An Analysis of William Dean Howells’ “Editha”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


In the twenty-first 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 or Audible download formats from Amazon here:


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