«Lions, Christians, and Gladiators: Colosseum Imagery in Henry James's Daisy Miller and Edith Wharton's Roman Fever 1 Dorothea Barrett May 2014 I In ...»
Here the image of the needles is combined with that of the Roman ruins: the description of the Forum here could also be a description of the two ladies' lives, and the fact that the Forum is "at her feet" suggests that the ladies' position, on the terrace of the restaurant overlooking the ruins, is metaphorical of their approaching deaths; it is as if, already dead, the ladies' disembodied spirits are looking down on the "the great accumulated wreckage" of their own youthful "passion and splendor." 16 When the revelations are well underway, the dialogue is described in metaphors of physical violence: "[Mrs. Slade] wondered why she had ever thought there would be any satisfaction in inflicting so purposeless a wound on her friend" and "[Mrs. Ansley] seemed physically reduced by the blow." 17 In the closing scene, we discover that, when they were young, Grace was in love with her friend's fiancé Delphin Slade. Alida—aware of the attraction and afraid of Grace's gentle charms— forged a letter, purportedly from Delphin, inviting Grace to meet him at the Colosseum after dark.
Alida hoped that Grace would fall ill, waiting alone in the cold and damp, and would therefore be
removed as competition for Delphin's affections, but she now discovers that her plan backfired:
Grace replied to the letter, and Delphin came to meet her. Although the final revelation has been prepared by abundant foreshadowing that jumps out on second reading, the ending nevertheless comes as a powerful surprise: 18
Reading Mrs. Ansley's gestures in the passage, her gaze away from Mrs. Slade and toward the Colosseum simply indicates that she is thinking of the past, of that night, but it also signals the final fruition of Wharton's Colosseum imagery. When Mrs. Ansley takes a step towards the door, it seems that she has decided, perhaps as an act of mercy, to refrain from telling the whole truth to Mrs. Slade, but then she changes her mind, turns back, and delivers the final revelation. 19 In gladiatorial battles in the Colosseum, once the victorious gladiator had his opponent on the ground, he paused and looked at the emperor for instructions (Mrs. Ansley's step toward the door is the equivalent pause); the emperor, guided by the mood of the crowd, then signaled that the defeated gladiator should be spared or that he should be killed. 20 In this witty response to James's lions and Christians, our two middle-aged ladies are the gladiators, Edith Wharton herself is the emperor, and we the readers are the crowd, cheering the death-blow.
Various critics (for example, Petry, p. 166) have noted that, after having done so, Mrs. Ansley moves literally and metaphorically "ahead of Mrs. Slade" (the latter no longer "a leader").
Bowlby's argument all but articulates the gladiator theme I am making explicit here, to the point of using "gladiatorial" in her discussion of the violence of "Mrs. Slade/ ('slayed')" (Bowlby, p. 41).
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London: Prentice Hall International, 1997).
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