William Dean Howells Short Stories
“Editha”: William Dean Howells’ Reflection of America
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.
Criticizing American Exceptionalism in “Editha”
William Dean Howells publicly opposed the Spanish-American War of 1898, believing that it was more of an evasive attempt by the United States to achieve territorial and economical expansion of Spanish colonial nations like Cuba and the Philippines, rather than an indefinitely unselfish effort to liberate Cuba from Spain. In “Editha”, Howells characteristically portrays the contrasting opinions of those who supported the war, and those who denounced it. Although it is never specifically mentioned to have been the Spanish-American War which the story revolves around, it has been widely accepted that the story’s political context corresponds and reflects that of the 1898 war against Spain.
As an advocate of Leo Tolstoy’s – the Russian novelists’ – ideas of nonviolence, Howells proved no reluctance in condemning war or violence of any kind. He brilliantly conveys his antipathetic views of war through the protagonist, Editha, by painting her as a shallow individual; one with no thoughts of her own, who is quick to echo chauvinistic phrases of the newspapers. She is introduced as a woman whose engagement to one George Gearson had been decided “without, as it were, thinking”. What is certain however, is that “she had always supposed that the man who won her would have done something to win her; she did not know what, but something.” This fairy-tale-like conviction outlines her childish and naïve mentality which is emphasized by her elation of the start of war. In Editha’s point of view, George going off to fight in a war is paralleled to him fighting for Editha’s love. To her, fighting gallantly in the war would be his act of doing “something worthy to have won her – be a hero, her hero”, without actually considering the consequences – the true enormity of war’s ramifications as a result of her romanticizing ideas of battlefield glory.
On the other hand, George patently harbors anti-war and anti-violence sentiments which, unfortunately, are proven to have no effect or bear any significance in the story as his opinions are ignored by Editha and the rest of society. When he hoped to bring down the enthusiasm during a meeting for enlisting men into the army at the town hall by attempting to “sprinkle a little cold water on them [the young men volunteering]” as a joke, George only ended up “sprinkling hell-fire on them” instead, therefore only causing the flames of patriotism within the meeting to burn even fiercer. Moreover, when Editha initially begins to coax him into fighting in the war, George utters, “with a vague smile, as if musing aloud, “Our country – right or wrong!”” which is obviously a sarcastic remark intended to mock the extremely chauvinistic belief that America is “a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right, anyway!”
George continues to chastise the war throughout the story in spite of his submission to it – his yielding not by choice but by force from his beloved Editha and the American public. He questions and doubts the mainstream notion that this war is a “holy war” which “God [had] meant it to be war”. Upon his first signs of surrendering to society’s expectations of gender roles, he says to Editha, “I’ll try to believe in your pocket Providence”: the term which he uses to suggest that this particular Providence that everyone is so sure of is not the real Lord; that it is only a conception of Providence. After enlisting in the army George goes to announce to Editha his appointed position as captain of Company A. In a drunken state, he gaily proclaims that he is going to war, “the big war, the glorious war, the holy war ordained by the pocket Providence that blesses butchery”. With this unquestionably sarcastic statement, George ironically glorifies the war in its atrocities, implying his honest views about war as being that equal to butchery; that war reduces man to animals in a slaughterhouse.
Regardless of all his sarcastic remarks, Editha, like everyone else fervently supporting the war, is deaf to notice his implications and pays no heed to his true emotions and opinions. Society only cares that he is going to war and fight for their country which patriots like Editha claim :“there is no honor above America”. She even places her love for her country above her love for George as she writes in a letter to him, “But the man I marry must love his country first of all”. These phrases and sentences highlight the magnitude of America’s sense of nationalistic righteousness.
The idea that America “can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right, anyway” epitomizes the strong belief of American exceptionalism which William Dean Howells is evidently criticizing through “Editha”. Just as how Howells had hoped to use his position as editor for the Cosmopolitan as a forum for his increasingly radical political views, he expresses such political viewpoints through this story. Like George, Howells was ignored for propounding America’s imperialistic ambitions, but his prominent works such as “Editha” certainly gained recognition by challenging readers to question the country’s dogmatic propaganda; to reflect on whether Americans would mindlessly endorse such propaganda like Editha, or contemplate on the truth and reality of the information like George.
Escapism in William Dean Howells’ “Scene”
The desire to escape, to break free from confinement or control, emerges in William Dean Howells’ short story “Scene,” where the actual tragedy of a suicide victim appears secondary to the importance of the diversion it creates for the characters involved: the Contributor and the residents of the Irish town. Through “Scene,” Howells conveys the concept of escapism, in its various expressions, as an integral part of life.The idea of escapism makes an immediate appearance. The story’s title implies a place or setting where an incident, real or imagined, may occur or have occurred. The use of one single word for the title, with its lack of a definite article to anchor it to a specific event, or an adjective to determine the scene’s quality or tone, implies freedom of interpretation. In the opening paragraph of the story, the residents of a poor, Irish, coastal town welcome any escape from the reality of the daily grind of their lives. Howells describes their “small Irish houses standing miserably about on the flats ankle deep, as it were, in little pools of the tide” (Howells 190). By using personification, Howells ties the residents to the confines of their surroundings. The people, like the houses, appear miserable not only in their shabby appearance but in their mood. Just as the houses remain stuck “ankle deep” (190) in the remnants of the tide water, their inhabitants seem trapped by the circumstances of their lives, their freedom curtailed. References to “broken fences,” “vacant lots,” and “insulted sign-boards [that] forbade them to trespass” (190) reinforce the poverty and banality of their existence where even the defaced signs forbid exploration and escape. When a local girl does escape her world by drowning herself, a resident remarks, “It was the best thing she could do” (190). Not only might the reason of her suicide have made life unbearable in such a closed society, but, quite simply saved her from a dull existence. The news of her tragic death and the intention to recover the victim’s body promises a diversion from the dreariness of the townspeople’s lives. Howells describes “a strange stir of people upon the streets” (190). The words “strange stir” imply uncommon interest and activity. The “flying” (190) of children through the streets and the “fluttering” (190) of women to and fro reinforce this activity; the verbs suggesting a lightness of spirit generated by the welcome distraction. As the title of the story suggests, the people prepare to observe a scene, in this case, the discovery of a girl’s body. The event provides an opportunity to escape from the bleakness of their everyday lives.Howells provides another example of escapism through the character of the contributor. In contrast to the townsfolk, the writer initially evades the reality of the dismal Irish town and the growing interest of its people. Immersing himself in the beauty of the autumn morning, “the contributor moved onward down the street, luminous on either hand with crimsoning and yellowing maples, he was so filled with the tender serenity of the scene, as not to be troubled by the spectacle” (190). The contributor focuses on the surrounding maple trees and the various shades of their deep red and yellow foliage rendered even brighter in the sunlight. A sense of “tender serenity,” gentle peacefulness, created by his vision, serves to distract the contributor so as not to be “troubled,” inconvenienced, or disturbed emotionally, by “the spectacle” of this poor Irish town. The word “spectacle” implies performance, which in turn places the writer as a spectator, distanced from the real events around him. The fact that only a “sense,” (190) a partial awareness, of the increasing noise and movement around him “penetrated,” (190) forcefully pierced, his consciousness implies how successfully he removed himself emotionally from reality. The very length of the second sentence of the story, over fourteen lines, suggests not only the increasing activity and chaos in the street, but also the contributor’s gradual awareness of the scene as it penetrates his consciousness. His imagination offered him a perfect diversion, a perfect escape, from the real circumstances at hand. Like the people of the town, once aware of the girl’s suicide, the contributor appears to distance himself, thereby escaping, from the true facts and emotions of the event. Howells mocks how “that literary soul fell at once to patching himself up a romantic story for the suicide, after the pitiful fashion of this fiction-ridden age” (191). The phrases “fell at once” and “patching himself up” suggest not only the haste in which he must create his fiction but his attempt to bring together the requisite components of a romantic story, as demanded by his readership. He appraises the events in terms of setting and character, finding both disappointing. The bleak setting of the Irish town repulses the romantic writer since it bore “so slight relation to the French roofs and modern improvements of the comfortable Charlesbridge which he knew” (191). The contributor would prefer a more refined setting for his story, something more engaging for his readers who also desire to escape. Assuming that the girl died in shame, having succumbed to seduction, the contributor begrudgingly labels his character as “the Fallen Woman” (191) whom he dubs “a very tiresome figure to the imagination” (191). Clearly, overuse of this type of character in literature has rendered it worthless. The Fallen Woman “was a spectacle to wring one’s heart,” (191) but seemed “a fatality” (191) that she be “the principal personage of this little scene” (191). The words “spectacle” and “scene” distance the contributor to that of a spectator appraising a drama, whilst the adjective “little” sums up his virtual indifference to the tragedy of the real situation: the death, not of a “principal personage,” but of a young girl. The contributor’s disappointment in and insensitivity to the real facts of the scene reduce him to a mere “spectator awaiting some entertainment, with a faint inclination to be critical” (191). Together with the earlier use of “spectacle” and “scene,” the word “spectator” once more distances the contributor from a true involvement in the scene. By romanticizing reality, the contributor and his readers look for an escape from the unpleasantness of life. As the contributor creates more details for his story, and the anticipation of the residents increases with the discovery of the girl’s body, their escapism deepens. Howells describes how “there passed through the motley crowd, not so much a cry as a sensation of ‘They’ve found her, they’ve found her!’ and then the one terrible picturesque fact, ‘She was standing upright!’” (191). The word “motley” emphasizes the ordinariness of the crowd, thus, making the details of her discovery more exciting to them. The use of the exclamation marks, together with the word “sensation,” captures the buzz that spreads through the crowd as it visualizes the striking image of the victim standing upright in the mud. Her position suggests a final defiance of the high-minded who would have shunned her, had she lived. Yet, her escape remains incomplete. The poignancy of the information “They are bringing her-bringing her in a wagon” (192) seems lost to the contributor and the crowd. The girl receives as little respect in death as she would have in life. The repetition of the information, “And now they were bringing her in a wagon,” (193) isolated and on a line of its own, attempts to refocus him, the crowd, and the reader on the current events actually happening. The noise and motion of the children in the crowd steadily increases as their excitement grows. In anticipation and excitement of the funeral car’s arrival, Howells describes “a noiseless riot stirring the legs and arms of the boys into frantic demonstration” (193) until finally they “could no longer be restrained; they broke out with wild yells and danced madly” (194). Howells’ diction: “frantic,” “wild,” and “madly,” suggests sudden freedom, an escape from restraints. The growing excitement of the children and the distraction of the contributor juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the girl’s carelessly transported body in a grocery wagon highlights the divide between escapism and reality. The simple description of the treatment of her body creates pathos: “In the bottom of the cart lay something long and straight and terrible, covered with a red shawl that drooped over the end of the wagon; and on this thing were piled the baskets in which the grocers had delivered their orders for sugar and flour, and coffee and tea” (194). The body, a surface for empty boxes, now acts no more than an object, a “thing,” of guilt or shame. The repetition of “and” slows the pace of the sentence, highlighting the simple sadness of the scene: the transportation of a dead body. As a grotesque closing image, the girl’s “rigid feet” (194) that hung over the back of the wagon “nodded to [the] frantic mirth” (194) of the children. The shawl over her feet shifts with the motion of the wagon, yet, transmits an accompanying beat to the crowd’s uncontrolled excitement. The scene illustrates a diversion; the business of living will soon return. The combination of what is imagined and what is real encapsulates the divide between escapism and reality. Throughout “Scene,” William Dean Howells examines the need for escapism, in its various forms, as an integral part of life. The residents of a small Irish town need a temporary escape from the bleakness and drudgery of their narrow lives. The source of their diversion derives from the grim recovery of a body, the remains of a girl who found her own escape through suicide. Whether her exit from life was prompted by fear, shame, or misery, remains intentionally unclear; the residents, after all, seek to escape reality, intent merely on losing themselves in the growing excitement of the scene. Like the townsfolk, the contributor shuns knowledge of the real details of the girl’s escape in order to create his own diversion, and that of his readership, through his romantic writing. The lack of names for place and character imply that escapism plays a desirous and necessary role in people’s lives. In “Scene,” however, Howells warns his readers of the need for balance: escapism proves necessary at times, but reality remains fact. A girl died, but does it really matter who?