23 pages 46 minutes read

William Dean Howells


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1906

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Summary: “Editha”

“Editha,” by American realist writer William Dean Howells, is a short story first published in 1905. Realism refers to a mode of late 19th-century literature in which authors shunned romanticism and idealization in favor of realistic portrayals of everyday life. Realist literature contains the complex characterization and examination of social mores, often of the middle class. “Editha” is an example of realist literature in that it criticizes the romanticizing of life experiences, specifically of war. It also questions the viability of gender roles. Its protagonist, a young woman named Editha Balcom, encourages her fiancé George Gearson to enlist in what is assumed to be the Spanish-American War. Although she professes to care deeply for her country, in reality, Editha is motivated by her desire for her fiancé to earn her love, thereby living up to her “ideal.” “Editha” criticizes the idealization of war by contrasting the sentimental picture painted by newspapers with war’s sober reality. In doing so, Howells also rejects Romanticism, an 18th and 19th-century literary movement that glorified nature and individualism. An outspoken critic of the Spanish-American War, Howells was also vocal in his support of abolition, and he often explores themes of social injustice in his novels.

When Editha Balcom’s fiancé George Gearson tells her there is to be a war, Editha tells him it is “glorious” and is “puzzled” (1) by his lack of enthusiasm. She wants him to fight in the war to achieve “the completion of her ideal of him” (1), but she does not want to appear to encourage him herself; Editha prefers to offer him the opportunity to “perfect himself” (1). She also believes his enlisting will make him a hero who is “worthy” (1) of having won her.

In response to George’s skepticism, Editha begins “parroting the current phrases of the newspapers,” telling him “[t]here is nothing now but our country,” to which one must be loyal “right or wrong” (2). George asks if she believes it is “a holy war” and tells her he wishes he had her “undoubting spirit” (3). When she tells him “God meant it to be war,” he replies that he will “try to believe” in her “pocket Providence” (3).

Later, Editha goes to her room and gathers the gifts George has given to her, placing her engagement ring at the center. She writes him a letter explaining that she is returning the items until he decides to enlist because “the man [she] marr[ies] must love his country first of all” (4). She decides not to send the package right away, choosing instead to give him time to make the decision himself. She does not want to push him, which is not “a woman’s part” (5).

When George returns, he tells her he went to a meeting where “a good joke” (5) led to his enlisting. Editha gives him the package, which he should open if he ever doubts his decision. When Mrs. Balcom expresses concern that George has enlisted, Mr. Balcom assures her that “it won’t be much of a war” (6).

The next day, George is hung over from a night of drinking. Editha tells him not to drink again, that he doesn’t belong to himself or to her anymore. She also reminds him he did not enlist just for her and that she “couldn’t respect” (7) him if he had. George says they will “just scare the enemy to death” (7) before the war even begins. However, he asks that if he dies, Editha is to visit his mother, who—given his father’s having lost an arm in the Civil War—will not be pleased that he’s enlisted.

Editha says goodbye to George at the train station. When he is gone, she writes letters “as she imagined he could have wished” (8). Soon, she receives word that he has been killed. Her father accompanies her to Iowa to visit Mrs. Gearson, who guesses Editha did not think George would die. Mrs. Gearson says girls expect their men to “come marching back, somehow, just as gay as they went” and that if the men lose an arm or the leg, “it’s all the more glory” (10). She criticizes Editha for thinking “it would be all right” (10) for George to kill the sons of other mothers. Finally, she chastises Editha for wearing black.

Months later, a woman who is sketching a portrait of Editha tells her she “can’t understand” how people could have been against the war and that Mrs. Gearson was “vulgar” (11). Editha feels lighter, and the “shame and self-pity” she’s been suffering make way once again for “the ideal” (11).