Editha Summary

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

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“Editha” by William Dean Howells presents an unnusual character.  The omniscient third person narrator follows Editha through various moments that reveal her character as one who does not understand life, love, or death because she is more interested in her own views. Her idealistic perspective becomes dangerous and destructive.

Edith, the protagonist, wants her fiancé George to go to war and show his patriotism.  Through him, she will be doing her part for the war by sending him to fight. The war [the Spanish American War] comes first. 

Plot-The confrontation between the young couple who argue over the importance of the war begins the story, providing the conflict within Editha.  Like so many inexperienced  women, she decides that her view is the only one.

'There is no honor above America with me. Your heart will make my words clear to you. I had never expected to say so much, but it has come upon me that I must say the utmost. Editha.'  She thought she had worded her letter well; all had been implied and nothing expressed. 

As she thinks about George joining, she pictures him in his uniform; then, she imagines him coming home with only one arm and her standing next to him. To her, this is the glory of war.

Despite his better judgment, George does decide to join. She sends him off to war with the letter that ends their relationship, telling him not to read it until later.  George leaves with his unit asking Editha to promise to look after his mother.

Immediately, George is killed. Facing the climax of the story, Editha grieves as long as she thinks she should.  Then, she remembers her promise.  Along with her father, Editha travels by train to Arizona to console George’s mother. 

Filled with grief for her son and angry with this silly girl, the mother begins to condemn Editha for sending her son to his death.  After reading Editha’s letter enclosed in George’s things, the mother is enraged. Editha leaves immediately.

When a person’s idealistic concept of the world isolates them from others, loneliness and loss often force them to review their former beliefs. Not so with Editha. Bringing the story to its conclusion, the reader learns that like many superficial people, Editha thinks that she did nothing wrong and begins to look for a new cause to champion.

Theme- The story wraps itself around war.  The author despised war and used his main character to foster the idea of the foolishness of romanticizing any aspect of an action in which men kill each other for a cause that has no purpose. When Howell points up the mother’s comments about Editha sending her man to fight and glory, Howell denounces this sentimentalized view of war.

Tone- Howell bitterly uses the death of the innocent George to point up his disgust for war.  The dialogue between Editha and the other characters illustrates this denouncement of war. Nothing changes this atmosphere because the main character does not change or learn anything through her experiences. 

Symbolism- Editha’s letter to George represents her immaturity and lack of love for anyone but herself.  How could someone send her fiancé off to a war with a note that he probably thinks tells of her love for him. Even as the poor man leaves on the train, Editha can recognize his waving hand because he is holding her letter. Instead at the most important time of his life, he finds that his sweetheart admonishes him for not putting his country before everything else. Foolish girl!

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