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18 September 1996Interpreting Edith Whartons Roman FeverDefinitive criteria for judging the success or failure of a work of fiction are not easily agreed upon individuals almost necessarily introduce bias into any such attempt Only those who affect an exorbitantly refined artistic taste however would deny the importance of poignancy in literary pieces To be sure writings of dubious and fleeting merit frequently enchant the public but there is too the occasional author who garners widespread acclaim and whose works remain deeply affecting despite the passage of time The continued eminence of the fiction of Edith Wharton attests to her placement into such a category of authors it is a recognition of her propensity to create poignant and indeed successful literature The brevity of her Roman Fever allows for a brilliant display of this talentin it we find many of her highly celebrated qualities in the space of just a few pages Roman Fever is truly outstanding a work that exposes the gender stereotypes of its day 1936 but that moves beyond documentary to reveal something of the perennial antagonisms of human natureFrom the storys first sentence upon the introduction of two women of ripe but well-cared-for middle age it becomes clear that stereotypes are at issue Wharton 1116 This mild description evokes immediate images of demure and supportive wives their husbands wards Neither woman is without her handsomely mounted black handbag and it is not until several paragraphs into the piece that Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley even acquire first names 1117 Thus without even disclosing any of the ladies thoughts to the reader Wharton has already revealed a great deal of their personal worlds They live in a society which expects women to act largely as background figures thoroughly engaged with furthering their husbands careers and the constant struggle to remain pretty Indeed little else is desired or even toleratedand Grace Ansley and Alida Slade appear at first glance to conform to this image
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