Edith Wharton was one of the most prominent female writers of the 19th and 20th centuries and is well known for her impressive work that covers many different genres and topics. This sample critical analysis from Ultius explores the relationship between “Roman Fever” and The House of Mirth.
Critical Analysis of Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and The House of Mirth
One cannot hope to compose a literary comparison between Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and The House of Mirth without first acknowledging the fact that Wharton is a gifted author, with a propensity for turning out prose that is every bit as lovely, and as powerful, as the most poetic of verses. That fact stated, there appear to be significant differences between these two works: the former is a short story of a paltry few pages, the other one of her most widely read novels.
The former is primarily about a relationship between women, the latter is about a young woman’s quest to marry rich and reconcile the beatings of her heart with that for her pocketbook. Yet when one fully deconstructs the plot of each of these works, it becomes fairly obvious that there is a patent similarity in the source of conflict found within them. In each piece of literature, there is a furious rivalry between women which significantly dictates the outcomes of their plots. The difference is that it entails the physical destruction of the protagonist in The House of Mirth and the emotional defeat of the protagonist in “Roman Fever”.
Nature of the rivalry in “Roman Fever”
It is extremely significant that the nature of the rivalry detailed within each of Edith Wharton’s writings is the same, which both adds to its intensity and its effect of these conflicts upon the plots of the tales. There is a degree of friendship, or perhaps more accurately, of friendly competition, that is found in every tightly contested rivalry—which certainly applies to the relationship between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley in “Roman Fever”.
The women purport to be old, dear friends. However, a close examination of the nature of their relationship reveals points of jealousy, anger, and even hatred that suggests that this innocuous friendship is actually a heated rivalry for the affections of a man who is long dead. Mrs. Slade resents Mrs. Ansley because the latter desired the former’s husband when the pair was engaged—although Mrs. Ansley has never admitted to doing so prior to the conclusion of the story. Thus, there is a deliberate tension between the pair that belies their amicability and attests to the fact that they are rivals, which the following quotation, in which Mrs. Slade confesses to forging a letter from her fiancée to rendezvous with Mrs. Ansley in hopes that Mrs. Ansley would get sick, readily proves:
“’But at this moment Mrs. Ansley spoke…I burned that letter at once.’
‘Yes; you would, naturally—you’re so prudent!’ The sneer was open now” (Wharton).
This quotation is highly emblematic of the thin veneer of friendship, which is really cloaking the animosity between these two women. In this passage, Mrs. Ansley admits to destroying the letter so that no one would know she went to rendezvous with Mrs. Slade’s husband, which is indicative of her clandestine intentions. Mrs. Slade’s response, dripping with sarcasm, both compliments and disparages her companion for her “prudence”, is aided by a “sneer” that she had previously hidden—which underscores her dislike for her rival.
Relationships Between Rivals in The House of Mirth
There is a similar relationship between the two rivals in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart and Bertha Dorset. The pair is attached to one another through a thinly veiled friendship, which really hides the fact that Bertha and Lily are enemies. The reason for their dislike of one another is not quite as substantial as that of the women in “Roman Fever”. Lily is actually at the social mercies of the other when Bertha needs a reason to keep her husband for divorcing her due to Bertha’s infidelities with Ned Silverton.
Still, before their relationship ever reaches that point, it is quite clear that the women are friendly rivals. At the outset of the novel, Bertha desires Lily’s friend (to whom Mrs. Bart is romantically inclined, Lawrence Selden). The nature of their enmity as beautiful women interested in the same man is denoted within the following passage in which Lily becomes aware of the fact that Selden will be joining her and Bertha, among others, at a country retreat:
“Lily reflected…unless she had lost her cunning. If Selden had come at Mrs. Dorset’s call, it was at her own that he would stay” (Wharton 59).
This passage indicates that Lily is attempting to compete with Bertha for the attention of Selden. She is aware of the possibility that he may have been motivated to go to the gathering in order to see Bertha. Yet she is resolved to make him remain there in order to see her. The nature of the competition between these women is also alluded to by the fact that Lily is described as one who is “cunning”—in how to usurp Bertha, her rival, for the affections of Selden. It is important to note that the rivalry between the pair is implicit, as it is between the women in “Roman Fever”, and that outwardly Lily and Bertha are friendly acquaintances.
The outcome of conflict in “Roman Fever”
Although the central conflict in each of these stories revolves around a pair of women’s rivalry for one another, the outcome of that enmity is largely emotional and psychological in “Roman Fever” whereas it has dangerous, and deadly physical ramifications in The House of Mirth. There comes a point in both stories in which the rivalry is no longer tacit and comes out in the open, which takes place in “Roman Fever” once Mrs. Slade confesses to writing the letter that proved that Mrs. Ansley actually desired the former’s now-deceased husband, who was her fiancée at the time. Mrs. Slade believes that by sending the letter that she defeated her rival who became sick that same night—unaware that in fact, Mrs. Ansley had written back to Mr. Slade and persuaded him to meet with her.
Even when Mrs. Ansley informs Mrs. Slade that her husband actually did spend the evening in question with her, the damage is perceived as minimal to the latter since these are events that took place years ago, the husband has been dead for a while, and despite that one night, Mrs. Slade still lived with her husband for the better part of 30 years. Yet in the final passage of the story, Mrs. Ansley reveals a fact of which Mrs. Slade is not aware. When the latter tells the former that all she gained from that night was a bad cold and a forged letter, the other replies,
“Mrs. Ansley was again silent. At length she took a step toward the door of the terrace, and turned back, facing her companion. ‘I had Barbara,’ she said, and began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the stairway” (Wharton).
This is a critical passage that reveals that Mrs. Slade’s husband is the father of Mrs. Ansley’s daughter. This fact reveals just how truly antagonistic and bitter is the rivalry between these two women as Mrs. Ansley was willing to sleep with and bear the child of the fiancée and eventual husband of her rival. What is critical, however, is the fact that this news may hurt Mrs. Slade’s feelings; it may shock her, and it may permanently dissolve whatever pretense of friendship she once had with Mrs. Ansley. Yet it still does very little to affect her life and livelihood, and just merely shows how far the rivalry between this pair is.
Devastating consequences in The House of Mirth
In The House of Mirth, however, the rivalry between Lily and Bertha has devastating consequences for the former. Despite the tension between the pair regarding Selden in the beginning of the novel, Lily eventually travels with Bertha and her husband to Europe so that Lily can entertain Bertha’s husband (in a strictly non-romantic fashion) while Bertha pursues a covert romance with Ned Silverton. This overseas voyage comes at a crucial time for Lily, whose romantic affections for Selden have been compromised by impecunious investments on her part and vicious gossip about her virtue.
The true climax of the novel, however, occurs when Bertha is caught cheating with Silverton and her husband, furious, wants to file for a divorce. At this point, Bertha very publicly implies that Lily has been involved in an improper relationship with her husband, the effects of which socially—and by extension financially—doom her. Lilly alludes to these facts in the subsequent quotation in which she speaks to her friend Gerty Farish:
“Did you hear that Bertha turned me off the yacht?” “Lily!” “That was what happened, you know. She said I was trying to marry George…She did it to make him think she was jealous” (Wharton 237).
This principle difference between the resolution of the conflict in The House of Mirth and that of “Roman Fever” is that the events are taking place in the present in the novel and took place in the past in the short story. Therefore, Lily’s future is greatly affected by these events, whereas Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are in a situation in which they simply cannot change the past. Bertha publicly prohibits Lily from remaining on her yacht which she had previously been allowed to stay on, therefore making it seem as though Lily is an adulterer in front of a very public audience that includes a royal personage. This move heralds a stunning series of events that ostracizes Lily from society, a fact that is exacerbated by the fact that she is distant.
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The central conflicts in “Roman Fever” and The House of Mirth is a rivalry between a respective pair of women. In both works of literature, the women go to great lengths to win the rivalry, including sleeping with the fiancé and eventual husband of one, and publicly shaming and implying adulterous actions on the part of another. The women are literally ruthless in the lengths that they go through to settle the rivalry. However, the consequences of the rivalry in The House of Mirth are much direr because they involve present events while the rivalry in Wharton’s other work involves events of the past. So whereas the consequences in the “Roman Fever” are mostly emotional and psychological, those in the novel are far more deadly.
Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever”. www.classweb.gmu/edu. 1934. Web.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Barnes and Noble Classic. 1905. Print.