Though Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are lifelong friends, their relationship is constrained by mutual feelings of intense jealousy. They see one another as opponents, competing for power and stature—both within their friendship and in society more broadly. Mrs. Slade wishes her daughter, Jenny, were as vivacious as Mrs. Ansley’s daughter, Barbara, and she reveals her insecurity through snide comments that disparage both Barbara and her parents. Reflecting on her past, she remembers jokes she made to other society women at Mrs. Ansley’s expense. The conversation between the two women, which makes up most of the story, itself feels like a competition rather than an exchange between friends, as when Mrs. Slade describes Jenny as an “angel” and Mrs. Ansley responds curtly that Barbara is an “angel” as well.
As in many relationships between women, the devastating effects of competition on these two women’s relationship can be seen most clearly in their interactions they have about the men in their lives. As a young woman, Mrs. Slade perceives Mrs. Ansley’s exceptional beauty as a threat to her relationship with her then-fiancé, Delphin, so she plans a cruel trick: she uses a forged letter to lure Mrs. Ansley to the Colosseum at night, with the hope that Mrs. Ansley will fall ill as a result.
The friendship between Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade is not the only intimate relationship in “Roman Fever” that is damaged by jealousy over the attention of a man. The story of Mrs. Ansley’s Great-Aunt Harriet—a woman so determined to win the man she loves that she orchestrates her own sister’s death by sending her on a nighttime errand during an outbreak of Roman Fever—directly inspires Mrs. Slade’s plot against Mrs. Ansley. In yet another instance of competition between women, while Mrs. Slade is sitting on the terrace she imagines that Barbara must be using the favorable contrast between herself and Jenny to charm an eligible Italian bachelor. Although there is no sense that Barbara will endanger Jenny as Mrs. Slade endangered Mrs. Ansley, the notion of young women manipulating one another to secure the love of a man recalls the more dramatic crimes of older generations. Each generation of women learns vicious and vindictive behavior from their mothers and grandmothers, who teach their daughters that winning and keeping the love of a man is more important than honoring moral principles.
It is worth noting that, although Mrs. Slade’s behavior was more obviously immoral than Mrs. Ansley’s, both women are guilty of moral wrongdoing. Mrs. Ansley acted selfishly and dishonestly when she decided to meet Delphin at the Colosseum, betraying the trust of her friend. After discovering her pregnancy, Mrs. Ansley rushes into a marriage with Horace, and goes on to convince him that Barbara is his daughter. This lie becomes the foundation for the rest of her life. The real depth of Mrs. Ansley’s cruelty emerges in the final moments of the story, when she reveals Barbara’s true paternity to Mrs. Slade. Readers can imagine the pain and guilt that Mrs. Ansley might have felt at having to raise her lover’s child with another man, and at having to keep such an important truth hidden for decades. However, the final lines of the story do not speak to any of the real sadness of the situation. Instead, she uses the truth as a weapon to wound her friend, to undermine Mrs. Slade’s marriage to Delphin, and to gain the upper hand in their conversation. Though she seems to be the victim of Mrs. Slade’s vindictive behavior, Mrs. Ansley is also guilty.
Competition in Female Relationships ThemeTracker
Competition in Female Relationships Quotes in Roman Fever
Mrs. Slade broke off this prophetic flight with a recoil of self-disgust. There was no one of whom she had less right to think unkindly than Grace Ansley. Would she never cure herself of envying her? Perhaps she had begun too long ago.
“Oh, yes; Great-aunt Harriet. The one who was supposed to have sent her younger sister out to the Forum after sunset to gather a night-blooming flower for her album. All our great-aunts and great-grandmothers used to have albums of flowers.”
Mrs. Slade nodded. “But she really sent her because they were in love with the same man—”
“Well, that was the family tradition. They said Aunt Harriet confessed it years afterward. At any rate, the poor little sister caught the fever and died.”
Mrs. Slade waited nervously for another word or movement. None came, and at length she broke out: “I horrify you.”
Mrs. Ansley’s hands dropped to her knees. The face they uncovered was streaked with tears. “I wasn’t thinking of you. I was thinking—it was the only letter I ever had from him!”
“I don’t know why you should be sorry for me … After all, I had everything; I had him for twenty-five years. And you had nothing but that one letter that he didn’t write.”
Mrs. Ansley was again silent. At length she turned toward the door of the terrace. She took a step, and turned back, facing her companion.
“I had Barbara,” she said, and began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the stairway.