Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” very simply centers on a single conversation between two middle-aged women, Grace Ansley and Alida Slade. Early in the story, Alida wonders aloud about what Rome has meant to tourists who have come there over the years: “To our grandmother’s Roman fever; to our mother’s sentimental dangers… to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street” (15). She defines Rome for three generations of women, except her own. The conversation between the two women reveals a lot about their past, but the setting and how they interact with it reveals more about the two women.
From the beginning, Wharton presents a contrast between the two friends in appearance and personality. Alida is called the “dark lady” (12), while Grace is the “smaller, paler one” (9). However, years after marrying and living“opposite each other-actually as well as figuratively- for years” (12), the two women find themselves again in Rome in similar situations. Both women have been widowed and are at the end of their lives as desirable lovers. The time of day when this conversation takes place- late afternoon and dusk- also corresponds with the age of the women. When their waiter suggests that the two women can enjoy the moonlight on the terrace together, Alida believes the reference to be “out-of-place and unwelcome” (11) because moonlight is sentimental and for lovers. But it is acceptable that their daughters are enjoying a moonlit airplane ride with their young men.
Finding themselves faced with the realization that the next generation of young, sentimental girls has taken possession of the moonlight, the women also find themselves looking down at the ruins of the Palatine and the Forum that act as another reminder of their own youth. Both women at first seem satisfied sitting quietly “with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval” (9)on their faces while looking at the ruins before them. But Alida soon finds “her eyes ranging from the ruins… [to] the outlying immensity of the Colosseum” (16) .The “immensity” that Alida sees in the Colosseum represents not just it’s size, but also the size of the deception she used to manipulate and punish her friend years before for falling in love with Delphin, Alida’sfiancée. However, where Alida sees “immensity,” Grace sees the “wreckage of passion and splendor at her feet” (17), indicating that the two women have very different perspectives of Rome and what it means to them. While looking at the ruins of the Roman Empire they each must realize that it is like looking at the ruins of their own lives.
Like the Romans before them, in their youth Alida and Grace used the Coliseum as a battleground for Delphin. For years, Alida had thought that she came out of this battle victorious, but by the end of their conversation she realizes that her attacks had backfired. As a result, Grace gave birth to the “dynamic” (17) daughter that Alida had always wanted. For Grace, the landscape in front of her represents passion, and though she didn’t get to marry Delphin, she did get to take a piece of him away from Alida.This accounts for Grace’s self-satisfied perspective of the ruins that lay “at her feet” (17) as if she owns them.