Unfulfilled Expectations: An Essay on Edith Wharton's Roman Fever
No matter what story is being read, a reader will always have certain expectations. Most stories build up certain expectations and fulfill them at the end. Yet, there are other stories that will carefully lull readers into a false sense of predictability only to surprise them with a twist. Roman Fever, a short story by Edith Wharton, is one of those stories that slowly raise the readers’ expectations only to complicate those same expectations. Wharton accomplishes this through her use of point of view and character in the story.
“Roman Fever” is the story of two, middle-aged women reminiscing on what was and what could have been. Both women are widows with a beautiful daughter to keep them company past the death of their husbands. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley claim to be friends. In fact, the reader would almost assume the two were friends. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley had known each other since their girlhood days, back before they were Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, respectively. The two were married around the same time, gave birth to daughters around the same time, and lived across the street from each other for years. Readers expect the two women to be friends. Surprisingly, this is the first expectation that Edith Wharton manages to complicate. She does this, primarily, by using the point of view.
The point of view is third person omniscient. This allows the reader the luxury of being able to see the characters’ thoughts and feelings. It is there, inside the heads of the two women, that the reader is able to see that the feelings they have for each other is not friendship. In fact, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley seem to barely tolerate each other. On page 842, Mrs. Slade “reflected on how little they knew each other.” This is surprising to the reader. Gernerally, when two people have known each other for so long they should have some sort of intimate knowledge of the other. However, it is stated that it is quite the opposite. Both women “visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope.” (843).
Characterization and point of view both work together to surprise the readers with the biggest twists in the story. This is when the reader finds out that not only did Mrs. Ansley have an affair with Mr. Slade, but Barbara Ansley is actually Mr. Slade’s daughter.
The characterization, both physical and mental, of Mrs. Ansley makes this twist quite a shock for the reader. She is described as being “smaller” and “paler” than Mrs. Slade (841). This physical comparison places Mrs. Ansley as the more passive member of the friendship. She is quite beautiful but far too demure and slight to take attention away from the larger and more impressive Mrs. Slade.
Mrs. Ansley’s personality also makes the affair seem quite outlandish. Mrs. Slade describes her “friend” as being “old-fashioned”, “irreproachable”, and a “nullity” (841 & 842). It is hard to believe that someone so boring and old-fashionedwould do something so shocking as to have premarital sex with a man who was not single.
The point of view also helps add to the surprise and shock of the revelation of Mrs. Ansley’s affair with Mr. Slade. Though it is third person omniscient, Mrs. Slade’s thoughts are far more over-powering. The reader is able to see everything the dramatic and lively Mrs. Slade thinks, while the demure and refined Mrs. Ansley seems to keep her thoughts to herself. Even when the reader gets a glance inside Mrs. Ansley’s head it is to comment on how she is unexpectedly composed or is struggling to keep her emotions in check. There is almost nothing in Mrs. Ansley’s thoughts that would suggest she had an affair with Mr. Slade.
In fact, even the many glances into Mrs. Slade’s mind keep the reader confident that Mrs. Ansley would never out step the bounds of proper society. On page 842 Mrs. Slade wonders how the “dynamic” Barbara was born from “two nullities as parents.” However, when Mrs. Slade brings up this very question to Mrs. Ansley on page 845 she does not question Mrs. Ansley’s “lack of expression” when the woman responds to her question. In fact, Mrs. Slade thinks that Mrs. Ansley is so absorbed in her knitting that she has no time to reminisce (845). It is through Mrs. Slade’s opinions and assumptions that the reader makes his or her own opinions and assumptions.
The ending is a surprise for everyone. Mrs. Ansley had no idea that the future Mrs. Slade had any idea that she was having an affair with Mr. Slade. Mrs. Slade had no idea that Mrs. Ansley would step out of her boundaries to do something so interesting as to write back and, eventually, meet Mr. Slade at the Colloseum. Finally, what seems to be the largest shock in Roman Fever Is the unexpected origin of Barbara Ansley.
The story Roman Fever is a brilliant work of literature. By focusing on Mrs. Slade’s thoughts and characterizing Mrs. Ansley as the weaker of the two, Wharton is able to tempt the reader into expect a cookie cutter ending without twists and turns. However, through her mastery of language, Wharton leaves the readers’ expectations unfulfilled.