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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

When word comes that George Winterbourne was killed in the war, his friend tries to reconstruct the life of the dead man to see what forces caused his death. The friend served with George at various times during the war, and it is his belief that George deliberately exposed himself to German fire because he no longer wanted to live.

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George’s father is a sentimental fool and his mother a depraved wanton. The elder Winterbourne married primarily to spite his dominating mother, and his bride married him under the mistaken notion that he was rich. They resigned themselves to mutual hatred, and the mother showered her thwarted love on young George. She imagined herself young and desirable and was proud of her twenty-two lovers. Her husband went to a hotel when she was entertaining, but he prayed for her soul. They were the most depressing parents to whom a child could be exposed, and they caused young George to hate them both. Soon after receiving word of their son’s death, the elder Winterbourne is killed in an accident. After thoroughly enjoying her role as a bereft mother and widow, Mrs. Winterbourne marries her twenty-second lover and moves to Australia.

By the time he reached young manhood, George mingled with all sorts of unusual people. He dabbled in writing and painting, and sexual freedom was his goal, even though he experienced little of it. At the home of some pseudointellectual friends, he first met Elizabeth. They were immediately compatible: Both hated their parents, and both sought freedom. At first, Elizabeth was shocked by George’s attacks on Christianity, morals, the class system, and all other established institutions, but she decided that he was a truly “free” man. In fact, it was not long before she adopted his ideas; soon free love was the only thing she would talk or think about.

George and Elizabeth considered themselves extremely sensible. They did not talk of love, only sex, and they saw no reason why they should marry to experience sex as long as they were careful not to have a baby. They decided that there would be no sordidness to cloud their affair, and that they were both free to take all the other lovers they pleased. That was freedom in an intelligent way. Elizabeth was even more insistent of that than George.

When, however, Elizabeth mistakenly thought that she was pregnant, her progressive ideas disappeared and she insisted that George marry her at once for the sake of her honor and reputation. They were married, much to the horror of their families. When Elizabeth learned that she was not pregnant—in fact, the doctor told her that she could not possibly have a child without an operation—her old ideas returned. She became an evangelist for sex, even though she detested the word. Marriage made no difference in George’s and Elizabeth’s lives. They continued to live separately and to meet as lovers.

When Elizabeth made a trip home, George became the lover of her best friend, Fanny Welford, another enlightened woman. He was sure that Elizabeth would not mind, for she had become the mistress of Fanny’s lover, but to his surprise Elizabeth created a scene over Fanny. On the surface, the young women remained friends, each unwilling to admit a bourgeois dislike of the situation.

When war broke out, George was drafted and immediately sent to France. The war and the killing horrified George, and obsessively he began to...

(The entire section contains 921 words.)

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