A deeper reading of Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” displays a major emphasis on the multiple figurative dimensions of knitting. Wharton establishes this chief theme early on by making sure that the matter of knitting is the first subject to receive any attention: “let’s leave the young things to their knitting.” The first impression of the knitting women is that they are incapable of anything more than the monotonous act of knitting; this sets the stage for the stereotypical mundane middle-aged woman image to be blasted apart.
It is imperative to note that, of the two protagonists, Mrs. Slade does not even knit, while Mrs. Ansley seems devoted to the craft. As the story progresses, one can even make a correlation between Mrs. Ansley’s mental state and the way in which she handles her needles and skeins. When she is nervous, she picks up her project cautiously, as if to draw as little attention as possible. However, something even as simple as the way she stores her work, crimson silk being “run through” by her needles elicits a very provocative response in the reader. The switch between a “half guilty” extraction of her work to the subtle provocation of the passionate color and style of materials chosen changes the element of knitting from one of complacency to one of increasing complexity.
Mrs. Ansley’s use of knitting in an attempt to blaze a path of forgetting, as she neither wishes to live in the past or the present, introduces an element of dramatic irony in Wharton’s work. This mix is shown in the cautious drawing out of her knitting, indicating feelings of guilt at the mention of the love triangle conversation that Mrs. Slade begins. Thus, her knitting serves two purposes: her knitting allows Mrs. Ansley to refrain from fidgeting and it also serves as an evasion tactic for Mrs. Ansley to avoid uncomfortable conversation. In that respect, her knitting can seem as though it is a psychological weapon wielded against the onslaught of Mrs. Slade’s tongue. It is easy to discern that knitting may be required to dispel the “cold” and “damp” air that has been flowing freely between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley.