Brilliant writers possess the unique ability to turn simple words into a literary work of art. In Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” Wharton reveals her theme of “illicit passion” through the creative use of literary devices. On the surface, Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade are two old friends reminiscing about the past. Upon closer review, a tumultuous second story emerges by way of the subtle use of symbolism throughout the story. Wharton’s adept use of symbolism foreshadows the figurative demolishing of Mrs. Slade. Color is effectively used by Wharton to evoke a feeling of what is to come.
“Half guiltily she drew from her handsomely mounted black hand-bag a twist of crimson silk run through by two fine knitting needles” (Wharton 114). The color black is an archetypal symbol, synonymous with mystery, death and or ill will. Crimson or red identifies with strong emotions such as love, passion, aggression and excitement. Even more telling, the knitting needles are representatively impaling the red twist of silk. Associating these colors and imagery with Mrs. Ansley suggests that her character has much more to reveal than what is on the surface.
Wharton uses Mrs. Ansley’s knitting as a way to reveal her character. When the subject of old memories comes up Mrs. Ansley nervously returns to her knitting with the hopes that Mrs. Slade will not see through her cool facade. “’Oh, no,” Mrs. Ansley hastened to assure her. “I don’t care to at all. It’s so lovely here; and so full of old memories, as you say. ” She settled herself in her chair, and almost furtively drew forth her knitting” (117). Mrs. Ansley uses the knitting as a way to avoid Mrs. Slade’s gaze. When the conversation becomes uncomfortable for Mrs.
Ansley that is when she steps up the knitting so as not to appear nervous or fidgety. She hides her feelings of guilt and uneasiness behind the busy activity of knitting. The title of the story has symbolic overtones. In earlier years, Malaria was referred to as Roman Fever. American tourists visiting Rome believed that exposure to the alternating cool and hot climates would render them ill with Roman Fever. “’The sun’s set. You’re not afraid, my dear? ” “Afraid-? ” “Of Roman Fever or pneumonia? I remember how ill you were that winter. As a girl you had a very delicate throat, hadn’t you?
”” (118). The title of the story “Roman Fever” evokes a feeling of impending doom. The Colosseum is historically known as a place of mortal combat therefore, its’ presence in the story is symbolic. The main conflict between these two women takes place where many gladiators publicly fought and lost their lives in years past. Mrs. Slade wanted to deliver the same fate to Mrs. Ansley by deceptively leading her there. Mrs. Slade proudly admits to writing the phony letter which led Mrs. Ansley to the Colosseum to meet Delphin. “Why not? Listen, if you don’t believe me.
‘My one darling, things can’t go on like this. I must see you alone. Come to the Colosseum immediately after dark tomorrow. There will be somebody to let you in. No one whom you need fear will suspect’ –but perhaps you’ve forgotten what the letter said? ” (119) Men competed and battled for their lives in the Colosseum, so too, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley compete for a man in the Colosseum. Without literary devices like symbolism the story would simply be words on a page. Wharton thoughtfully places elements of symbolism throughout the story adding depth, mystery and intrigue.
The crimson color of the silk, the way Mrs. Ansley busily knits her way out of conversations and the conflict at the Colosseum all allude to a surprising conclusion. Wharton cleverly reveals her theme “illicit passion” through this strategic symbolism foreshadowing a climatic ending. Mrs. Slade attempted to lead Mrs. Ansley to her death, but in the end it was Mrs. Ansley who figuratively stabs Mrs. Slade in the heart, a symbolic execution. Work Cited Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Alison, Booth And Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York: Norton, 2010. (113-122)
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