Is there any symbolism in "Editha"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two symbols stand out in “Editha.” The first opens the story and sets the symbolic mood of "Editha," a rather idealistically self-centered and unrealistic young woman. The opening line provides both the implied metaphor of the story and the major symbol:

The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which had not yet burst.

It is conventional to symbolize war as a storm, and Howells does just that with "electricity of a storm." However, this symbol represents other, deeper dimensions. It also symbolizes George Gearson's personal experiences. In the first place, it symbolizes his exposure to Editha's emotional and physic manipulation as a storm:

She had decided that she could not let him stay ...
in mystical response to her mystical urgency ...
her nature pulling upon his nature, her womanhood upon his manhood, ...

Edith's unrealistic beliefs and unfounded idealism compelled her to manipulatively insist upon George's agreement with her perspective on the "glory" of war. This caused turbulent conflict in his own psyche and doubt of his own perceptions: "When I differ from you I ought to doubt myself."

It further symbolizes the community's response to the announcement of World War I (Howells first published in Harper's Monthly in 1905) as a storm:

I thought it would [be good] to sprinkle a little cold water … . But you can't do that with a crowd ... I was sprinkling hell-fire … . "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war."

The emotional reaction of the community as each became a "convert to the war" tore through the town meeting creating a frenzy of patriotic thought that ironically echoed Editha's speeches to George and must have been part of his stormy "hell-fire."

Finally, it represents the aftermath of George's part of the war as a storm:

[There] was Gearson's name....Then there was a lapse into depths ... then a lift into clouds ... black clouds, that blotted out the sun, [and] the fever that she expected of herself, ...

Though George's storm was ended, the families and beloved of those dead or wounded in "the first skirmish" faced their own stormy turmoil as witnessed by Editha's reaction and confirmed by George's mother's reaction, full of blame and bitterness at Editha (one wonders if that is what he expected; if that is why he sent her in person to his mother).

The second symbol is "pocket Providence," which symbolizes Editha's and others', as depicted by Howells, unrealistic vision of war as glory and divine ordination:

[Editha] "God meant it to be war."

[George] "You think it was God? Yes, I suppose that is what people will say."

[Editha] "Do you suppose it would have been war if God hadn't meant it?"