In many ways, the relationship between the female characters in Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" and Susan Glaspell's "Trifles" is diametrically opposed between the two stories. Although there is a degree of amicability prevalent in the relationship in each tale, the principle characters in Wharton's narrative are largely antagonistic towards one another, whereas the principles in Glaspell's play seem to grow closer towards one another the more time they spend together. What is significant about this fact is that the reason for the animosity in the former work and the growing sense of unity in the latter is relatively the same -- the nature of women. The conflict in "Trifles" presents a number of facets about the nature of women that allows for solidarity in the face of adversity, whereas the conflict in "Roman Fever" illustrates aspects of womanhood that is indicative of disunity and antagonism.
From the very outset of Glaspell's work, it is quite clear that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have a bond between one another that is not shared with the male characters because of the pair's common gender. In fact, the principle conflict in this work of drama is man's subjugation and suppressing of the individuality and joy of womanhood, which is evinced by the fact that an oppressive husband killed his wife's pet bird, prompting her to kill him in retaliation. These facts emerge after a lengthy dialogue between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters in which they surmise the nature of the crime while men (including the husband of Mrs. Peters, the sheriff) attempt to discern it. As such, the fact that the women are able to ascertain the truth while the men are not directly correlates between the conflict between man and women that the play represents, which allows for acts of solidarity between the two women. The most egregious of such acts is when the pair silently decide to remove the evidence that will surely convict the accused woman of murder, which the following quotation demonstrates.
Mrs. Hale rises, hands tight together, looking intensely at Mrs. Peters, whose eyes make a slow turn, finally meeting Mrs. Hales. A moment Mrs. Hale holds her, then her own eyes point the way to where the box is concealed…Hrs. Hale snatches the box and puts it in the pocket of her big coat.
Inside of the box is the dead bird, which is the evidence that will convict the woman who killed her husband. The silent assent between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to remove that evidence, thereby helping another of their gender, is indicative of the camaraderie that they share with one another because they are women. This camaraderie extends to include the accused woman, Mrs. Wright, as well.
Whereas the conflict in Glaspell's tale unifies the female characters as women, the conflict in Wharton's tale largely arises out of the nature of women. In the former tale, that nature includes solidarity, compassion, and sympathy. In "Roman Fever," however, the author portrays the nature of women as catty, possessive, resentful, and antagonistic towards one another. Although Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have enjoyed a friendship for the better part of 25 years, there is a current of jealousy and even outright competition between them due to the fact that Mrs. Ansley once tried to take the man that Mrs. Slade was engaged with. Mrs. Slade's recollection of this incident fuels the antagonism that typifies most of the interaction between these characters, particularly after Mrs. Slade reveals to her friend that the former falsified a letter from her husband (prior to their marriage) to have Mrs. Ansley meet him in the Roman Colosseum. The fact that Mrs. Ansley had treasured that letter as coming from Mrs. Slade's husband enrages Mrs. Slade, which the following quotation proves.
Mrs. Slade's jealousy suddenly leaped up again at the sight. All these years the woman had been living on that letter. How she must have loved him, to treasure the mere memory of its ashes! The letter of the man her friend was engaged to. Wasn't it she who was the monster? (Wharton).
This quotation displays the animosity between the two women. What is significant about it is that this animosity stems from their nature as women. In too many instances, women have vied with one another for the same man. Wharton's portrayal of this situation reinforces this fact; the author uses it as the central conflict in the story to show that women's nature is competitive and discordant.
The camaraderie fostered between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters is largely attributed to the antagonistic presence of men. The author demonstrates this notion while presenting the play's central conflict, Mrs. Wright murder of her husband. She also alludes to this notion with the Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters helping to remove evidence that would convict Mrs. Wright. Finally, Glaspell demonstrates this point by having Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters side together against the men -- their husbands and the County Attorney. The men seem to regard the pair as they seemingly do all women: inane, and concerned with matters that are of no importance. The author proves that their concerns with such matters prove more efficacious than the investigative work of the men. Yet all of the chiding that the duo endure from the men merely helps to unite them together, and makes this partisan to Mrs. Wright's case. The subsequent quotation, in which the County Attorney makes disparaging remarks about the house keeping abilities of Mrs. Wright, illustrates this point.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?
MRS HALE: (stiffly) There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: To be sure. And yet…I know there are some Dickson county farmhouses which do not have such roller towels.
MRS HALE: Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: Ah, loyal to your sex, I see (Glaspell).
This quotation is indicative of the sort of antagonism Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters receive from their male counterparts in this story. It is also representative of the sort of antagonism that Mrs. Wright received from her husband, although his murder of her pet bird was certainly extreme. Yet Mrs. Hale's response at once unifies her with Mrs. Wright, and, implicitly, with Mrs. Peters, due to the fact that they are women. As the country attorney notes, she is "loyal" to her gender because of the common experiences they share. These experiences are denoted in this passage in incurring the responsibility for housecleaning, as well as incurring lack of respect from men. As such, the author utilizes the male characters as a means of drawing together the female characters in a unified form of solidarity.
Wharton's story uses male characters to produce the opposite effect upon the women. Whereas Mrs. Slade's husband operates merely as a point of contention between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, other male characters in this tale produce the same effect -- at least upon Slade and Ansley. While these women discuss their romantic involvement with the same man several years prior, both of their daughters are currently involved in romantic affairs with a group of young men. One of them will make a desirable, worthy marriage partner. The fact that he is likely to choose to propose to Mrs. Ansley's daughter Babs as opposed to Mrs. Slade's is another instance in which the presence of men serves as a point of contention between the pair, or certainly for Mrs. Slade which the following quotation implies.
She knew that Babs would almost certainly come back engaged to the extremely eligible Campolieri. "And she'll sell the New York house, and settle down near them in Rome, and…