‘Roman Fever’ by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Roman Fever by Edith Wharton, 1934

The magic trick:

Telling the story in a single scene through the talk and thoughts of two women

“Roman Fever,” as I’m sure most of the readers here will know, boasts one of the great kiss-off lines to ever end a short story. It’s really pretty great.

But the sensational ending and the twists Wharton must weave in order to get there are contrived to say the least. One could argue the way she plays fast and loose with genetics and the whole idea of nature-versus-nurture damages the story’s connections to reality and lessen the overall effect.

Don’t get me wrong – this remains one of my all-time favorites. I’m just saying there’s more than a whiff of gimmick here.

And that’s OK, because there is greatness elsewhere in the story. The magic trick isn’t the ending; it’s in the story structure. Consider that the entire story is told without ever leaving the restaurant terrace. It’s a single-scene story. Yet it’s not as if much happens up there. The two women, central to the story, barely even stand up. The action takes place through their conversation and, most importantly, their thoughts. The reader gets access to a world of backstory through their thoughts and the narrator’s editorializing of what those thoughts mean.

The ending is memorable, but it’s the story’s total grasp on human psychology is what grabs and holds the reader’s interest. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

Mrs. Ansley was much less articulate than her friend, and her mental portrait of Mrs. Slade was slighter, and drawn with fainter touches. “Alida Slade’s awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks,” would have summed it up; though she would have added, for the enlightenment of strangers, that Mrs. Slade had been an extremely dashing girl; much more so than her daughter, who was pretty, of course, and clever in a way, but had none of her mother’s, well, “vividness,” someone had once called it. Mrs. Ansley would take up current words like this, and cite them in quotation marks, as unheard-of audacities. No; Jenny was not like her mother. Sometimes Mrs. Ansley thought Alida Slade was disappointed; on the whole she had had a sad life. Full of failures and mistakes; Mrs. Ansley had always been rather sorry for her….

So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope.

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