Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The main subject of “Editha,” one of William Dean Howells’s most successful and best-known short stories, is war. Howells was very much opposed to war and especially the Spanish-American War, which he considered imperialistic. He shows his dislike in his portrayal of Editha, a thoughtless, selfish young woman, idealistic but ignorant of the consequences of war.

“Editha,” which questions what constitutes a justifiable war, is a tale whose brevity belies its weight. The story impales Editha, who embodies all the nonsense about the heroic romanticism of war and whose false sense of values drives her unfortunate fiancé to a premature death in a questionable war.

Egotism and ignorance like Editha’s leads to the suffering of many people. Her fixation of belief about the correctness, indeed the necessity, of war impells her pacifist fiancé to act against his beliefs and convictions about the supremacy of world peace and engage in what he fears and detests most, battling and possibly even killing other human beings. George had said it was not this war alone, although this war seemed peculiarly wanton and needless. Every war was so stupid that it made him feel sick. His total love for Editha, however, leads him to act against his principles. When he goes to the town meeting the day war is declared, he intends to sprinkle cold water on the enthusiasm of the young men who are of the age to be soldiers. In the confusion and drinking of toasts, people call his name, the men adore him, and, after everyone has volunteered, they elect him their captain.

Both of the central men in the story, George and Editha’s father, agree that the Spanish-American War will not amount to much in terms of the length of the war and the loss of lives in battle. They are both mistaken, however, in assuming the war will be a “walkover” because George himself dies in one of the first skirmishes. Those who took the war lightly were proven wrong.