Editha Summary

William Dean Howells


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Editha Summary

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“Editha” is a short story by William Dean Howells. Written in 1905, it follows what happens when a young patriotic girl compels her lover to fight in a war so that she can receive elevated status in society. The story is widely studied for its themes of male rhetoric, sentimentalism, and realism. Critics note that “Editha” describes the nature of war and the truths behind it. Nicknamed “The Dean of American Letters,” Howells was a distinguished American playwright, novelist, and literary critic. He served as an editor before turning to novel and short story writing. Although he was a realist, he nurtured talented authors, whatever their technique.

“Editha” is set during the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Editha is engaged to George Gearson, who is both a pacifist and conscientious objector. Editha can’t understand why he doesn’t believe in war, but she holds her tongue because she loves him. Still, Editha thinks that whomever she marries should prove himself worthy of her before she walks down the aisle. For her, there is no better way to prove worthiness than by a show of strength.

One day, Editha is reading the newspapers. She has sentimental and romantic views about combat thanks to the papers she reads. When she discovers that war has broken out, she can’t wait to tell George all about it. She insists that he should fight, because that is what men do when they are proud of their country. George, despite loathing war, doesn’t know what to do. He hates violence, but he doesn’t want to seem effeminate.

Both characters are stereotypical products of their time. The central issue between these characters is George’s masculinity. Both Editha and George agree that he must “man up,” so to speak. He isn’t the kind of man that society dictates he should be. Right now, the only solution is to fight in the war. This will make a man out of him—Editha is certain of it.

Editha shows George that she isn’t joking about her expectations. She sends him a letter, explaining exactly why he must enlist, and what it means if he doesn’t. She sends a package with the letter containing her engagement ring and other sentimental trinkets. If he doesn’t fight, he can keep the tokens of his affection, because she’ll never marry him.

Despite his conscience and his best efforts to talk himself out of it, George enlists. Editha couldn’t be prouder of him, and she can’t wait to tell all her friends. Editha’s mother, however, is horrified, because she knows that George may not make it back home. She despairs that her daughter doesn’t grasp the true gravity of war because she is so caught up in the fervor of it.

George tells Editha that he has met with pro-war speakers in town. He has been elected as the captain of the local volunteers. Editha is delighted. She pens him another letter that he can take with him. She wants him to remember that she is always with him. In her letter, she explains that this war is almost divinely sanctioned. It is Providence. It is, somehow, the Lord’s work, and nothing else should occupy George now but winning the war. George, unsurprisingly, doesn’t bother to reply.

George sets off for war. Editha waits anxiously to hear back from him about all the great deeds he has accomplished. For Editha, this is not a war of two equals—there is only right and wrong, and George is fighting for the right side in the battlefield. The right side is also metaphorically, of course, beside her.

News arrives soon, but it is not the news that Editha has been hoping for. George died in his first battle. Editha is broken-hearted. To her, it’s not possible that George is dead, because she can’t comprehend the realities of violence and combat. She retires into seclusion for a while to recover. Her mother doesn’t know how to console her.

Later, Editha makes a trip to George’s mother. She promised George that she would take care of his mother if anything happened to him. However, George’s mother doesn’t want to see her. She is disgusted that Editha eagerly pushed George into a pointless battle. Editha explains that George made his own choice, but his mother knows that is not true.

For all Editha’s protests, she can’t convince George’s mother to forgive her. George’s mother believes that all war is futile and that, if it hadn’t been George, someone else would have died needlessly in his place. Editha leaves, promising to never bother the woman again. She tells her friends all about George’s mother and how callous she is.

In “Editha,” although the title character pushes George into his decision, she adopts atypical gender roles of her own. By voicing her opinions and thinking about war, she acts in a very unladylike and improper way. Women at the time are expected to remain silent on these matters. “Editha” represents the problem with gender stereotyping more generally and the problems with toxic masculinity. It also shows readers how powerful idealism is—no matter what anyone says to Editha, she won’t let go of her idealistic beliefs about war, heroism, and sacrifice.