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.
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 think about his own death. He was brave, but not from any desire to be a hero; rather, the monotony of his existence seemed to...
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demand that he keep going even though he was ready to drop from fatigue. The knowledge of the ill-concealed dislike between Fanny and Elizabeth began to prey on his mind. There seemed to be only two solutions: To drift along and accept whatever happened or to get himself killed in the war. It seemed to make little difference to him or anyone else which course he chose. His letters to his two women depressed each of them. He could have spared himself his anxiety, for each took other lovers and gave little thought to George.
George’s depression increased. He felt that he was degenerating mentally as well as physically and that he was wasting what should have been his best years. He knew that he would be terribly handicapped if he did live through the war, that those not serving would pass him by.
George was made an officer and sent back to England for training. There he lived again with Elizabeth, but she left him frequently to go out with other men. Fanny, too, seemed to care little whether she saw him or not. Talk of the war and his experiences obviously bored them, and they made only a small pretense of interest. He spent his last night in England with Fanny while Elizabeth was off with someone else. Fanny did not bother to get up with him the morning he left. She awoke lazily and went back to sleep again before he even left the flat.
Back at the front, George found that he was ill-suited to command a company. Although he did his best, he was constantly censured by his colonel, who blamed George for all the faults of his untrained and cowardly troops. George could think of little but death. During a particularly heavy German shelling, he simply stood up and let the bullets smash into his chest.