by Jessica Xing
Cover art by Isabelle D’Amico
Silence, in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” operates in two wholly different worlds. In her short story, Wharton depicts a setting of opulence. Her two main characters, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, are vacationing in Rome and sitting on a restaurant terrace high above the city. Wharton’s world of extravagance, beauty, and scenery is harshly contrasted by the flimsy artifice of socialization—while her two main characters are surrounded by other people, the slow devolution into interrogation, exposure, and shame depict their attempts at conversation to be nothing more than noise, meaningless chatter. While Wharton depicts a world of noise, Poe in “The Raven,” makes isolation and silence unignorable—the slow descent into madness is the focus of his famous poem. By comparing these two worlds, one characterized by noise and the other by silence, I question the nature of authenticity, and whether noise, or meaningless chatter, is necessary to sustain intimacy. I start by defining aristocratic performance in “Roman Fever” as a type of noise, using dialogue to interrogate the different roles silence, conversation, and authenticity play in constructing intimacy. Then, I examine the incomprehension of language in “The Raven.” Through my comparison of these two works, I argue that noise is actually needed to keep intimacy alive: noise acts as a protection from the horror people find in silence.
Deidre Heddon, in her work, “From Talking to Silence,” states that we currently live in a “noisy” culture. Through her analysis on confession and social media, she argues that social media gives people an unlimited platform for “unmediated confession,” and thus separates meaning and authenticity from dialogue. Heddon illustrates an instance in which noise, in contrast to silence, informs how intimacy is constructed; she states that “in a noisy culture […] silence rings out loudly, offering another place to ‘be’ or to become: to reflect, to imagine, to project, to re-connect” (Heddon 12). She presents one way in which we should view authenticity: that noise inherently obstructs authenticity, which in turn obstructs intimacy. Spaces of silence, of quiet, and more importantly of self-reflection are tenets to achieving genuine connection.
Heddon’s discussion of silence suggests that silence is a natural state: between two people, silence is where they should be most comfortable. However, this assumption is questioned by the complicated role silence plays in “Roman Fever,” which seems preoccupied with artifice. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade are two “American ladies of ripe and well-cared for middle-age.” The two main characters are established by their place of relative privilege, yet they are displaced—the two socialites stare out of over a “outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval” (Wharton 1). The start of the story not only illustrates the background of these two characters, but also the importance of gestures in their communications. Gestures reveal what is not spoken in dialogue, and the differing connotations of movement, emphasis, and expression question the authenticity of what is spoken—forcing a separation of meaning from what is said out loud. For example, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley stare out over the Forum, to which Mrs. Slade states: “”Well, I don’t see why we shouldn’t just stay here […] after all, it’s still the most beautiful view in the world” (2). To which Mrs. Ansley responds: “It always will be, to me.” Wharton, in particular, describes Mrs. Ansley’s response as one with “so slight a stress on the ‘me’ that Mrs. Slade, though she noticed it, wondered if it were not merely accidental” (2). Through a simple gesture in emphasis, Wharton foreshadows the twist: that Mrs. Slade’s daughter (who, along with Mrs. Ansley’s daughter, does not appear ‘on screen’) is actually Mrs. Ansley’s, and that this artifice of beauty they are both staring in front of is emblematic of their husband’s infidelity. The foreshadowing is done through an emphasis of speech, pointing to a subtle threat of exposure.
While the world in “Roman Fever” is not so isolated as the one in “The Raven,” Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade are “two companions” on a terrace that physically and then emotionally isolates the two of them in a space in which socialization, silence, and noise are in an uneasy confrontation. There are instances in which “Roman Fever” seems to advocate for silence as a mode of authenticity, seeing some potential for silence to take away the “mask,” as Heddon says, of noise. For the purposes of this analysis, I characterize silence as the brief moments in which Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley stop speaking, looking at silence simply as a stoppage of conversation rather than an absolute absence of sound. This way, my analysis focuses less on proving silence as an absence of text, and rather furthers my argument that chatter and dialogue stand in conjunction with noise. The few moments of silence in the story take place at the very beginning of part two, where the women “continued to sit side by side without speaking” (4). In this rare moment of silence, both ladies found that “there was a relief in laying down their somewhat futile activities in the presence of the vast Memento Mori which faced them” (4). In the silence together the ladies find a sense of “relief,” and they find comfort in an authenticity that is separate from “futile activities.” “Futile activities” is an especially salient phrase as it reveals some acknowledgement that the conversation that occurred before then had largely been meaningless, and, in a sense, performative. In the silence there is a quiet understanding of their own personal futility, as the silence allows them to look at the vastness of Roman architecture as a point of self-reflection. Equating vastness and elegance with “Memento Mori” illustrates an impending inevitability that the women, in putting down their distractions, face together: the two ladies, in the silence, find a sense of solidarity in realizing their individual smallness—a potentially terrifying concept.
Yet, the question, when confronted by the “vastness and elegance” of their surroundings, is what causes these two women to still turn toward what they already acknowledge as “futile activities.” The easy solution that silence is what is needed for these two women to be intimate with one another, is troubled by the distortive role reflection plays in forging connection. Despite this moment of quiet solidarity, the moments in which Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade do not speak to each other become the site for thought and self-reflection, and in reflection comes distortion. When they fall into silence, Wharton describes their companionship as one in which they “visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope” (4). Silence does not seem to bring these women closer together. Instead, it becomes a place of self-distortion, in which the women are given the space not to reflect, but to project their own hatred, jealousy, and shame onto one another. The vastness of silence reveals an unpleasant truth: The presentation of concepts like family, beauty, and companionship are often flawed. Similar to how Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade are staring into a visually cinematic front of Roman architecture, the beauty of their surroundings only serves to amplify the doom of their own vulnerability.
The premise of intimacy is also naked and hard to look at. In “Roman Fever,” Mrs. Ansley is “embarrassed” by “the new stage of intimacy” in their shared silence (Wharton 4). There is a contrast in the women’s quiet mediation of the abyss, versus the sudden and crude self-awareness of the other person when the abyss becomes too illuminating. Suddenly, the crudeness of another person needs to be managed—one with whom Mrs. Ansley “did not yet know how to deal” (4). The embarrassment these two women feel in their vulnerability troubles another assumption: that authenticity is necessary for intimacy. Because the slightest instance in which these women are exposed to one another, they are embarrassed, and perhaps ashamed of what the other person sees. Embarrassment on Mrs. Ansley’s end also implies that there is something that Mrs. Ansley feels unprepared to share—that Mrs. Slade’s daughter is not truly hers. Authenticity, instead of a point of comfort, becomes a moment of shame, of fear. In this horrible moment of silence, Mrs. Slade defaults to aristocratic performance: “‘Five o’clock already,’ she said, as though surprised” (4). This hastened return back to the “futile activities” of conversation illustrates that silence is uncomfortable, because silence presents an external version of the self without any mediation of noise. Instead of noise being a point of interference, Wharton suggests that noise might actually be a necessary mediator to bridging intimacy.
Chatter, according to sociologist Georg Simmel, is a detraction from sociability. He argues that language’s role in engaging intimacy is to give socialization “meaning and stability,” and in order to accomplish this socialization “lays such great value on form, on good form” (255). Simmel argues that all of socialization requires some level of aestheticization. So in Simmel’s logic, to some extent, he advocates for artifice in the construction of intimacy, even going as far as to say that all language, and all dialogue requires construction. It is when the structure of language falls apart that noise will supersede it. However, Simmel still understands language as an expression of authenticity; he believes that structure, form, and aesthetics of conversation will lend themselves so that people are able to express themselves “authentically.” Both Simmel’s and Heddon’s analyses of noise, opposite of intimacy, suggest that meaninglessness must stand in opposition against genuine connection—that connection requires a level of truth to it.
If silence in “Roman Fever” is embarrassing, silence in “The Raven” is downright terrifying. Heddon and Simmel both argue to some extent that noise equals obscurity and incomprehension, while silence is equated with comprehension and clarity. Yet, silence as a form of clarity is once again troubled by how “The Raven” and “Roman Fever” depict the characters’ reactions to silence. Silence, especially in “The Raven,” is not a point of clarity; it is a point of obscurity and horror. While “The Raven” seems to show silence in the beginning as more of a norm rather than a horrifying new phenomenon, intimacy in the form of the inhuman raven is actually a relief from the abyss of silence:
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!” (Poe, lines 27-28).
While “Roman Fever” relates silence to the vastness of temporality, the sonic quality of silence in “The Raven” is tied to the absence of sight. Silence, then, is not a moment of clarity, as seen in Heddon’s essay, but, in “The Raven,” a point of distortion. Darkness, in the passage, suggests a connection of silence and unhearing with a failure of the senses. Darkness, illustrated through the abyss of sight, sense, and sound, becomes a place of fear, of terror: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing” (Poe, lines 25-27). This quote in particular illustrates that silence and how it constructs darkness acts as a point of unchecked imagination—rather than acting as a space for the individual to authentically develop, silence, especially without the noise of another, is a place for the imagination to identify with horror. The only point of contact, the only point of comfort is “whispered” to him, illustrating again the obscurity of the dark translating to the obscurity of spoken word, establishing the inarticulation of language as a point of intimacy. Both “Roman Fever” and “The Raven” identify silence not as a point of uninterrupted self-reflection, but as a point of immensity. These texts suggest that silence ends intimacy because of its potential to reveal. In “Roman Fever,” the two women are afraid of what it will reveal about them without a careful barrier of mediation, and in “The Raven,” silence is at first terrifying, and needs the noise of intimacy to initiate a relationship with an unfamiliar, obscured other. Because of how both texts illustrate self-reflection, Wharton and Poe do not believe authenticity can ever coherently be articulated to another person—attempts to do so stop points of genuine contact.
In “The Raven,” the raven disturbs with how it subverts expectations of concision: the raven becomes alien because its grasp on language is too controlled, so articulate that it turns around and becomes increasingly misinterpreted by the speaker. As the poem progresses, the foreignness of language does not actually alienate the narrator—the incoherence of the raven’s “Nevermore” actually appears to further his attachment:
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before” (55-60).
This passage is where the bird starts to gain personhood to the narrator; he identifies in the raven’s loneliness, and perhaps sees his incomplete attempts to communicate as humanizing. In looking at noise as a current of human connection, there is a tie between the soul and an unstoppable, liquid flow—in one word, “Nevermore,” the soul is “outpour[ed]” (56). Whether it is a projection of connection on the narrator’s part, or the bird’s genuine attempt to communicate with the narrator, language, in failing to encompass this totality, becomes noise. The rhyme in the poem illustrates this: the repetition of the -uttered suffix in “uttered … fluttered … muttered” suggests firstly an effort at language, only for that effort to get cut short. It also shows an obscurity of language itself—the narrator cuts the raven off through a similar outpouring of his desire for intimacy. “Nothing farther then he uttered… Till I scarcely more than muttered” (59-60). The flow of dialogue into one another shows a momentum of noise—similar to how the communication of the soul is likened to water, the narrator’s interruption blends and bumps up against the raven’s dialogue—the movement of noise keeps them from falling into silence. The flow of noise makes the language itself incomprehensible, yet despite not understanding each other, the narrator fears the bird leaving him, likening the bird and its incomplete language to a type of “hope.” In this awkward, tumbling connection, Poe shows that, regardless of comprehension and form, human beings find intimacy in noise because they see shortcomings in language as a form of humanizing vulnerability. Intimacy, especially in this passage, is characterized by desperation to not fall into silence—incomprehension and unmediated form seem to be where the narrator finds refuge from the abyss of silence.
While I disagree with Simmel’s argument for socialization as a purposeful artistic form, his understanding of socialization as a type of relief can be seen in both “Roman Fever” and “The Raven.” In “Roman Fever,” aristocratic performance as noise is needed to maintain intimacy—it is in silence that confrontation arises and then intimacy dies. Mrs. Slade constantly feels the need to overcompensate for Mrs. Ansley’s silence—noise in “Roman Fever” can actually be understood similarly to how Simmel sees sociability as a kind of “artifice … a social necessity rather than a deceptive device” (349). In a sense, the way Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade use etiquette can be understood as a kind of artistic “artifice.” However, what makes their performance noise rather than a “stylization” is this desperation in which they—especially Mrs. Slade—engage in it. Similar to the speaker in “The Raven,” Mrs. Slade uses her new intimacy with Mrs. Ansley as a relief from silence. When this relief is taken away from her, when Mrs. Ansley chooses to knit instead of responding to her, Mrs. Slade sees it as a judgement of her own personal failings. Instead of providing more intimacy, all Mrs. Ansley’s silence does is further distort Mrs. Slade’s perception of her. Mrs. Slade uses the silence to analyze Mrs. Ansley’s silence and how that might be a reflection of her—the insecurity over how her daughter compares to Babs compels her to rely on supposedly familiar concepts of gender and class in her society to further provoke conversation. She rambles about Babs’s potential future, only to cut off with a “recoil of self-disgust” (Wharton 6). This is where aristocratic performance stops being artifice and becomes noise. While Poe uses a very literal figure of horror to represent the isolation of silence, Wharton employs the examined self as a form of alienation. Without the presence of noise, without an endless stream of relief, silence becomes a very insidious form of judgement. The necessity of noise in intimacy then illustrates that connection thrives in sound, not in contemplation—noise was not the real intrusion, as so much silence was.
Overall, noise is necessary to sustain intimacy because noise, according to Wharton and Poe, implies a consistency of connection. While the nonstop flow of unmediated thought and meaning might seem like a distraction, in actuality, this distraction is desperately needed because otherwise the relationship would be left in silence. What ends up killing intimacy is the subject’s fear of silence. Wharton and Poe suggest that while silence has the potential to unite two people under a naked, shared truth, they seem to believe that human beings are incapable of handling their own authenticity—especially of having it bared to another person. Intimacy ultimately is constructed through a continual presence of noise—noise shows the repeated attempts humanity makes to achieve connection, and while oftentimes it is not perfect, the constant reassurance of communion is needed to continually ensure genuine connection.
Jessica Xing is a senior at New York University studying English Literature. She loves bad TV, DnD, and campy horror books.
Heddon, Deirdre and Adrian Howells. “From Talking to Silence: A Confessional Journey.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 33 no. 1, 2011, p. 1-12. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/407603.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym, New York: W.W. Norton, 1998, Print.
Simmel, Georg, and Everett C. Hughes. “The Sociology of Sociability.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 55, no. 3, 1949, pp. 254–261. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2771136. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.
Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever.” 1934. PDF file.