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Edith Wharton challenges the notion of knowledge and understanding, even of one’s own personal experience, in her short story “Roman Fever.” The application of Jackie Royster’s scenic analysis to Wharton’s “Roman Fever” perpetuates the idea that an understanding of the reality of human life and existence is never attained by any individual due to the nature of human discourse and tendency to assume.
To employ Royster’s tactics one must start with a depiction of the story or scene at hand. “Roman Fever” takes place on a balcony restaurant in the heart of Rome. Two women, Grace Ansley and Alida Slade met years ago in Rome as young women transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Since then, their lives have constantly been interwoven. For years they lived across from each other in New York. Their daughters are friends and both of their husbands are deceased. The women watch the sunset over Rome and begin to delve into their lives together over the years. They discuss with each other and privately reflect on Roman experiences, love, social status, family, and even perceptions of each other. Over the course of the scene, it is revealed that Ansley had an affair with Slade’s fianc?, and eventual widower, long ago. Through a series of deceptive occurrences the women dealt with this event in different ways and each were cognizant of only half of the story; neither woman was completely aware of the full context of the affair. Along with the unfolding of this event the women share a series of assumptions that they make about the other, most of which are based on pure observation or appearance.
The root of Wharton’s suggestion that life is never as it seems to the individual is manifested in the rhetorical issue that the story presents to the reader. The rhetorical issue outlines a narrative in which individual perspectives and motives, both Ansley’s and Slade’s, disallow the two to have a true dialogue in which the members listen to and understand each other. The words the share are carefully selected to only reveal certain aspects of the truth of their character. Even then, the woman listening and watching her companion react to her own speech fails to reflect on the opposite woman’s life, experience, and words. The two are fully enveloped in their own perspectives, so much so that active listening as key component to rhetoric is completely lacking. The women, despite their extensive and long history together, are not open to each other’s perspectives and as a result do not know or understand the truth of their human experiences. Therefore, a lack of listening and invasion of personal, egocentric thinking prohibits the individuals from true dialogue and knowledge of a comprehensive reality.
Royster highlights the importance of personal reaction as a part of the process of fleshing out suggestions, like those Wharton makes on the human experience. After reading the short story a second time, over a year later than the first reading, I found it impossible to ignore the commonality of the relationship between Ansley and Slade. Too often people grow, work, go to class, and even live with individuals that they know very little of. One may believe that they understand or personally connect with the other, but in truth their version of reality is immensely skewed. Personal objectives and the emphasis on individuality or independence, especially among young women, puts pressure on the individual to focus solely on one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and goals. The other people that surround the lives of these individually driven personas act as false companions and a means to egotistical ends. I think that it is clear that Alida Slade is so consumed with this self-motivated way of thinking that she cannot and will not ever truly listen to and dialogue with Grace Ansley.
Furthermore, a key principle to revealing life beyond the surface of appearance is the ability to set aside the personal agenda that refutes active listening. Slade cannot grasp this concept in the story, but rather, embraces her selfishness and fails to disband her envy for Ansley. The root of her envy lies in the realization that Ansley was in love with Slade’s fianc?. She claims that “I found out – and I hated you, hated you. I knew you were in love with Delphin…I wanted you out of the way…” (Wharton 17). This envy, or hatred, is a major factor in the relationship of these two women as their lives unfold. Slade, never able to truly forget the jealousy and hatred she held for Ansley upon this realization, fosters hardened feelings for her long-time companion. The initial jealously motivated Slade to become selfish and do all in her power to be rid of her competition. Slade does not consider the outcome or consequences that Ansley may have to suffer through due to her selfishness. She falsifies a letter to Ansley, hoping that she will go to the Colloseum at night and become humiliated when Delphin does not meet her there as promised in the letter. She hopes that this humiliation and failure would trigger Ansley to give up on Delphin and no longer be an obstacle for Slade. Selfishly she considers these benefits to herself, but does not think twice about the pain she causes Ansley. She even claims “I remember laughing to myself all that evening at the idea that you were waiting around there in the dark…” (Wharton 19). As Ansley is shaken to silence, shock, and saddened words by the truth Slade shows no remorse or regret for her childish and self-centered actions in the past, but reflects carelessly without sparing the feelings of Ansley. The lack of shame attributed with this behavior further proves that the selfishness that Slade emits prohibits any true relationship to form between her and Ansley.
Again, a lack of active listening disallows the women from a revelation of the reality of their situation as they briefly discuss their daughters, Barbara and Jenny. Ansley does not appreciate her own daughter Jenny because in her opinion Barbara is a far more interesting individual. Slade admits that she would rather be Barbara’s mother. She speaks of her daughter as if she has been cheated stating, “I always wanted a brilliant daughter…never quite understood why I got an angel instead” (Wharton 12). Slade wants what she cannot and does not have. Barbara is exciting, fresh, and vivacious, while Jenny is dedicated, simple, and boring. The only person that Slade considers in this thought process is herself and her own source of pride. Ansley dismisses the conversation by claiming that Slade “overrates Babs” (Wharton 12). Ansley believes her companion to be brilliant, yet in retrospect she denotes Slade’s life as one full of disappointment. She pities the woman but never works to reveal the root of Ansley’s unhappiness amidst her privileged life. If Ansley had done so, then in hearing Slade’s desire for Babs she may have realized sooner that Slade is not unhappy with the way her life turned out, but rather consumed by jealousy for the way Ansley has been blessed. Of course, it follows, that this jealousy is rooted in the realization that Ansley held the heart of Slade’s husband. My immediate reaction to this is that if Ansley realized the truth in Slade’s words, and the hatred that her companion holds for her, she would be less likely to sympathize with Ansley’s constant disappointment.
Additionally, the assumptions that Slade makes about Ansley disallow her to know the truth of Barbara’s lineage. Slade assumes that Ansley is dull, simple, and predictable. She sees no reason to suggest dishonor or scandal in the life of her companion, though finds Barbara’s vivacity enthralling when contrasted with her mother’s supposed reverence to social convention. This assumption leads her to believe that her deceptive tactics in eliminating Ansley as competition for her lover were successful. According to her perspective, the fact that Barbara is the result of Ansley’s passionate affair with Slade’s fianc? never crosses her mind. If it had, the assumptions she makes about Ansley would be shattered and the innate spirit of her fun-loving daughter would be better understood. Ansley ignores the words and actions of her companion of the years due to the assumption that she won the prize by marrying Delphin.
Following the examination on Ansley and Slade’s personal reactions to the effects of the rhetorical issue at hand and, subsequently, my personal reaction to the rhetoric, one is prompted by Royster to consider the cultural lessons extrapolated by the text. It is clear that the two women have consistently failed to view life from the other’s perspective. This is a result of their equally self-motivated goals and actions and failure to participate in active listening. Culturally, this suggests that people propelled by egocentric values and backgrounds are not likely to understand life in a comprehensive manner. Instead, the failure of the human condition manifests itself as an inability to truly empathize, rather than sympathize, with another. Empathy allows humans to feel and know what another feels and knows. According to Wharton, the structure of dialogue in which self-motivating influence muddles revelations of the truth prevents complete understanding and instead leads to an incomplete view of reality. Therefore, no matter how much one experiences or knows, the life they lead is not truly defined solely by what it seems to them alone. A comprehensive definition of the happenings and reasons for any given life is not fully rendered until all perspectives are accounted for.
The cultural lessons suggested by “Roman Fever” is one that outlines a structure of human interaction that promotes individualistic assumptions, limits true discourse, and leaves much for one to question. The notion that one cannot fully understand his or her own life is a daunting one. Even at the end of the story, when the truth of the affair is revealed to both parties, do Ansley and Slade finally understand each other or know the truth of their lives? This argument suggests that they do not, as this is one singular event, and still not a comprehensive study of perspectives. Additionally, by accepting the suggestion made in this text, one lacks a solution to the problem at hand. Knowing that life is never as it seems, can one properly or fully live life or connect with another human being? Is it impossible to avoid the assumptions that humans perpetuate amidst a need for independence and individual success? Finally, if it is possible to overcome these assumptions will life no longer be concealed under a false reality, or will a lack of listening remain as the prohibiting force in human communication? These questions will emerge in the minds of Wharton’s readers as they delve into her short story and proposed rhetorical issue.
Jackie Royster’s scenic analysis of Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” allows readers to reflect upon the notion that due to the nature of human interaction and self-motivated assumptions, knowledge and experience can never fully reveal the truth of an individual’s life. Wharton makes an explicit move to challenge the way in which people interact by suggesting that this interaction is failing to foster honesty and progress to the human condition. One is left with the realization that life, as often noted, is truly a mystery. One may claim to know much, and yet, there is a perspective, an idea, or a lifestyle that they know nothing about which bears meaning on their own life. Ironically, this lack of knowledge and understanding is even true among the closest of companions.
Royster, Jacqueline. “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own”. D2L. Marquette U. Web. 20 April 2011.
Wharton, Edith. Roman Fever and Other Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.
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