One of Mrs. Ansley’s first actions in “Roman Fever” is to withdraw from her bag “a twist of crimson silk run through by two fine knitting needles.” She takes out the knitting in response to an overheard comment from her daughter, Barbara, which suggests that she and Mrs. Slade—both middle-aged, and no longer available for the romantic adventures that Rome offers foreign tourists—have little to do with themselves except knit. Mrs. Ansley seems content to confirm this stereotype of middle-aged women, and even seems to embrace it, telling Mrs. Slade, in reference to the splendors of Rome, “sometimes I get tired just looking—even at this.” Throughout much of the rest of the conversation, Mrs. Ansley holds her knitting on her lap. At certain uncomfortable points in the conversation—when Mrs. Slade begins to reminisce about their visit to Rome as young women, for example—the knitting gives Mrs. Ansley a preoccupation to hide behind, allowing her to avoid the kind of direct engagement that might give away her long-held secrets. Mrs. Ansley’s knitting frustrates Mrs. Slade, particularly as she attempts to draw Mrs. Ansley into more intimate conversation. She even sees it as a sign of emotional and intellectual shallowness, marveling as she admires the splendid view from that terrace at the fact that Mrs. Ansley “can knit—in the face of this!”
Mrs. Ansley’s knitting represents the repression, indirectness, and deceit that are the heart of Wharton’s portrayal of high society life. Knitting gives her a veneer of civility and respectability, thereby preventing Mrs. Slade from recognizing that Mrs. Ansley is immersed in deep memories of her own, including memories of romantic and sexual betrayals that have shaped the lives of both women. The appearance of dull conventionality protects Mrs. Ansley from suspicion. When Mrs. Slade finally raises the subject of the love letter Mrs. Ansley received from Delphin—and of her subsequent late-night visit to the Colosseum to meet him—Mrs. Ansley allows her knitting to fall to the ground. Its displacement from her lap marks a dramatic shift in the characters’ dynamic: in this moment, Mrs. Ansley’s polite mask slips, and she reveals her true self—filled with passion, pity, and fear.
Knitting Quotes in Roman Fever
As they leaned there a girlish voice echoed up gaily from the stairs leading to the court below. “Well, come along, then,” it cried, not to them but to an invisible companion, “and let’s leave the young things to their knitting … After all, we haven’t left our poor parents much else to do.”
Mrs. Ansley had resumed her knitting. One might almost have imagined (if one had known her less well, Mrs. Slade reflected) that, for her also, too many memories rose from the lengthening shadows of those august ruins. But no; she was simply absorbed in her work.