not know what their daughters “are.” She adds that she and Mrs. Slade, when they were young, may not have known one another as well as they believed. Mrs. Slade concedes that this may be true.
Though Mrs. Ansley appears passive and mild in the early pages of the story, her comments during this part of the conversation reveal the first hint of a sharper edge to her character. Tarquinia is an ancient city famous for its extensive catacombs, and this association adds a dark undertone to Mrs. Ansley’s description of the young women’s glamorous and romantic adventure. When Mrs. Slade invites Mrs. Ansley to reminiscence about their younger days, Mrs. Ansley refuses to express nostalgia and instead speaks frankly about two uncomfortable truths: that she and Mrs. Slade may not really know their daughters, and that, despite their long history, they have never really known one another, either. That Mrs. Ansley is willing to acknowledge these things suggests that she is more complex than those around her are willing to recognize.
Mrs. Ansley’s comment prompts Mrs. Slade to reflect silently on their long friendship. She remembers how stunningly beautiful Mrs. Ansley was as a young woman. Mrs. Slade thinks that Mrs. Ansley was much more beautiful than her daughter, though Barbarais more charming and “effective” than her mother was. Mrs. Slade wonders how Barbara developed such a compelling personality, given how stodgy and dull Mrs. Ansley and her husband, Horace, were. Mrs. Slade recalls the years when she and her husband lived across the street from the Ansleys, and remembers a joke she once made at Mrs. Ansley’s expense while in the company of other society women.
Mrs. Slade is clearly invested in maintaining a particular image of Mrs. Ansley, which she has held onto through much of their relationship. She feels superior to Mrs. Ansley, insofar as she senses that she has a rich and dynamic life—both a social life and an inner life—that Mrs. Ansley does not. However, she is not secure in that sense of superiority. At other points in their friendship, she has felt the need to disparage Mrs. Ansley in front of other women in order to confirm that she is better liked and more interesting. Just as Mrs. Ansley’s hidden strength has begun to emerge, Mrs. Slade’s hidden vulnerability is becoming visible as well.
Mrs. Slade reflects on how she and Mrs. Ansley both lost their husbands around the same time, and how those losses revitalized the friendship they had shared during their youth. She thinks about the excitement and glamour of her life with her late husband, Delphin, a corporate lawyer and a celebrity in New York society whom she often accompanied to critical social events in the United States and abroad. Unlike the many wives of important men who become “frumps,” Mrs. Slade notes that she always took pride in her good looks and charm, and in being “equal in social gifts” to her husband.
Mrs. Slade’s reflections on her life with Delphin reveal the qualities that are most important to her. She prides herself on her compelling personality and social graces, and sees these as cornerstones of the satisfying life she once shared with Delphin. She enjoys the feeling of social power—hosting and being hosted by elite people, the feeling of positive attention focused on her—and of the admiration her vibrant personality inspires in others. A great deal of her sense of self-worth seems to come from feeling superior to others, Mrs. Ansley included.
After her life with Delphin, widowhood feels very dull to Mrs. Slade. Since her son died in childhood—a fact that Mrs. Slade finds “unbearable” to think about—caring for Jenny is her only remaining responsibility. However, Jenny is “perfect” and never gets into any trouble that requires “excessive mothering.” Mrs. Slade thinks her life might be more interesting if Jenny were more like Barbara, vivacious and daring rather than responsible and safe.
This is the only moment in the story when Mrs. Slade alludes, even in her thoughts, to the private tragedy of her son’s death. Although the central drama of the story focuses on her relationships with her husband and Mrs. Ansley, the brief interruption of a profound unspoken loss hints at deep emotions that Mrs. Slade, and others like her, mask with gossip and scandal.
Sitting beside Mrs. Slade, Mrs. Ansley thinks about her own impressions of her friend. She believes Mrs. Slade is “awfully brilliant, but not as brilliant as she thinks she is.” Mrs. Ansley considers the ways in which Jenny is different from her mother, noting that Jenny lacks Mrs. Slade’s “vividness.” Mrs. Ansley believes Mrs. Slade’s life has been filled with “failures and mistakes,” and she feels pity for her friend.
The vast majority of the events in “Roman Fever” are told from Mrs. Slade’s perspective. Here, Mrs. Ansley’s thoughts become briefly accessible to readers. It is surprising, given that Mrs. Slade has just been reflecting on the pleasures and successes of her life with Delphin, that Mrs. Ansley should feel sorry for her friend. This moment highlights the tension between the way people see themselves and the way others see them. Mrs. Slade knows her own mind and experience—things Mrs. Ansley cannot grasp—but it is clear that Mrs. Ansley also has a unique perspective on Mrs. Slade’s life that may not be visible to Mrs. Slade herself.