Marriage is one of the most common themes in Edith Wharton's novels and short stories. The author does not reflect one immutable view on the institution, but rather, she takes care to present marriage in many different permutations with varying complications and vicissitudes. Sometimes her characters get married to conform to societal expectations, even if that is not what they really want, like in "Souls Belated." Wharton also commonly portrays marriage as a cage or a prison, especially for women, and compares the ways in which society perceives each partner in the case of a divorce (especially in "Autres Temps," "The Other Two," and "Souls Belated").
The women in Wharton's short stories often treat each other politely at first, but she almost always reveals tension and cattiness beneath the calm surface. None of the women in these stories have a simple relationship characterized by reciprocity, kindness, or sympathy. For example, the members of the literary club in "Xingu" are callous, petty, spiteful, suspicious, and jealous. They do not take kindly to being challenged. The friendship at the center of "Roman Fever" is a facade because the two women are both holding onto the bitterness of their fight over a man decades ago. Wharton understood that friendships between women in turn-of-the-century New York high society had an undercurrent of competition. However, she takes care not to attribute this to any inherent failings of her own gender but rather to the patriarchal society that has rendered women auxiliary. Wharton draws her readers' attention to the fact that there is little else for her female characters to do but vex one another and compete for social supremacy.
The male and female characters in Wharton's short stories know that they are living in a world with relatively rigid social codes and norms. There are cues to heed and rules to follow, and woe to the one who deviates too demonstrably from them. Even when a character decides to rebel, he or she (usually she) must be aware of the consequences. In "Souls Belated," Lydia realizes that she is not willing to risk being ostracized for the sake of her beliefs, so she ends up capitulating and marrying Gannett. Mrs. Lidcote in "Autres Temps" has been divorced for many decades, but her life is still characterized by isolation and scorn. The characters in the short stories speak and behave in very appropriate, careful ways, especially in public. They know that there are limitations on their actions, and rarely risk trespassing these boundaries.
Wharton often explores the differing perspectives between the older and younger generations in her short stories. For example, the mothers and daughters in "Roman Fever" and the mother and daughter in "Autres Temps" have vastly different perspectives on marriage and courtship. The older women grew up in a society placed many more boundaries around young women. During that time, divorce was heavily frowned upon, and a female divorcee could expect that society would censure and perhaps ostracize her for the rest of her life. The younger women, however, enjoy more independence and freedom, though they, too, are limited in their choices. Wharton emphasizes how quickly the times are changing, and how once-entrenched norms must be shaken loose every few years.
The men and women who navigate Wharton's socially treacherous world are keenly aware of what society expects of them, even if these ritual mores conflict with their personal beliefs or values. Most of Wharton's characters have separate public and private personas, like Lydia and Gannett and the Lintons in "Souls Belated," Mrs. Ansley in "Roman Fever," and Mrs. Newell in "The Last Asset." This hypocrisy often reveals itself when these characters quick to lambast a perceived weakness in another while ignoring their own.
New York City
New York City is a character in each of these short stories, even if the story does not take place there. Wharton portrays upper-crust New York as both a playground and a prison with its own set of rules. Against the backdrop of New York, Wharton's characters compete with each other, navigate complicated social situations, and try to find happiness and fulfillment. To those who do not fit in, like Mrs. Lidcote in "Autres Temps," New York City is a "huge menacing mass" (235). Wharton's portrayal of New York society has a very strict and ossified social structure that her characters are constantly struggling against. In fact, their positions in New York society follow them outside of the city. For example, the drama between Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade plays out in Rome, Lydia and Gannett must face their expected social fate in Europe, while Mrs. Lidcote escapes to Italy in order to avoid public scorn. Mrs. Jaspar and Mr. Warley in "After Holbein" maintain their social standing even though both of them suffer from dementia.
Evolution is an underlying theme that Wharton often evokes in her short stories. In "The Angel at the Grave," however, Wharton mentions evolution blatantly in Orestes Anson's scientific discovery. In particular, Wharton's female characters must constantly evolve in order to adapt to new social situations and maintain some semblance of control over their lives. Wharton came from a society where women were not expected to be professionals, so they were mostly focused on social ascendancy. Marriage was crucial for women, and it usually defined them. In "Roman Fever," Mrs. Slade is thrilled that she married well, because Delphin Slade gave her an enviable place in society. Mrs. Newell relies on Hermione's marriage to rectify her own social standing in "The Last Asset." Meanwhile, Alice Waythorn in "The Other Two" is an apposite example of how women had to alter themselves to suit their husbands.
Roman Fever and Other Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Roman Fever and Other Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.