During the 19th century, literary artists began portraying life as they believed it truly was: real people in real relationships with real jobs and real problems. This period that eventually evolved to be a popular style of writing, known as Realism, was a direct counter to Romanticism and focused on socio-economic ideals that were taboo to write about at the time—the divide between the rich and poor, racism through the Reconstruction period and long after, gender roles and how they are challenged. William Dean Howells remains to be one of the most influential writers during the Realism movement and focused his work on setting, character development, morality, and human nature. Famous for its focus on gender roles and the evils of war, Howells’s “Editha” delves into the dynamics within relationships and how people are often manipulated by society’s conventions.
Howells sets his story during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and uses his main character, Editha, as an example of how society has glorified war and how perceived gender roles can be detrimental in a relationship. Editha, a young, naive girl, is engaged to George, a pragmatic lawyer, during a time where all young men are being recruited to join military forces. Portrayed as a romantic war-lover, Editha exclaims, “How glorious!” when George mentions the war while George remains quiet and subdued. (44) Editha loves the war for what it can do for her. The thought of her “timid” boyfriend going to war and coming home as a strong, burly man excites her and fuels her to encourage George to join the cause. Superficially patriotic, Editha encourages George to join the cause, while her true motive is for him to come home as a successful soldier. Her ulterior intension was apparent when she thought, “He was very nearly perfect as he was, and he must be allowed to perfect himself…She had always supposed that the man who won her would have done something to win her; she did not know what, but something.” (Howells 44) Howells uses Editha as an example of how people will conform to what is popular in society and how it can be detrimental to a relationship. Also contributing to the realism in the short story, her character shows how human nature can be deceiving and dishonest in relationships.
Howells further explores how gender roles are expressed by analyzing character traits of George and Editha. Throughout the story, the culturally acceptable beliefs concerning women are evident, and Howells gives a negative connotation to the idea of women stepping outside of their traditional gender role. In that time, women were supposed to be submissive and go along with what their partners believed. In Howells’s story, there is a role reversal; Editha is influential and powerful in the relationship where George is agreeable and pleasing. Instead of being passive and supportive, Editha convinces George to go against his beliefs and join the war effort. After countless efforts, George eventually enlists, only to be killed very quickly. Not only does this show extreme irony, but it displays Editha as a villain. Her inability to submit to society’s gender roles and not support her fiancée led to his death. This idea is reinforced when she visits Mrs. Gearson. Mrs. Gearson claims that through Editha’s letter, she forced George to enlist; therefore, George’s death, along with all that could have been hurt by him, are Editha’s fault. If George was stronger in his conviction and Editha was a passive fiancée, they would fit their appropriate gender roles and George’s death could have been avoided.
Through displays of moral ambiguity, glorification of war, and hazy gender roles, Howells manages to create a realistic literary work that causes the audience to question society’s conventions. Similar to other writers during the late 19th century, Howells directly contrasts Romanticism by creating a story that audiences can relate to and learn from. He is able to show a wide spectrum of beliefs concerning war within this story, and many people can identify with the opinion that war does good. Howells’s “Editha” causes people to challenge their own beliefs of society’s conventions concerning war, gender roles, and honesty in relationships. By focusing on the development of characters and their morally, Howells demonstrates how society shapes people and the familiar good and evil aspects of life.