The Relevance of Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever to the Modern World

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The Relevance of Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever to the Modern World

According to the World Health Organization, “of the 75 million children under five in Africa a million and a half die each year of pneumonia.” As distressing and sad as this statistic is, it points out the great danger pneumococcus still is to young people in the developing world. It’s in the developed world, but at a time before antibiotics, at a time when acute respiratory ailments posed an even greater but still preventable threat to the younger set that concerns us here and that inspires a deeper look at the full implications of respiratory disease. The WHO goes on to say that acute respiratory infection (ARI) “is one of five conditions which account for more than
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Portentously, Mrs. Slade’s representation of her husband’s love - her son - had taken ill and died. Wharton very quickly then associates love with illness. Of the Slade boy’s death Wharton writes: “She had fought the agony because her husband was there . . . ; now, after the father’s death, the thought of the boy had become unbearable” (752). Mrs. Slade is unable to deal with illness without love, yet love itself is the cause of the pain; without the love, there would not have been the pain.

The link becomes more obvious as we progress through the story. As the generations also progress through their Roman holidays, the spectre of past diseases and past loves loom large. Mrs. Slade recalls:

“To our grandmothers Roman fever; to our mothers, sentimental dangers - how we used to be guarded! - to our daughters no more dangers than the middle of Main Street. They don’t know it - but how much they’re missing!” (754)

Roman fever, later explained as an outbreak of respiratory illness, is then lumped together with the sentimental dangers their mothers had feared for their daughters. Without danger, Mrs. Slade seems to be saying, there can be no sentiment. Without dangers, their own daughters are missing out on love. Mrs. Slade continues:

“When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the

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