William Dean Howells’ short story “Editha,” published in 1905, revolves around ideals about war and the romanticized vision of it. Through each character, Howells presents a contrasting view of war. Editha, and her view of God-intended glorious war, is able to push her fiancé George into joining the battle. When he dies shortly after leaving, his mother makes her views on the topic very clear. Each character represents not only a view, but also a portion of America; Editha being the idealistic majority, George being the realistic but easily persuaded minority, and George’s mother being the realistic and morally strong one percent.
The main character of the story, Editha, holds war at a romanticized standard that presents her as a representation of America’s idealistic and morally weak majority. When the story begins, Editha is talking to her fiancé George about the war that has just begun. Although George seems quite against the war and his views on it, Editha is firm on hers, and hers is that he must go to battle. Howells makes her persistent views very clear, “…she was aware that now at the very beginning she must put a guard upon herself against urging him, by any word or act, to take the part that her whole soul willed him to take, for the completion of her ideal of him” (308). Editha does not just want but needs her fiancé to take part in the war because if he does not, then he will never meet her ideal of him. Despite her decision to not urge or push George towards any decision, she does anyways by continuing to talk about war and the glory of it. John B. Humma, in a short story criticism, claims that “The majority almost always will do what it wants, regardless”. Like the majority, Editha does what she wants regardless of her fiancé’s own personal views. There are no personal views when it comes to the chauvinistic majority, there is only the idealistic view of a united nation. She pushes her own to an extreme point that is evident in a letter she writes to him before he makes a decision on what to do. In her letter, Editha tells her fiancé that he either enters the war or she will leave him: “There is no honor above America with me. In this great hour there is no other honor” (Howells 311). Her idealistic idea on war is more important to her than her own relationship, for if her fiancé is not one who supports America as greatly as she seems to, to the point that he is willing to risk his own life on the battlefield, then she does not want to be with him. Although George is questionable on war, especially is own participation in one, Editha is full force ahead, indicating that the romanticized idea of glory for her through her husband trumps the moral ground upon which George’s views stand on. This leads to the idea that Editha, like the majority of America, holds a mindless ignorance. For when Editha is pushing her fiancé into war, she is not thinking of all the possible outcomes but only of the ones that involve shinning glory. Humma speaks on this particular idea: “Her blind allegiance to a sentimental and chauvinistic ideal reflects the majority view, but Editha and that view are both so mindless…”. The majority’s views are blind, as Humma states, because they are seen in an idealistic way that aims itself only at exaggerated patriotism and not the individuals or their own moral beliefs. At the end of the short story, after her fiancé’s death in the war, Editha continues on her life the same way as before: “…and from that moment she rose from groveling in shame and self-pity, and began to live again in the ideal” (Howells 317). Even after what would be a terrible tragedy for anyone, Editha continues on her life as usual. The majority, like Editha, in the face of a threat to their uniform ideals, simply push past and continue on in the name of patriotism and blind allegiance to what could possibly be unveiled as a morally unjust cause.
In contrast, George seems to view war as wrong and often wonders if war truly is the answer but ends up following along with the majority due to pressure and his own internal conflict, presenting him as a representation of America’s weak minority who often give up their moral views in order to follow along with the norm. In the beginning of the story, George is shown to be questioning war and his involvement in it as his fiancé, Editha, pressures him into joining. George is constantly wondering whether or not war is really the answer to the country’s problems: “It isn’t this war alone; thought this seems peculiarly wanton and needless; but it’s every war – so stupid; it makes me sick. Why shouldn’t this thing have been settled reasonably?” (Howells 309). George reveals that war seems unreasonable to him. His morals tell him that there are other ways to settle disagreements, a contrast to what seems to be the majority view. George’s morals seem strong because he has a strong reasoning behind them; War is not reasonable because there are other more reasonable ways to settle disputes. He represents the minority of America in this way due to the fact that he uses reasoning to back up his morals and his views instead of just following a blind idealistic path. However, George’s morals begin to break down and appear weak once his views are challenged by Editha, or the majority. Hummas writes, “Through George, Howells dramatizes the fact that America has neither the strength of will nor the moral force to act according to her best convictions”. So, although the convictions and moral ideas are there, they stand useless against the brute patriotism of the majority. George and the minority stand no chance. Even when George joins the war, he is only following the judgment of everyone else. Despite George’s initial thoughts on war, he goes against his better will. In his criticism, Hummas explains that even though the moral thoughts are there in the minority, in George, they get pushed down and swallowed: “…the intelligence remains, but the will, the character to act upon truth, has largely dried up”. The morality is present but the actions taken do not prove it. The minority is represented through George because just like them, action is never taken by George to enforce his own moral beliefs. Both let their views reside within them and follow the majority’s outward views instead.
The realistic and morally strong one percent of America is represented through George’s mother who, having already gone through a different war, knows where she stands morally and has the strength and the character to portray it. George’s mother does not come into the story until after George’s death when Editha decides to visit her. From the moment Editha steps foot into the mother’s house, the mother makes her views clear. It seems as though she blames Editha for her son’s death. That Editha’s strong, but morally weak, views pushed her son straight forward into his own death. George’s mother argues Editha’s judgment and ideals: “I suppose you would have been glad to die, such a brave person as you! I don’t believe he was glad to die…. 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…. When you sent him you didn’t expect he would get killed” (Howells 316). George’s mother digs into Editha’s ideals, just as the one percent represented by George’s mother goes against the views the majority holds. George’s mother knows that Editha’s romanticized view of war is the main contributing factor to why her son died, because without her influence, George would have never went to war. The weak minority would never have been influenced by the majority. Hummas compares George’s mother to the exact opposite of what Editha represents: “George’s mother…is crippled. Once vigorous, she is now confined either to bed or to a chair, yet despite her infirmity, she shows a great and positive moral strength”. Editha, representing the majority, is physically vigorous. However, her ideals and morality are weak. George’s mother knows that Editha believed her fiancé would come back from the war and bring her glory and pride, and she also knows that that idea is idealistic: “They think they’ll come marching back, somehow, just as gay as they went, or if it’s an empty sleeve, or even an empty pantaloon, it’s all the more glory, and they’re so much prouder of them, poor things!”(Howells 316). The majority view, as Editha sees it, is that war is romantic and proud and patriotic. The one percent’s view, as George’s mother knows it, is that war is death and brutal and horrible. George’s mother continues to drag Editha’s beliefs on war claiming, “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!” (Howells 316). The separation between gods, in which George’s mother thanks her God, makes the dividing line between the different positions in America even more prominent. Not only are the views on each side different, but the morals are and the gods are. George’s mother is implying that her God is not the same God that Editha lives under, and that the morals that she receives or learns from her God cannot ever be connected to Editha’s God. George’s mother represents the one percent of America that stands on strong moral ground with a strong will to back up their beliefs by not being afraid to tear down Editha’s, or the majority’s, views.
William Dean Howells’ short story “Editha” may have all the makings of a romantic war tale despite a deep underlying connection between the characters and the portions of America. Editha, who represents the majority, finds war romantic and glorious. She pushes her fiancé into battle because she, like the majority, is blindly aligned with patriotism and idealism and holds no individual moral beliefs. George, who represents the minority, holds a moral belief against war but ends up following the majority due to a weak moral ground. Like the minority, he is easily persuaded to the ideals of the majority that seem to triumph over his own inner feelings. George’s mother, who represents the tiny one percent, views war as completely immoral, and stands her ground on her views. Like the small percentage she is not afraid to act upon what she believes is right or tear down other views that lack a strong moral foundation. Each of these characters in Howells’ “Editha” holds a bigger importance than just their place in the plot line, making this story deeper than just a tale of glorious war, a fiancé’s death, and a mother’s grief.
Howells, William Dean. “Editha.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 307-317. Print.
Humma, John B. “Howells’s ‘Editha’: An American Allegory.” The Markham Review 8 (Summer 1979): 77-80. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Sheets-Nesbitt. Vol. 36. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.