Discuss the story "Editha" by William Dean Howells.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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William Dean Howells in his story “Editha” creates a character that sees life through those clichéd  “rose-colored glasses.” The story written in 1905 concerns the topic and theme of war [in this case the Spanish –American War] both realistically and romantically. 

Told by an omniscient third person narrator, most of the story belongs to Editha, a young girl who think s that she is the only one that really matters in the world.  The story’s theme points up the idea that life is fragile and to be valued, not to be played with as though it were a toy.  The tone belies the bitterness felt by the reader as he delves into the lives of the characters.

A disagreement between the unrealistic Editha and the more pragmatic George takes the reader to the heart of the story.  Editha wants her boyfriend to go off to war to serve his country, and he is not sure about it.  Even after discussing it with the other men, George still does not feel good about joining up and going off to fight. 

Editha can imagine George in his uniform; then, she can see him coming home to her after losing an arm in battle. None of which is real to her and the possibilities are too uncomfortable for her to spend time on. She is insistent that George be a part of the war effort.  In her mind, she is doing her part by sending her man off to fight.  Through her idealistic view of death, she pushes George to an early death.

George’s mother condemns Editha for giving him the letter that was returned with his things to his mother.  Everything  his mother says is  true,  and Editha realizes it.  She suddenly becomes quiet and her father rushes her away from the scene.


Editha decides to return all of the things that George has given her along with a “Dear John” letter.  Even as he returns to tell her of his intention to join, she still gives him the letter telling him to open it only when he is on the battle field. What sensitivity the girl has for others’ feelings!

But now, it flashed upon her, if he could do something worthy to have won her--be a hero, her hero--it would be even better than if he had done it before asking her; it would be grander. Besides, she had believed in the war from the beginning.

Actually, George does not believe in the war.  He prefers peace. Although he loves his country, it does not come first to him as Editha says it does for her.  Her foolish talk about patriotism being the most important thing to her sends George out the door.  After a few drinks, George decides to join. The last thing he asks of Editha is take care of his mother who lives in Arizona. 

George is immediately killed in battle.  Of course, Editha experiences grief, but it does not last long. When she remembers that George had given her a mission, Editha quickly leaves with her father to console George’s mother.  Editha expects to be welcomed by the grief-stricken mother.

Surprisingly, his mother quickly admonishes Editha for sending him to his death.

"When you sent him you didn't expect he would get killed . . . [women and girls] think he'll just come marching back somehow . .!"

Howells employs this scene to show how a truly self-centered person handles confrontation.  After finding what she thinks is a noble explanation for what she has been through, Editha is ready to idealistically tackle the world again.  Howell comments in the story that Editha has begun "to live again in the ideal.”

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