Two American women, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, get up from their table and stroll over to the parapet to look down upon the glorious view of of Rome. They hear their respective daughters, Barbara and Jenny, giggling at the bottom of the stairs, preparing to go socialize. The two older women contemplate the scene quietly and serenely. They decide that they will remain in their position throughout the afternoon because the view is so beautiful.
Mrs. Slade thinks to herself that her friend is old-fashioned, and asks Mrs. Ansley if she remembers how they came to Rome when they were even younger than their daughters. Mrs. Ansley assents, and the two wonder if their girls will go off with the Italian aviators that they are courting.
Mrs. Slade muses to herself about how little she and Mrs. Ansley actually know about one other. They met when they were children, and both of them grew into beautiful young women. In her youth, Mrs. Ansley was much more beautiful than her daughter Barbara is now. Mrs. Slade thinks of Mrs. Ansley and her (late) husband as "museum specimens of old new York" (6).
After marrying, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley lived near each other. Years later, they both became widows around the same time, left to raise daughters who are also similar in age. Mrs. Slade considers herself to be worse off after losing her husband, because being the wife of Mr. Delphin Slade was an honor and a prominent social role. People would always refer to Mrs. Slade as the beautiful wife of the famous lawyer. Now, she only has her daughter, Jenny, who is pretty but also quite safe and respectable. Mrs. Slade has a hidden desire to see her daughter do something adventurous, like have a torrid affair. Mrs. Ansley, meanwhile, observes her friend's apparent sadness, and pities her a bit.
The women sit in silence, which is rather unusual. Even though they have known each other for years, they have never the opportunity to sit together quietly. This serene situation elevates the intimacy between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley. Mrs. Slade ponders aloud how Rome has always symbolized something different for everyone. For their grandmothers, the city represented Roman Fever, for their mothers, the city was filled danger, and for their daughters, Rome represents freedom. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley muse that their own mothers had a hard time keeping their daughters inside, since both women were so young, vibrant, and eager to explore.
Mrs. Ansley knits while they talk and Mrs. Slade is impressed that she can keep her stitches straight while engaged in conversation. Her thoughts stray to Barbara's likelihood of ensnaring the Italian aviator and thinks of poor Jenny, acting as a mere enabler for her friend's romantic aspirations. When Mrs. Ansley asks Mrs. Slade what she is thinking about, Mrs. Slade shares this image, and then marvels that Mrs. Ansley and her late husband, Horace, were able to produce a girl as dynamic as Barbara. Remaining still and expressionless, Mrs. Ansley calls Mrs. Slade's assessment of Barbara overly complimentary. Mrs. Slade tells Mrs. Ansley companionably that she wishes she had a brilliant daughter instead of an angelic one.
Silence resumes. Mrs. Ansley knits and tells herself she has nothing to worry about. Mrs. Slade chides herself and says she should not be envious of Mrs. Ansley. Mrs. Slade stands up and walks to the edge of the parapet, watching the sunset. Mrs. Slade asks her companion if she is afraid of Roman Fever, and the other woman laughs and says no. Mrs. Slade asks about Mrs. Ansley's great-aunt who purposefully sent her younger sister out at night to gather flowers during the epidemic. According to her old story, Mrs. Ansley's great-aunt and her sister were in love with the same man and the great-aunt sent her sister out hoping she would catch Roman Fever, hoping to seduce the man herself. Mrs. Slade laughs at the story and says that she knows Mrs. Ansley only used to tell it to frighten her. Confused, Mrs. Ansley denies that fear was her intent.
Mrs. Slade continues, talking about how difficult it once was to get inside the Colosseum and yet, lovers almost always tried to sneak in to have their trysts there. Mrs. Slade asks Mrs. Ansley if she knew about this ritual and Mrs. Ansley replies, "I –I daresay. I don't remember" (14). Mrs. Slade presses on, asking her friend if she remembers going out one night and catching a chill. Mrs. Ansley again claims not to recall but she is clearly hiding something.
Suddenly Mrs. Slade bursts out that she cannot bear it any longer, and says that she knows Mrs. Ansley once went out to meet Delphin Slade when he was already engaged to her. Mrs. Ansley, unsteadily standing, tries to stop Mrs. Slade from continuing, but Mrs. Slade recites the contents of the letter that Delphin sent to Mrs. Ansley one night, asking her to meet him.
Mrs. Ansley's face belies her internal struggle. She finally says she burnt that letter and wonders out loud how Mrs. Slade knows the contents of the letter by heart. Mrs. Slade calmly admits that she is the one who wrote the letter. Mrs. Ansley drops into her chair and tears form in her eyes. She says it was the only letter she had from Delphin and she had cherished it. Mrs. Slade asks cruelly if she happened to remember that she was engaged to Delphin while their affair was going on. Mrs. Ansley admits that she did indeed go to meet Delphin that night per the letter that Mrs. Slade sent.
Mrs. Slade feels her wrath subside, and suddenly does not know why she is trying to wound her friend. She has to justify herself, though, and says that when she found out that Mrs. Ansley was in love with Delphin, Mrs. Slade saw the other woman's sweetness as a threat. She wanted Mrs. Ansley to get out of the way and wrote the false letter in a rage. She wonders aloud if her friend thinks she is a monster, and Mrs. Ansley says she does not know, and that even though the letter was not from Delphin, she still "care[s] for that memory" (17).
Mrs. Slade pities her friend for cherishing the false letter for so many years. She gloats, reminding Mrs. Ansley that she was the one who ended up married to Delphin. She then explains that she did not mean to hurt Mrs. Ansley by telling her the truth, but thought she would be amused. Besides, she explains, Mrs. Ansley had married Horace so soon after, which seemed to reveal that whatever she had with Delphin was fleeting.
The stars are coming out and night envelops the women. The hotel staff are getting ready for dinner. Mrs. Slade finally says, after a loaded silence, that she wrote the letter as a joke and was amused with the idea of Mrs. Ansley trying to get into the Colosseum at night and finding herself alone.
Mrs. Ansley replies that Delphin actually did meet her at the Colosseum that evening. Mrs. Slade is shocked and accuses Mrs. Ansley of lying. However, with a clear voice, Mrs. Ansley assures Mrs. Slade that she did see Delphin that night because she sent a reply to the false letter. Astonished, Mrs. Slade admits that she never considered what might happen if Mrs. Ansley replied.
Mrs. Ansley stands, saying it is cold and they better go, and she feels sorry for her friend. Mrs. Slade mutters her disbelief that her friend should feel sorry for her. Mrs. Ansley says it is because she did not have to wait that night and despite Mrs. Slade's tricks, she did meet Delphin. Mrs. Slade agrees with a short laugh, but strikes back that she had Delphin for twenty five years and Mrs. Ansley had nothing to remind her of Delphin except for a letter that he did not actually write.
Mrs. Ansley turns to walk away and says, "I had Barbara" (20).
Edith Wharton wrote “Roman Fever” in 1934 and included it in the collection The World Over (1936). In the New York Review of Books, Percy Hutchinson wrote that "Roman Fever" was “as memorable a short story as Ms. Wharton has ever done,” and “as sharp-cut as a diamond, and as hard of surface.” The plot is relatively straightforward, but the story’s structure, which buries one narrative within another, is a testament to Wharton's literary skill and her understanding of American high society. The primary narrative follows two middle-aged recent widows, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade, who are meeting by chance in Rome. The women knit and reminisce about their shared history and discuss their teenaged daughters, Barbara and Jenny.
Over the course of the story, the reader learns that Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley had spent time together in Rome many years before. Wharton reveals the private thoughts of each woman at times, which is appropriate for these characters because society women would hesitate to share such intimate secrets with one another. Finally, the facade of politeness breaks down as the reminiscing focuses on one particular incident. Mrs. Slade was engaged to her late husband, Delphin, who was in turn, having an affair with Mrs. Ansley (who was single at the time). The women retread betrayals of the past, which results in a revelation that will rock their present-day lives: Barbara is actually Delphin's daughter. Thus, the story ends on a powerful and provocative note.
Armine Kotin Mortimer writes that "Roman Fever" is like the tip of an iceberg, and the massive bulk of subtext is submerged below the surface of the primary narrative. Most of the story's plot points take place in the past. Meanwhile, Wharton shrouds Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley's complicated history in simple, frank language. This is an accurate depiction of the way society women spoke to one another, and also allows Wharton to seductively dangle the truth in front of the reader until the story's final explosive exchange. By the end of "Roman Fever," the subtext has come to the surface and the reader is finally able to understand the underlying tension that exists between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley.
Mortimer explains, “the fact that [Mrs. Ansley's affair with Delphin] is told in the second story mode has a great deal to do with our pleasure in reading ‘Roman Fever’. While the first story is staid because [it is] rule-governed and classical in design and structure, and because it has order, proportion, simplicity, and harmony, the second is feverish because it is told only in erupting elliptical fragments, apparently unintended, disguised and displaced.”
Against the backdrop of propriety and politeness, the reader must unearth the dark, sexual, jealous, and vengeful side of the story. In this way, Wharton engages the reader in the storytelling process as a voyeur as he/she unravels the writer's intent. From the beginning of the story, Mrs. Slade believes that she has the upper hand, but her control slips away as the hidden narrative begins to emerge. She pokes and pushes Mrs. Ansley, which is her way of punishing her friend for past transgressions. However, Mrs. Slade has no inkling of what she is going to unearth after toppling the emotional wall Mrs. Ansley has built around herself. Mrs. Ansley’s knitting is a symbolic defense or fortification against the bitter Mrs. Slade’s confessions and recriminations.
Wharton also frequently uses parallels or paired opposites to create the narrative structure of "Roman Fever." She writes about two women, each with one daughter, who have moved between America and Rome, and the past and the present, etc. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade use their daughters as a segue to arrive at the conversation about their shared experiences in Rome. Whereas the city is now safe and romantic, it was once filled with danger and hidden but feverish sexuality. Rome itself is also marked by decadence and tragedy. Roman Fever was a deadly strain of malaria that infected many Romans when Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley were young. Wharton implies that Mrs. Slade sent Mrs. Ansley the false letter from Delphin so that Mrs. Ansley would go outside and become infected.
However, "Roman Fever" is concurrently a symbol of sexual longing. Mrs. Ansley's doctor suspected she was infected the night after she went out to meet Delphin. While she was not actually sick, she was pregnant with Delphin's love child. In the present, however, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade muse that Roman Fever is no longer a threat, so Barbara and Jenny have nothing to fear as they enjoy the sights and sounds of Rome. They are free to run about as they please and, as Mortimer writes, “are neither hampered by propriety nor troubled by romance. It is the mothers’ generation alone for whom the double structure of hiding exists.”
Edith Wharton wrote "Roman Fever" in the early 1930s, which was a time of immense political and cultural change throughout Europe. Fascist governments had begun to consolidate control in Germany and Italy. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are sitting on a terrace overlooking Rome's most famous historical sites, which were once sites of extreme violence and destruction. Meanwhile, Barbara and Jenny go off to Tarquinia with a couple of Fascist Italian aviators. Tarquinia was the site of Lucretia's rape and the fall of the Etruscan monarchy. Critic Abby Werlock emphasizes the historical context of "Roman Fever," writing that Wharton “poses Fascism as a real threat that looms just outside the story.”
At the end of the story, when Mrs. Ansley moves away from Mrs. Slade, she uses the phrase “Name of the Father,” which is an allusion to the Fascist obsession with patriarchy and purity. Werlock writes, “Mrs. Ansley’s feminist action of producing an illegitimate child can be seen as a politically threatening act” because she has acted outside the bounds of appropriate, government-sanctioned reproduction.