An Analysis of William Howells' 'Editha'
William Dean Howells' 'Editha'
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In the twentieth century, we are all too familiar with the horror of war. We see it emblazoned on our television
and movie screens; we see its effects in the psychological trauma of returning veterans. This is in stark contrast
to the traditional view that war is a glorious enterprise which would make boys into men and confer honor upon both
them and their loved ones. Completely overlooked was the fact that it could just as easily make boys into corpses
and confer horrific memories on those who survived. However, some voices of pacifism have made themselves heard
throughout past eras, and one of these belonged to William Dean Howells. In his story 'Editha,' war is shown to be
dehumanizing and traumatic -- the complete opposite of glorious.
The title character of Howells' story is a young girl who believes that her boyfriend is not a real 'man' unless he
goes to fight for his country. The fact that George does not seem to take anything very seriously infuriates
Editha, and she virtually bullies him into enlisting in the army when war is declared. He is among the first wave
of soldiers killed, and Editha quite properly wears black out of respect (but with a great deal of pride, also),
and goes to visit George's mother.
Mrs. Gearson lashes out at Editha, telling her, 'I suppose you would have been glad to die, such a brave person as
you! I don't believe he was glad to die. He was always a timid boy, that way; he was afraid of a good many things;
but if he was afraid he did what he made up his mind to. I suppose he made up his mind to go, but I knew what it
cost him by what it cost me when I heard of it. I had been through one war before. When you sent him you didn't
expect he would get killed.'
No, Editha hadn't. No one ever expects the glorious soldiers to come back the glorious dead. But Mrs. Gearson isn't
through: 'You just expected him to kill someone else, some of those foreigners, that weren't there because they had
any say about it, but because they had to be there, poor wretches -- conscripts, or whatever they call 'em. You
thought it would be all right for my George, your George, to kill the sons of those miserable mothers and the
husbands of those girls that you would never see the faces of.' The woman lifted her powerful voice in a psalmlike
note. 'I thank my God he didn't live to do it! I thank my God they killed him first, and that he ain't livin' with
their blood on his hands!''
This is strong stuff; it is much more the type of writing we would expect from the Vietnam War era, rather than the
end of the Victorian era. It is not surprising that Editha doesn't get it; she ends the story by going to have her
portrait painted in her lovely mourning outfit, and commenting that George's mother must be insane. She personally
has never seen the brutality, the complete horror, of war; she has never experienced the terror of fearing for her
life at every moment, of watching people blown up only inches away. She can still think it's romantic because she
hasn't been there.
"Editha" can be found in Howells' "Between Darkness and Daylight."
It is available in paperback from Amazon here:
and as a free Kindle download from Amazon here:
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and as a Nook download here:
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