Through the lens of a soldier hesitantly joining the fight of a “holy war” (Howells 320), William Dean Howells’ short story Editha attempts to explain the consequences of uncritical support of war and one’s country and how this can be caused by the subversion of traditional gender roles. Howells uses each character to represent an actor in war and gender roles alike: the eponymous Editha is the carrier of the “war fever” (Howells 316) and the woman outstepping her role, George is the sacrifice of war and the failure of man to assert himself, and Mrs. Gearson is the battle-scarred opposition to war and woman remaining in her place. Howells depicts Editha as the villain of the story, as she represents the opposite of the ideal submissive woman; rather she is described as “pushing, threatening, compelling” (Howells 320) instead and only possesses the fervor for war that she has because she herself cannot join the war effort. Howells believes Mrs. Gearson to be in the right, as she has lived to see the consequences of war, especially when war is romanticized as nothing more than a matter of pride. George is the ultimately powerless and unfortunate cost of war, as he is hesitant about the war at first but later enlists to fight due to Editha’s fervor. In short, Howells wants Editha’s readers to view the short story as a cautionary tale of imperialistic wars and how this jingoism can result from the failure to adhere to traditional gender roles.
It is often theorized that Howells wrote Editha as a response to the Spanish-American war, which had taken place only seven years before Editha was published. Despite only lasting a few months, The Spanish-American War is notable because it is typically viewed as the first instance of American imperialism, as it was the United States’ first attempt at gaining control of land (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillipines) that was currently colonized by another Western power (Spain) and not located within the continental United States. Much like the numerous foreign wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, America’s justification for entering into the war was an unselfish effort to secure “the liberation of people who have been struggling for years against the cruelest oppression” (Howells 317). Howells, however, was skeptical about this reasoning behind the war, as he was fearful that America would fall to the same fate as many of the other Western powers and this would simply be the first in a long line of never-ending expansionist wars. Howells hints towards this in the text when Editha fulfills her promise to George to visit his mother if he failed to return home and she is lambasted and insulted by Mrs. Gearson, who blames Editha for convincing George to go to war. Instead of reflecting on the dangers and consequences that war entails, Editha simply dismisses Mrs. Gearson as not being “quite in her right mind” (Howells 326). She has failed to actually learn something from the tragedy of George’s death and is therefore destined to repeat it ad infinitum. Even the artist that is sketching Editha at the story’s end falls in line with this viewpoint, and the artist even removes the justifying mask of liberation of the oppressed when she says “But when you consider the good this war has done – how much it has done for the country!” (Howells 325). Here, Howells is using the artist’s character to reveal the true intentions of the Spanish-American War and imperialism in general; it can only serve the purpose of the powerful nations and not the greater good of those being colonized.
Despite Editha nominally being the protagonist and having the title role, Howells does not want to give the reader the sense that she is the hero of the story. Howells instead depicts Editha as the antagonist to the story as a woman who does not conform to traditional gender roles, particularly on a serious topic that offers no threat of harm towards her. Editha holds a very romanticized view of war despite the fact that she has never personally experienced one and thus she is ignorant of the harsh realities of war. When Editha heard of the possibility of going to war, her mind instantly went to the idealized version of war where George would go to some foreign land, engage in glorious battles, and return home a victor and a hero. She never considers the opposing soldiers that must die in order to make victory a reality, much less the possibility of George’s death. As such, when George claims that “at the bottom of his heart every man would like at times to have his courage tested” (Howells 318), Editha responds “How can you talk in that ghastly way?” (Howells 318). With this exchange, Howells is demonstrating that she is not equipped or even willing to entertain the thought of the morbidity of war. Additionally, Howells uses her disregard for the traditional role of women as passive and submissive as the main cause behind George ultimately joining the war effort. She even recognizes that she is outstepping the constraints of her gender role when after writing the letter to George, she realizes that “She was pushing, threatening, compelling. That was not a woman’s part. She must leave him free, free, free. She could not accept for her country or herself a forced sacrifice.” (Howells 320). War serves a purpose of reaffirming the gender distinctions between men and women; Editha is a woman and therefore unable to go off to war. In order to prove some idealized perceptions she possesses about patriotism and romance, she persuades George to go off in her place and thus appeases herself with indirect action. George going to war at her behest.
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