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Literary Realism In Us Essay, Research Paper

Literary Realism in Editha

After World War I, American people and the authors among them were disillusioned by the effects that war had on their society. America required a literature that would expound what had happened and what was happening to their society. The realistic movement of the late 19th century saw authors accurately depict life and it is problems. This realistic movement evolved because of many changes and transitions in American culture. In the late 1800’s, the United States was experiencing swift growth and change because of a changing economy, society, and culture. The increase of immigrants into America was one of the reasons. Realists endeavored to give a comprehensive picture of modern life by presenting the entire picture. The true definition of literary realism as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica is an approach that attempts to describe life without idealization or romantic subjectivity. Although realism is not limited to any one-century or group of writers, it is most often associated with the literary movement in 19th-century France, specifically with the French novelists Flaubert and Balzac. George Eliot introduced realism into England, and William Dean Howells introduced it into the United States. Realism has been chiefly concerned with the commonplaces of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, where character is a product of social factors and environment is the integral element in the dramatic complications.

In relation to that, William Dean Howells, while opposing idealization, made his comic criticisms of society. He did this by comparing and contrasting American culture with those of other countries. He did not try to give one view of life but instead attempted to show the different classes, manners, and stratification of life in America. He believed that novels should present life as it is, not as it might be. Howells was a champion of realism in American literature. He has written more than one hundred books. Among them is; The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), A Modern Instance (1882), A Boy’s Town (1890) and My Year in a Log Cabin (1893). Throughout his writings, Howells attempts to make his characters real with faults and fears as are commonly found in reality. Howells utilizes literary realism in his short story Editha to communicate the reality of war and to portray the romanticism Americans had created around the concept of war.

While using the realist style in Editha, Howells also adds a humorous edge by commenting on American values. The character George Gearson possesses a trace of sardonic wit, “I never thought I should like to kill a man; but now I shouldn’t care; and the smokeless powder lets you see the man drop that you kill”(Howells 462). Moreover, the irony is not lost in the statement, “What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right anyway!” (462). Howells uses these lines to establish George’s feelings about war. At this time in history, men were expected to go to war and like it. The author gives you an idea about this feeling here, “All through their courtship (Editha) had been puzzled by his want of seriousness about it. He seemed to despise it even more than he abhorred it.” (458). Furthermore, Editha felt she had to explain his lack of bloodlust, “That would have been a survival of his old life…” (458). Editha made up George’s mind for him because she felt, “…any man who won her would have done something to win her…if he could do something worthy to have won her…it would be grander”(459). More often than not, what Editha utters reveals her actual character. She describes his tone as “ghastly” when he speaks of testing his courage, yet when presented with the idea of war, she responds, “‘How glorious!’” (458). Once more, when we (the readers) are informed by the author that Editha, “… had believed in the war from the beginning” (459), to tell the truth we find Editha seems gung-ho about the war, “’…I call any war glorious that is for the liberation of people…’” (459). In addition, when her mother suggests she has done a wicked thing, Editha announces her possible intent; “’I haven’t done anything—yet’” (461). Editha manifests to have a time-honored belief with the notion of war, “…I call it a sacred war. A war for liberty and humanity…you will see it just as I do, yet”(459). Another time her position is presented when she says, “You don’t belong to yourself now; you don’t even belong to me. You belong to your country…” (463). Howells illustrates Editha’s romanticism when he presents the pretty box in which she keeps her letters and old flowers. Along with the fact she, “enshrines” her engagement ring in the “heart” of the packet, placed in the box because she had a feeling that George may not do what she expected of him, “He went away without kissing her, and she felt it a suspension of their engagement”(460). Later she even gives the impression of entertaining herself with the thought that if George were to lose an arm in the war, like his father, “…then he should have three arms instead of two, for both of hers should be his for life” (465). These viewpoints set a forewarning tone when taking into consideration Editha’s apparent motives.

Howells realist approach lends itself throughout this story; which is most apparent when George does not enlist until he is cajoled by mob-mentality after a night of drinking. This is demonstrated when George says, “’It was all going one way, and I thought I would sprinkle a little cold water on them. But you can’t do that with a crowd that adores you…I suggested volunteering then and there…how well the worse reason looks when you try to make it appear better…I believe I was the first convert to the war in that crowd to-night’” (462). The next day George scarcely represses his true feelings about what he has begun when he says, “’I’m in for the thing now, and we’ve got to face our future’” (464). He also admits to Editha that he only signed up because he was drunk, “’I consecrated myself to your god of battles last night by pouring too many libations to him down my own throat”’ (463). Editha behaves outwardly as though she is not pushing George, “’I wish you to believe what ever you think is true…If I’ve tried to talk you into anything, I take it all back”’ (460). Editha dictates that he had not done it for her sake only and would not respect him if he had. In addition to this, in the letter she writes, she quotes Richard Lovelace, “‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more’” (461). Howells uses this self-centered mannerism to exhibit Editha’s immaturity and lack of consideration for others.

In his comic writings, Howells criticized American morality and ethics but still managed to accurately portray life as it happened. He communicates American social morays by sharing the Balcoms’ position on war, presented when Mr. Balcom avows, “’I guess it will not be much of a war…I will not lose any sleep over it’” (463). Although, Mrs. Balcom had expressed her misgivings early on, before George had enlisted, the family’s tone seemed to change once he had. This common attitude about the war soon proves inane when George talks with pride about how he and his friends, ‘“…all want to be in the van…’”(465). Then not long after, he is reported dead, “…in the list of the killed…was Gearson’s name” (465). This news has Editha spinning into her own thoughts because before he left she had declared; ‘“…nothing will happen!”’ (465). The authors’ artful way is expressed in essence when Editha lapses into her grief; along with her disappointment that it wasn’t worse or that she had not died, “ …she had the fever that she expected of herself, but she did not die in it…and it did not last long” (465). When she remembers that she had promised to go see his mother she sees this as a glorified position; “…it buoyed her up instead of burdening her—she rapidly recovered” (466). Editha wanted to be overly dramatic when she goes to see George’s mother, “…if she had done what was expected of herself, would have gone down on her knees at the feet of the seated figure…” However, to her despair Mrs. Gearson was not pleased to see her, ‘“ What did you come for?’ Mrs. Gearson asked” (466). Mrs. Gearson sees Editha for the immature child that she is, “‘You didn’t expect that, (he would die) I suppose, when you sent him”’ (466).

The author, through Mrs. Gearson, lets fly his opinions about the war. This is depicted when she tells off Editha, “‘…you didn’t expect him to get killed…You just expected him to kill someone else…You thought it would be all right for my George, your George, to kill…I thank my god he didn’t live to do it…and that he ain’t livin’ with their blood on his hands!’” She gets very upset that Editha is posing as a grieving widow, ‘“What you got that black on for?’ She lifted herself…so high that her helpless body seemed to hang limp…” (467). The denouement is a culmination of feelings and emotions burgeoning into an outcry by Mrs. Gearson, ‘“Take it off, take it off before I tear it from your back!’” (467). Mrs. Gearson is grieving for her son. She knows Editha did not think that George would die; ‘“No, girls don’t; women don’t…They think they’ll come marching back…if it’s an empty sleeve…they’re so much the prouder of them…”’ Nevertheless, she blames Editha for her loss, “I suppose you would have been glad to die…When you sent him…”’ (467). There is a feeling that suggests that there is a lesson in all this, yet Editha misses it entirely; “ I think…‘she wasn’t quite right in her mind; and so did papa’” (467). She still receives social kudos when, at the last, her portrait artist expresses sympathy towards Editha; ‘“To think of having such a tragedy in your life!’” (467). When she realizes that she has gotten what she wanted after all, she immediately begins to feel better; “A light broke upon Editha in the darkness which she felt she had been without a gleam of brightness for weeks and months…she rose from groveling in shame and self pity, and began to live again in the ideal.” (467). Although this is actually an over dramatization, on the characters part, artfully committed by the author; we (the readers) discover the reason for this is because the author tells us that the artist, whom Editha is speaking with at the end of the story; also believed in the war and that she supports Editha’s position; ‘“…when you consider the good this war has done—how much it has done for the country…And when you had come all the way out there to console her…’”’(467). So inevitably, Editha had her redemption. She had done what was expected of her, and she is recognized for it. This is evident when she discovers that the portrait artist also believes that Mrs. Gearson was wrong; “’I can’t understand such people…how dreadful of her how perfectly–excuse me—how vulgar!’” (467). This word carries Editha into the halls of honor.

William Dean Howells, one of the most prolific writers of the Nineteenth-century, used typical realistic methods to create an accurate depiction of changing American life.

Howells demonstrated how life shaped the characters of his novels and their own motives and inspirations. He detailed characters shaped by society and tried to convey the good and evil aspects of life. By concentrating on these characters’ strengths as opposed to a strong plot, he thematically wrote of how good was better than evil and, in return, wanted his literature to inspire more good.

Work Cited

Howells, William Dean. “Editha” Anthology of American Literature: Realism to the Present. (Vol. II). Seventh Edition. George McMichael, editor. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2000. 458-467.

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