Wharton Hears a WHO
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 70% of
child mortality in Africa.” So not only is pneumonia prevalent,
it is still deadly. The danger it poses to young people has life-influencing
ramifications, ones with an incredible emotional content. Though more
treatable now, as we’ll see later, the persistence of pneumonia
fits in with the puzzle as it presents itself, since it is linkable
to a much more fundamental human ailment.
In Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” we also see ailments
of a pulmonary and life-changing import. Indeed, the entire story seems
shot-through with infection. Wharton writes of Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley,
both widowed, both taking their daughters to Rome on holiday as they
had been. Their own intertwined histories Wharton describes at the story’s
onset as “all of the movings, buyings, travels, anniversaries,
illnesses” (emphasis mine) (751). Wharton then begins
the tale with illness. It is only as the narrative progresses that we
get a sense of how important illness is to become:
Yes; being the Slade’s widow was a dullish business after that.
In living up to such a husband all her faculties had been engaged;
now she had only her daughter to live up to, for her son who seemed
to have inherited her father’s gifts had died suddenly in boyhood.
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 girls at the danger hour; but when you and I
were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience
thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hours
after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in - didn’t
So the physical danger of disease is preventable. But the emotional
danger of love is much more alluring. However, like a bacterium, its
danger is covert, as exciting as it may prove. Love, like a bacterium,
is “out there” amongst the beauty of Rome. Potentially it
is preventable too through simple but willful avoidance.
As Wharton’s tale unfolds, we learn that Mrs. Ansley, heretofore
pictured as very shy and retiring, was involved with Mrs. Slade’s
future husband. It was under the cover of disease that she both made
her way to Mr. Slade and made her excuses for the strange circumstances
that surrounded the dissembling her family had to partake in when Mrs.
Ansley was found to be with child. The coming of those “cool hours
after sunset” sets Mrs. Slade to reminiscing:
“The sun’s set. You’re not afraid, my dear?”
“Of Roman fever or pneumonia? I remember how ill you were that
winter. As a girl you had a very delicate throat?”
“Oh we’re all right up here. Down below, the Forum, it
does get deathly cold, all of a sudden . . . but not here.”
“Ah, of course, you know because you had to be so careful.”
Roman fever wells up as the feelings of love as well. To Wharton, they
seem inextricably linked. Mrs. Slade begins again:
“I thought: ‘There’s no more Roman fever, but
the Forum is deathly cold after sunset - especially after a hot day.
And the Colosseum’s even colder and damper.”
“The Colosseum - ?”
“Yes. It wasn’t easy to get in, after the gates were locked
for the night. Far from easy. Still, in those days it could be managed;
it was managed, often. Lovers met there who couldn’t meet elsewhere.
You knew that?”
“I - I daresay. I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember? You don’t remember going to
visit some ruins or other one evening, just after dark, and catching
a bad chill? You were supposed to have gone to see the moon rise.
People always said that expedition was what caused your illness.”
The illness was Mrs. Ansley’s pregnancy; the illness was love;
her stepping out was to meet her lover, Mr. Slade. The Roman fever,
as much as it is an acute respiratory infection, is closely associated
with love itself. The question, then, becomes Do respiratory ailments
cause romantic interludes? What’s the connection? How do we reconcile
Wharton’s obvious link between pneumonia and love with the World
Health Organization’s obvious, and well-founded, concern?
I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the breath.
The word “spirit,” after all, just means “breath.”
Thus the spirit is the breath of the person. Pneumonia, as our WHO health
experts tell us, is an acute respiratory illness; it affects our ability
to breathe. Pneumonia is, therefore, in essence a spiritual disease.
Likewise, the almost clichéd notion of being “lovesick”
describes a very real condition among human beings, albeit a seemingly
emotional one. Being emotional beings, that which is emotional is also
that which is real. Love, as we all know, and all other emotions, impinge
upon the spirit. Thus lovesickness too is a spiritual disease. Love
and pneumonia, therefore, are the same.
Likewise, the popularity of the kiss seems to imply that, like respiratory
infections generally, love is transmitted and reinfection effected through
the maxillofacial orifices. As pneumonia is contracted and spread through
the mouth and nose, so love is. The kiss, of course, is not the only
component. As is well known, smell is an important part of intimacy.
Fragrances from fruit to musk are used to try to attract mates and to
try to instill a mood of lovemaking once a mate is attracted. Pneumococcus
bacteria, likewise, are likely to travel through the nose in order to
infect their victim. It is not merely the scent of the body in question
but the very microbiological effluvia that body transmits that is the
very stuff of love.
Because of this love should be treated like a disease.
Happily, the preventability of love can be seen in the preventability
of pneumonia as well: “The successful management of acute respiratory
infections does not require expensive, separate programme. The diagnosis
and treatment can be given by suitably trained workers in the first
level health facilities, provided they are supplied with antibiotics”
(WHO). While it’s questionable whether or not love can be treated
with antibiotics, it can be treated with aversion therapy or the simple
addition of marriage. Other love preventatives such as war and country
music are both quite feasible and can actually be very profitable for
Western nations, though they seem a little cruel, especially the latter.
Wharton’s “Roman Fever” at the very least points
the way; it is a warning that love and pneumonia are inextricably linked,
an idea that we’d do well to pay more attention to today when
the ease of a high technology lifestyle fosters an arrogance that all
the world’s problems have been solved.
Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever.” Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911-1937. New York: Literary Classics 2001. 749-62.
World Health Organization. “Childhood Diseases in Africa”
Fact Sheet N 109. March 1996. 14.3.2003