Edith Wharton’s “Coming Home”Spinning a Good Yarn with Homeric Intent
This article offers an interpretation of Wharton’s first war story in light of classical reception studies. For many First World War writers, the classics offered a way of articulating experiences of war. To date, scholars have not yet acknowledged Wharton’s reworking of Homer’s Odyssey, the archetypal story of a soldier returning home. I argue Wharton draws on the Odyssey to reinforce her position as an eyewitness to the war in France. She does so to enhance her authority as a noncombatant capable of producing a credible account of the war zone against the prejudices of gender and combat gnosticism. The first allusion to the Odyssey draws attention to the ability of Demodocus, the blind bard, to tell the story of the Trojan War as if (ironically) he had been an eyewitness. Wharton chooses a narrator who prides himself on dealing with factual knowledge, but even he is unable to say what actually happens at key moments of a journey to the war zone. With so many loose threads, Wharton succeeds in giving us a war story that captures the fog of war and the linguistic crisis, which hampers the articulation of experiences far beyond what an individual has heretofore encountered.
Homer, nostos, classical reception, eyewitness narrative, indeterminacy
For much of the twentieth century Wharton’s war fiction was rarely included in the literary war canon. It was relegated to the categories of sentimentality and propaganda, which were deemed less than relevant to the predominant ones of disillusionment and irony associated with the fiction of her male contemporaries. With reference to her 1918 novel, The Marne, Stanley Cooperman wrote: “Miss Wharton saw American troops as Boy Scouts out on a field trip, serious about killing Germans, gay among themselves, polite to women, and [End Page 1] giving their lives as a sort of good deed for the day, with the merit badge of ‘Glory’ for their reward” (42). Peter Buitenhuis was one of the earliest critics to challenge Wharton’s exile to the margins of the literary war canon, albeit not with regard to The Marne, which he described in 1966 as “an almost total embarrassment to read” and “the most naïve and sentimental fiction that she ever wrote” (497). The semicentennial of a war is often the occasion for r etrospection and, as Buitenhuis noted fifty years ago, attitudes had begun to change (493). However, it took another twenty years to see a major transformation in the field of literary criticism concerning First World War literature and a broadening of the category of “war literature.”1 Even then, it was not until 2004 that Julie Olin-Ammentorp offered the first sustained treatment of Wharton’s war writings.
“Coming Home” was the only war fiction that Wharton published during the war. Robert Bridges, Scribner’s magazine editor, pressed her to have a war story finished in time for their August 1915 issue.2 Wharton finally delivered her story at the end of May 1915, apologizing for the delay, which had been exacerbated by ill health (Price, “Edith Wharton’s War Story” 97–98). It is a wonder that Wharton was able to produce a story at all considering the multiple administrative demands of three different war charities that she had set up, frenetic fund-raising, and trips to the front (in the company of her lifelong friend Walter Berry) to deliver hospital supplies and report on conditions to the Red Cross. In letters to close friends Bernard and Mary Berenson, Wharton complained of fatigue: she scrawled letters to them with a shaking hand “guided by a brain wobbling with imbecility” and feeling “mentally embrouillée [ confused]” after a long day of philanthropic work for which she did not consider herself well suited (Wharton, Letters 341, 343). In her memoirs she continued to deprecate her charitable efforts and lamented the lack of time for writing fiction: “I had time only for ‘Fighting France’, ‘Summer’, a short tale called ‘The Marne’, and a series of articles, ‘French Ways and Their Meaning’ (A Backward Glance 1046). “Coming Home” does not even get a mention here even though it was well reviewed at the time of publication (Price, The End 76; Tuttleton et al. 228, 232, 234). Since then, however, it has not attracted much critical attention. To some extent, it has suffered from being labeled a revenge plot and read in the light of Wharton’s heightened feelings about the war and German atrocities.3 In 1989 Alan Price made a case for the story’s inclusion in the First World War literary canon, but more on the basis of its “biographical and historical dimensions” rather than aesthetic ones. He deemed the characters “stereotypical” and the plot “melodramatic” (“Edith Wharton’s War Story” 98–99). More recent studies [End Page 2] have been more favorable in their examination of the story in the light of feminist criticism and the broadening of the war canon.4
For a woman writer to write a war story in 1915 was already to place herself in a marginalized position and make herself vulnerable to criticism that she did not know anything profound about war. How could Wharton overcome this disadvantage? Firstly, she could use a male narrator, something she had deployed in much of her fiction to date. Secondly, she could make the male narrator a noncombatant with access to the war zone. In that way she could draw on her own recent experiences of visiting the front line and observing the militarized landscape, namely its proscriptions on civilian travel, the appropriation of civilian buildings for military purposes, the building of fortifications, troop movements, and evidence of enemy bombardment. However, in terms of literary representations of war, she could draw on the classics in which she was well versed. So, one aspect of “Coming Home”—and a key one in appreciating its significance as a war story and one that has so far been overlooked by critics—is the extent to which Wharton reconfigures aspects of the Odyssey. The title alone alerts readers to the possibility of Wharton alluding to the archetypal story of a soldier returning home from the war.
That no one to date has recognized Wharton’s use of Homer in “Coming Home” may be related to what Emma Bridges has identified as a “paucity of classical allusions” in women’s writing “during and immediately after the First World War” (par. 1).5 This is, of course, in stark contrast to the works of male soldier poets written in response to their war experience. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Vandiver’s point must also be noted, namely that it is only recently with “the growth of reception studies” that scholars have even addressed the significance of Homer in the work of First World War British male poets. She goes on to say that “Homeric epic provided a set of images, characters and tropes, in effect a whole shared vocabulary, for soldier-poets struggling to articulate and to understand their own war” (“Homer”). Both of these critics have drawn attention to the lacunae in recent First World War literary criticism. On the one hand, Bridges notes the gender dimension in women’s limited access to classical literature relative to men’s, but this alone is an insufficient explanation as there were women writers at this time who did have a classical education and who did allude to the classics in their works (par. 4).6 This leads Bridges to conclude that Greek and Latin texts did not offer women themes that they could rework in order to make sense of their own experiences of war.7 But Wharton’s story suggests otherwise and we can relate this to her education, her war experiences, and her aspirations as a writer to locate her work in connection [End Page 3] to “the dense old European order,” to embed it in the Western literary tradition (Wharton, “Great American Novel” 154).
Wharton encountered the classics at an early age even though her parents prevented her from “being taught anything that required a mental effort.” She laments in her memoirs that she was “deprived of the irreplaceable grounding of Greek and Latin” (A Backward Glance 819). Nevertheless, her early fascination with “the gods and goddesses of Olympus” on Mr. Henry Bedlow’s knee after Sunday dinners was followed up by reading for herself Homer in translation as well as English, French, and German classics in her father’s library (808–09, 834). That Wharton was well versed in the classics is evidenced by her direct references and allusions to them in her fiction and personal writings (Saunders 325–34; Killoran). Homer’s epics, moreover, were her companions on both of her Aegean cruises in 1888 and 1926. We know from Daisy Chanler, a passenger on the latter cruise, that “Herodotus, Homer, and other classics” were part of the library on board the Osprey that Wharton had personally stocked and that British former diplomat, Robert Norton, had read aloud the Odyssey in the evenings.8 Chanler’s verdict was: “There is no better reading for an Aegean-Mediterranean cruise; it can almost serve as a guidebook” (211).
It may not be obvious at first why Wharton chose to rework the Odyssey in “Coming Home” given that she was writing during the early months of a war that was far from over—as was becoming apparent by the summer of 1915. The soldier’s return in her story is therefore not at the end of a war. Moreover, the home in question is in the war zone and the French have recaptured the ground twice.9 This immediately alters the relationship between the war and home fronts and alerts us to the disruption of everyday life by war, the vulnerability of homes to bombardment and military occupation, and to more starkly gender-segregated spaces. While male combatant writers were more likely to draw on the Iliad, the Odyssey’s sustained use of female characters and domestic dwellings lends itself to a female noncombatant writer. The choice of a noble family and its country estate, furthermore, highlights the gender dynamics of property ownership and aristocratic traditions. The name of the male protagonist and the family’s château, Réchamp, closely aligns the identity of the young soldier returning home to the land with which generations of his family have been long associated. This amplifies his concern for the fate of his family seat in the Vosges; it will be his inheritance and both he and his fiancée are crucial to its continuation. In the Odyssey, the fate of Odysseus’s household and Telemachus’s inheritance are instrumental to the plot and Wharton refigures a variety of key tropes in the Odyssey both to highlight aspects of Homer’s epic and to imbue her own characters and descriptions with classical, if not [End Page 4] universal, qualities in the context of war. In addition, Wharton’s own authority in her new guise as a war writer is a factor here with the placement of her story in the Homeric tradition. And, at the same time, this allows her to question the representation of war in narrative form; after all, Odysseus praises the blind bard Demodocus for his ability to tell the story of the Achaeans’ feats in Troy.
“Vision,” as Jean Gallagher has argued, has been “a mark of and basis for authenticity and authority in writing about war” (3). “Combat gnosticism,” the dominant trend in First World War criticism prior to the 1990s, canonized texts by combatants because of the latter’s first-hand experience and knowledge (Campbell).10 This bias predated the Great War, and Wharton’s 1919 short story, “Writing a War Story,” addresses precisely the noncombatant’s dilemma of encroaching on no-man’s-land. In this story, a would-be American poet and volunteer relief worker in Paris is asked by the British editor of a new monthly magazine for wounded veterans to write “a good stirring trench story, with a Coming-Home scene to close with” (360). Unable to write about her own experience, she ends up fictionalizing the military “anecdote” of a French poilu (infantryman), transcribed by her former governess. The verdict on the published story from a wounded British officer and noted novelist is that she has “rather mauled it” (369). There is little that escapes Wharton’s searing irony: sentimental women writers, the sentimentalization of war, and misogynistic editors and readers.
Wharton’s sensitivity to “combat gnosticism” can be further gleaned from the essays she wrote for Scribner’s Magazine about her trips in 1915 to the front, which were collated into the volume Fighting France (1915).11 She had been thrilled to secure, in late February 1915, a “laissez-passer” to visit the front northeast of Paris and wrote enthusiastically to Henry James of her “sensations de guerre . . . even in this artless shape” (Powers 323–25). She was soon to transform them into art: she reworked them into her two war novels and “Coming Home.” Her trips gave her the eyewitness accounts that she needed for her fiction and, apart from one battle scene in The Marne, she confines herself to building on what she has seen and learned directly. She is able to represent the war zone on the eastern front based on her own observations of hospitals, ruined villages, and the difficulties of navigating roads without signposts and with multiple restrictions because of troop movements and shifting battle lines.
In particular, she drew on her third trip, this time to Lorraine and the Vosges, which, in contrast to her trips to the Argonne in winter, shows signs of new plant life and civilians returning home to sow the next season’s crops. She opens her essay with a reference to peonies on her hotel writing-table in Nancy, “picked [that] afternoon in the garden of a ruined house at Gerbéviller . . . as [End Page 5] a symbol of conscious human energy coming back to replant and rebuild the wilderness” (Fighting France 93). Soeur Julie, a Sister of Charity, tells Wharton that two-thirds of the residents “have already ‘come home’—that is what they call the return to this desert!” (103). With her use of quotation marks, Wharton draws our attention to the irony of such an action in this particular context. Gerbéviller, she tells us, vied with so many contenders for the title of “the martyr town,” each with their “streets and streets” of “murdered houses” (98, 93). The town had been occupied by the German army for three days, then shelled, and every house set on fire with “German thoroughness.”12 With less restraint in her description of the ruins than can be found in her short story, Wharton writes:
Her ruins seem to have been simultaneously vomited up from the depths and hurled down from the skies, as though she had perished in some monstrous clash of earthquake and tornado; and it fills one with a cold despair to know that this double destruction was no accident of nature but a piously planned and methodically executed human deed.(98)
For Wharton, the town constituted “a sensational image of havoc,” one unlikely to be surpassed. The residents had no homes to return to, just temporary wooden shelters (98, 103). Homes in the war zone had been transformed and would never be the same again. Wharton’s essay on the Vosges seems to have inspired her story about coming home in the middle of a war to a home that has been in the war zone. It is not about the effort to resume one’s former life, however, but rather about coming to terms with changed circumstances. The extent of change cannot yet be determined and Jean de Réchamp’s return is only temporary.13
While Wharton’s 1919 story was about writing a war story, “Coming Home” is about the telling of war stories. She gives it a classical inflection by reworking elements of Homer’s Odyssey: the plot, narration, Greek tropes of nostos and xenia, motifs such as the journey home, fidelity, uncertainty, fear and anticipation, suspicion and rumor. A distinctive scar as an identifying marker has a part to play in the plot alongside lies and men’s construction of femininity.14 Aside from allusions and direct references to Homer’s plot, Wharton’s use of the Odyssey goes deeper with regard to the problematics of representing war: she carefully structures her story to raise moral dilemmas, to reflect the ineffability of war, and to problematize the relationship between truth and reality. In doing so, like the British war poets, she combines Homeric elements with aspects of the Great War in order to locate her story in a canonical Western cultural tradition (Saunders 325; Machacek 531). [End Page 6]
I. Narrative and Nostos
Edith Wharton enjoyed a well-crafted story. In December 1914 she wrote to Mary Berenson negatively comparing Walter Berry’s account of his visit to Germany to a history of nineteenth-century Europe she had recently read. Charles Hazen’s Europe Since 1815 (1910) clearly hit the mark with its clarity, structure, maps, and references, and Wharton relished the picture it portrayed. Berry, on the other hand, disappointed her: “[He] saw everything, went everywhere, says he had a very interesting time—& so far has totally failed to do for me what Mr. Hazen has: give me a picture. I can’t see anything he has seen” (Wharton, Letters 344).
So much for eyewitness testimony. Berry could not, it seems, spin a yarn good enough for his eager listener. As a writer, Wharton placed a premium on research, acute observation, experience, and knowledge. This can be seen in The Writing of Fiction where she declares that “new vision” can only be attained “by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience” (17–18). Selectivity was also important for her, particularly with her studied choice of a “reflecting mind” to offer a unity of vision, one consistent “within his register” (35–36).
The opening of “Coming Home” begins in the voice of a first-person narrator, an American living in Paris. He deliberately seeks out one of the young men of the American Relief Corps, returning from the front, someone who is observant, articulate, and capable of going “beyond the bald statistics”—unlike Berry with his plenitude of “solid facts” (230; Wharton, Letters 344). And so it falls on H. Macy Greer to regale the narrator with stories over “dinner and a long cigar” because he has “the gift of making the things told seem as true as if one had seen it” (230).15 Here is the first allusion to the Odyssey. When Odysseus is welcomed and feasted by King Alcinous and Queen Arete, he goes up to the Phaeacian court’s blind bard, Demodocus, to praise him for singing of the Achaeans’ exploits and struggles “as if, methinks, thou hadst been present, or heard the tale from another” (8.131).16 Macy Greer, then, is Wharton’s “reflecting mind” for the purposes of the story, a young American ambulance driver, through whom we are told the story about a French aristocratic family caught up in the war. Wharton thus inserts into her story a fictional eyewitness account not only for dramatic interest (Young 51) but also to imbue Greer with a heavy measure of reliability, reinforcing earlier clues as to his style of narration as unsentimental and noncinematic.17 However, this is undercut by the description of his voice as “foggy,” like “thick soup,” which signals that the tale he is about to tell will be [End Page 7] opaque, something reinforced by the first narrator’s assertion that Greer’s story is unclassifiable. It does not fall into the categories of “dark and dreadful,” “unutterably sad,” or those that end ironically (230). The Odyssey is, of course, replete with stories, many of them false, which does not seem to detract from their listeners’ enjoyment.18 Odysseus himself is known for his deceptive capabilities as well as being able to tell a good yarn. As Chris Emlyn-Jones points out in this regard: “Listeners may be promised truth and accuracy but what they want most of all is to be entertained” (1). Greer offers them all three.
One category into which Greer’s story does fall is that of the nostoi. These were the classical Greek tales of the heroes returning home after the Trojan War. The longing to return home is exemplified by the figure of Odysseus, trapped on Calypso’s island. Greer’s story begins with the wounded Lt. Jean de Réchamp (cavalry) “fretting” about the fate of “his people” in the Vosges after reading news that the Germans have retaken his village (231). The fretting intensifies while he recovers in a “squalid camp hospital” (231) and is amplified by what he has experienced so far in the war. From having been a man mobilized on the very first day of the war, he is now paralyzed by fear and immobilized by a leg wound. The story thus begins at a moment of crisis for Jean, a crisis of not knowing and feeling helpless. Greer, who is asked by a surgeon to talk to Jean, undertakes to find out news both of the young man’s village and of his fiancée who may be in either Paris or Réchamp.19 Encountering obstacles in seeking news, Greer begins to share Jean’s stasis. Nevertheless, a breakthrough is finally achieved when the French counterattack in the Vosges and, through a remarkable coincidence, Greer is able to have Jean drive his ambulance “to the east,” in the direction of Réchamp, and so begins the journey home.
The use of the present continuous form of the verb “to come” in the story’s title draws attention to the journey home for Jean de Réchamp. It also suggests that the act of coming home is incomplete. The trip from Paris to the Vosges takes about two weeks and, prior to departure, Jean receives letters from his sister assuring him that everyone is well but doubts remain in his mind. The tension for Jean increases the closer they get to Réchamp. As on Odysseus’s circuitous route home, Jean learns some information about his household, he has various obstacles to overcome en route, and he receives assistance from various women. Interwoven with this are Wharton’s own experiences on her front-line trips, which provide the story with mimetic authenticity. Along the way they stay “in fairly rough places,” hearing stories about the German invasion (234). Sisters of Charity offer the two men what hospitality they can at their Hospice, while Marie Jeanne invites them to eat at her home (234, 242). As ambulance men, they can be assured of some form of shelter, evoking the [End Page 8] Greek custom of xenia and the obligation to offer travelers hospitality. The repeated sight of ruins unnerves Jean. While in hospital Jean has overheard a conversation between two wounded German soldiers in which they kept mentioning an officer called Colonel von Scharlach “with a kind of terror in their voices,” a man who has made them do unspeakable things. Jean ascertains that their regiment has been in the Vosges. So as Greer and Jean approach Réchamp, Jean becomes edgier: “the Scharlach nerve” begins to “quiver” (235). When they come upon Marie-Jeanne, hers is the only house left standing in the village. German officers have been quartered there and Jean spots Scharlach’s name scrawled on a door panel. He asks Marie-Jeanne to describe Scharlach and he is then convinced it is the same man he heard the German soldiers discuss. The tension is ratcheted up yet another notch during the last stage of the journey, undertaken in a horse-drawn trap. Again there is further evidence of Scharlach’s trail of destruction and Jean prepares himself for the worst. The melodrama notwithstanding, Jean’s journey home echoes Homer’s building up of the suspense with Odysseus’s delayed arrival home, and Athena’s interventions to keep the disguised Odysseus on his guard in order to ensure the success of the plot to murder the Suitors.
II. Ellipses, Ineffability, and Linguistic Emergencies
It was one of those strange and contradictory scenes of war that bring home to the bewildered looker-on the utter impossibility of picturing how the thing really happens.—Wharton, Fighting France 208–09
While the eyewitness narrative serves a particular purpose in enhancing Wharton’s authority in telling a war story, she deploys other narrative devices that problematize the telling of a war story. In “Coming Home” there are stories untold: Yvonne’s account of what happened at Réchamp during the German occupation and Jean’s account of what occurred when he was left alone with the wounded Scharlach. “Sometimes,” as Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien states, a true war story is “just beyond telling” (68). Modern war narratives are characterized by their omissions: the things that cannot be put into words, the inadequacy of textual representation, the impropriety of particular descriptions, and “the fear that no one will (properly) listen” (McLoughlin 46). And yet, as Toni Morrison reminds us in another context, “certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with [End Page 9] intentionality and purpose” (11). The “intentionality and purpose” of the gaps in “Coming Home” are exactly what intrigue readers in taking up the invitation “to enter into imaginative collaboration” with the author in deciphering possible meanings of what is not said (Blackall 145). The story exhibits a “linguistic state of emergency,” inferring the ineffability of war-time experiences (McLoughlin 59). To this end, Wharton deploys the “art of ellipsis” (Blackall).
Wharton makes extensive and varied use of ellipsis in her fiction. As Jean Blackall points out, Wharton’s ellipses “may represent the inexpressible, or that which a character is unwilling to express, or that which the author chooses to withhold” (145–46). This describes Yvonne’s possible predicament when pressed by Jean to tell him what happened when Scharlach and his men occupied Réchamp; she declares that there “isn’t any story for him to hear” (Wharton, “Coming Home” 251). Right from the start Jean has been counting on his fiancée to tell him “exactly how things went” (248). Doubting the veracity of his sister’s communications, he has confidently asserted to Greer that Yvonne “would despise any attempt at concealment” (235). This is, furthermore, consistent with various pieces of information that Jean has fed Greer about Yvonne as well as his family who expressed vehement opposition to his engagement to such an independent-minded young woman. The orphaned daughter of an artist father and Polish mother and who lived with a bachelor guardian, the Marquis de Corvenaire, Yvonne comes from an unconventional background. This is compounded by her emancipated lifestyle in bohemian Paris after the marquis dies. Yvonne’s alleged lack of respectability is considered dangerous and it is Jean’s grandmother who is especially vocal, deeming it unthinkable to receive Yvonne “under the same roof with their little Simone, their innocent Alain . . .” (238). Jean manages to trace his grandmother’s intransigence to a “word launched at random by a discharged maidservant” insinuating improper relations between Yvonne and her guardian (239). The word is, of course, unspoken and the old Comtesse’s reference to the gossip ends in an ellipsis. Jean outwits his manipulative grandmother and proves the mendacity of the maid, thus removing his family’s objections to his engagement.20
When Jean is mobilized, however, Yvonne has yet to endear herself to his family whom she continues to shock with her independent views. So when Jean arrives at the château and finds his family singing his fiancée’s praises, he is incredulous. The home to which he has returned contains a considerably different set of family dynamics. And yet “nothing seemed altered or disturbed” in the château, nothing has been “touched” (245). Before Jean has a chance to speak with Yvonne alone, she pleads with Greer to take him away as soon as possible because she does not want Jean “to hear—yet—about all the horrors” (250). [End Page 10] Greer is perplexed about her reference to there being any horrors. She responds, “‘All around us—’ Her voice became a whisper. ‘Our friends . . . our neighbours . . . everyone . . . .’” (250). Yvonne does not elaborate on these “horrors”—“horrors we were powerless to help” (251). At this point nothing has been said by either the family or the villagers about “all the horrors.” All we know is what Greer and Jean have heard about Scharlach and seen of his traces on their journey. And, while there is ample evidence of Scharlach spreading ruin (251), they do encounter contrary evidence as to his barbarism: Scharlach spares Marie-Jeanne’s cottage and she recalls that he travels with a silver flute and silver paint-box (242). Does Yvonne know anything of this? She is certainly aware of “the stories that are about” and tells Jean that “what has happened elsewhere” is of no consequence to understanding why Réchamp has been “spared” (251). Jean is convinced she is withholding something about Scharlach, but he is none the wiser when he and Greer leave early the next morning.
In the absence of Yvonne’s own narrative of events, all we have is the old Comtesse’s account as related to Greer. This is largely consistent, we are told, with the versions of other members of the household (252). Greer can only narrate what he has seen and he does not speculate about things he has not witnessed. He deals with “the main facts” and sifts through the “undisputed facts” as the two men drive away from the chateau (252–53). Jean concludes, “She’s saved everything for me—my people and my house, and the ground we’re standing on” (252). He does not put into words his supposed worst fear, which we impute from his agitation over Scharlach’s presence in the Château de Réchamp. As with Penelope, we do not have access to Yvonne’s motivations. Moreover, in spite of all Athena’s efforts to sow doubts in Odysseus’s mind about what Penelope might have done, Odysseus is quick to put a positive interpretation on the way Penelope proceeds with the courting rituals. When she scolds the Suitors for “devouring” the resources of her household “without atonement” instead of bringing her courtship gifts, Odysseus is elated. He admires his wife’s “trickery” in beguiling the Suitors into replenishing his household “with soothing words, while her heart was set on other things” (18.304). Although Odysseus’s swift and favorable judgment of Penelope at this point somewhat jars given Athena’s devious interventions, it is predicated on Penelope’s fidelity to her husband. There is no evidence of Penelope sacrificing her honor, only rumors and suspicions.
Has Yvonne saved everything for her fiancé? There is nothing definitive in the stories that are relayed to either Jean or Greer. Jean’s grandmother is full of praise for Yvonne’s cleverness, coolness, and quick thinking (Wharton, “Coming Home” 246). The dowager Comtesse has not seen [End Page 11] everything as she is confined to her rooms on an upper floor, and so there is no eyewitness account. And we do not know the specific source of the Comtesse’s detailed information of things she cannot have observed. Nevertheless, her narrative, which takes precedence in the absence of any other, is made logical and coherent in terms of what we know about Yvonne’s ability to think on her feet, of the French version of xenia, and of the Comtesse’s own sense of the Germans’ “decency”—despite her overall verdict that they are “brutes” (247). The German officers are treated as stranger-guests by Yvonne and she assumes their knowledge of civility. They are immediately greeted with “wine and cider” and then a little later with “refreshing drinks and cigars, melons, strawberries and iced coffee” with “whipped cream” (246). The elegance of French aristocratic hospitality continues with musical entertainment, provided by Yvonne on the piano who plays Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, and then she suggests that they dress for dinner (247). Notwithstanding that Scharlach is the armed invader with all of the physical power to exert his will, Yvonne treats him as her social equal. The German aristocrat with the silver flute and fine baritone voice appears to be well “disarmed” by Yvonne and shows “every consideration [to] the family of the Comte de Réchamp.”21 The extension of xenia has succeeded in inhibiting violence. Not only does Scharlach confine his officers to a particular wing of the château (which spares Jean’s mother, sister, and grandmother from any encounter), he also gives Yvonne “a letter requesting whatever officer should follow him to . . . avoid taking up quarters in the chateau” (252–53).22 This version of events suggests that Yvonne has been especially astute in appealing to Scharlach’s sense of obligation and gentlemanliness, being able to lie coolly to his face in order to protect the family, and, in the opinion of the formidable grandmother, being able to show that “there is something to be said for the new way of bringing up girls” (246).23
In the next and final segment of the story, there are more ellipses and more weighing up of facts by Greer in order to make sense of what has happened. There is a parallel between Yvonne’s encounter with Scharlach and Jean’s. The two elements of the plot are interwoven and essential to how one interprets the story. In neither element is there an eyewitness account of the possible occurrence of an unspeakable act; in both elements there are things left unsaid. Morrison, as noted above, points out that such gaps “call attention to themselves” (11) and McLoughlin alerts us to the “myriad and compelling” reasons for not writing about certain war events (46). The failure of finding words to describe a horror, the vocal propriety of a particular era, the problematic nature of reception, all these and more are symptomatic of war literature. And then there is the heightening of the enigma as part of the narrative technique to [End Page 12] enhance the effect on the reader by “opening up limitless scope” for the exercise of aesthetic or moral judgment (McLoughlin 58). Is Scharlach’s death in Jean’s ambulance a mere coincidence or the result of deliberate human intervention? If the latter, has it been motivated by a desire for revenge—and revenge for what precisely? If it is revenge for what Jean may suspect is Yvonne’s sacrifice, is it justifiable in terms of the extreme circumstances of war? Does it restore some sense of balance? Does it restore the patriarchal order? These are not, however, the questions that bother Greer; he weighs up the evidence in order to decide whether he has a firm basis on which to allege a wrongdoing.
The ellipses are key to alerting the reader to Greer’s agitation, just as they are in highlighting Yvonne’s. They appear only in relation to Greer’s statements, not to Jean’s reported speech. Jean’s sentences are clipped and to the point. Greer, on the other hand, expresses visceral reactions to the news of the patient’s death and again when he learns that the patient was Scharlach. The sequence of events may be summarized thus: after Greer’s and Jean’s return to the base hospital, they are asked to pick up wounded from a second-line hospital fifty miles away. They transport a German with an abdominal wound who “might be saved by an operation” at the base hospital that night. He is an officer “and nearly done for” (253). When the ambulance runs out of fuel, Greer leaves Jean with the patient in order to walk back to get gasoline. He is “almost sure” the German is not about to die, but advises Jean to give him an injection if there is any change in his condition. Up until this point Jean has not looked at the German in the back of the ambulance and only Greer has his identification papers. By the time Greer returns, the German is dead. Jean says that he was with him when he expired and there was “not time” to administer the hypodermic. Greer checks the body and concludes, “It must have happened not long after I left . . . . Well, I’m not a doctor, anyhow” (255). The ellipsis enhances the reader’s uncertainty as to what has happened. Greer is surprised the German has died and his unease is signaled by his silence for the rest of the journey to the base hospital. During the trip both men undergo a change in their demeanor. Jean’s face, Greer says, is “perfectly composed, and seemed less gaunt and drawn” and, by the morning, is in “a state of wholesome stolidity” (254–55). Meanwhile Greer is “tingling all over with exposed nerves” and has “a burning spot at the pit of [his] stomach” (255). A surgeon desultorily examines the corpse and consults the identification papers. The dead man is found to be the notorious Scharlach and the surgeon says emphatically, “A good riddance” (256).
From what Greer says, Jean does not act like a man who has committed murder: he smiles when Greer rejoins him and suggests they have breakfast. He is not sure whether to feel profoundly disturbed or reassured by this. [End Page 13] The story ends, still within the frame of Greer’s narrative (and not thereby returning to the original external frame narrative) with the sentence: “‘I could do with a café complet, couldn’t you?’ Jean suggested, looking straight at me with his good blue eyes; and arm in arm we started off to hunt for the inn . . .” (256). The terminal ellipsis here mirrors the earlier absence of any elaboration on “the horrors” to which Yvonne refers, suggesting a possible parallel between what has happened to her and then to Jean outside of the narrative’s action: something so evil or unimaginable that it cannot be named. The effect of an ellipsis at the end of a story, Blackall argues, is to leave the reader “musing upon the tale recounted” (154, 150). And, then again, “in any war story but especially a true one,” as O’Brien tells us, “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (67).
III. Morality and Indeterminacy
A good subject, then, must contain in itself something that sheds a light on our moral experience.
In reexamining “Coming Home” as a revenge plot in light of the proposition that Wharton’s story constitutes a reworking of the Odyssey, new layers of ambiguity have been exposed. In conjunction with this reading I have considered the privileging of eyewitness accounts and its effect on how Wharton constructed her narrative and its subsequent reception. The authority and credibility of eyewitness accounts have been problematized in various ways alongside of the questioning of the relationship between language and reality. Homer poses the question himself in the Iliad when he despairs of being able to picture the Trojans attacking the Achaean fortifications: “hard it were for me like a god to tell all these things” (12: 235). In the absence of an omniscient narrator, there are gaps in every story and the challenge lies in asking what they signify and what the implications for filling them in would be. Moreover, what do we learn about the condition of war and its disruption of everyday life as represented in this story?
The revenge plot takes center stage in the Odyssey. The opening books establish the egregious transgressions of the Suitors in Odysseus’s household. Once Odysseus is made aware of these, he plots his vengeance during his return journey and conceals his identity until the deed is done. On the one hand, patriarchal order is restored, but it has involved the slaughter of 112 young men and risks the retribution of their families. Athena not only ensures the slaughter [End Page 14] is successful but also that ongoing retribution is halted. But we are still left with the moral question of whether avenging a wrong (whether committed by Odysseus’s or the Suitors’ relatives) justifies another wrong. Wharton’s use of the Odyssey and the indeterminacy of whether Jean has murdered Scharlach or let him die without administering a life-saving injection raises issues of morality and definitions of civilized behavior in wartime. Diana Gill, in her study of how an individual’s sense of self can be transformed by war, argues that “war exists at the boundary between primal human behaviors and the ‘constructed’ norms of a larger society that can function only with prohibitions” (3). It is not only the individual who is “endangered” by war but also, by extension, the community that has helped to shape the individual’s identity. In the context of Wharton’s story, the community can be defined both in terms of class and nationality. Jean repeatedly condemns the “savagery” and devastation of the German invading army (233, 235, 241). Implied in this is an expectation of civilized behavior. Notwithstanding the overall tendency to attribute all of the evil in the war to the Germans, Oberst von Scharlach is shown to be capable of both savage and civilized behavior.24 In Fighting France, Wharton was less equivocal. In her effort to exhort the United States to intervene militarily, she made it clear that the Germans were the aggressors and responsible for “burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully wrought machinery of civilization . . .” (9) and for plunging France “into an unsought and unexpected war” (26). When put to the test, the French responded with ardor and self-sacrifice, and the war, she alleged, “purged them of pettiness, meanness and frivolity” and exposed their fundamental “character” (41). So, although war, according to Wharton, represents “the most senseless and disheartening of retrogressions,” for the French it was also a “means of renewal” (53).25
Reading Wharton’s fiction through her propaganda prose, one might suppose that Jean’s self-restraint remains intact. However, critics have been inclined to interpret his actions otherwise. William Blazek, for example, suggests that Réchamp’s possible revenge killing of his “rival” constitutes “the reestablishment of aristocratic privilege and patriarchal control.” If so, Blazek admits, this undercuts the characterization of Yvonne as someone “possessing independence of thought and autonomous selfhood” (pars. 23–24). On the other hand, one could possibly see this as a restoration of balance between the pair through their sharing of a secret too terrible to voice—that they have both ventured into the dark side of civilization, albeit momentarily. Mary Carney and Jennifer Haytock are less tentative than Blazek. Carney writes: “The story concludes with a reassertion of male agency: Réchamp avenges his fiancée by killing the general,” [sic] (113), while Haytock asserts, “Jean apparently resorts to [End Page 15] cold-blooded murder of the man who dishonored his fiancée” (105). The weight of Julie Olin-Ammentorp’s reasoning comes down on the side of revenge—that Jean has “balanced the score between” himself and Scharlach, and that Greer may have accepted this so that war has altered “moral standards” for all three—Mlle. Malo, Réchamp, and Greer (53–54).26
Critics have, then, attempted to fill in the gaps by interpreting the story as a revenge plot, specifically in relation to Jean avenging the dishonoring of Yvonne. But if we read the story in light of the plot in the Odyssey, it is possible to see Yvonne as cleverly manipulating Scharlach, just as Penelope deceives the Suitors, and to see Jean as taking revenge against a German perpetrator of war crimes in France, crimes that include those against his friends and neighbors. This elevates Yvonne and Jean to morally uncompromised heroes and also suggests the superiority of French civilization. The idea of a convenient or surreptitious act of intensely personal revenge may well have a stronger appeal to readers. If a sense of evening the score gives satisfaction, however, it leaves one with a disturbing moral difficulty. Is it then permissible for the usual conventions of law and order to be suspended at a time of war for some crimes? I would suggest that Wharton, in being true to her non-omniscient eyewitness narrator, leaves things open-ended and undetermined. She casts an Athena-like mist on events. There is certainly interest in speculating about what might have happened, but the moment one does so, the meaning of the story becomes destabilized. Both Yvonne’s and Jean’s behavior come under close scrutiny. In this respect, the narrator makes us aware of certain standards that exist within their milieu, in particular how a young unmarried woman may conduct herself in society and how a young French officer can legitimately retaliate if he thinks that his fiancée’s honor has been violated and/or if he thinks that a German officer has behaved outside the boundaries of civilized behavior in war. How personal does Jean’s revenge have to be? Does it turn the wounded lieutenant into a French hero? Is it a “means of renewal”? As an officer invalided out of the war in its early days, Jean is not the archetypal Homeric hero. On the other hand, there is something closer to Trojan combat in the scenario that Jean knew the identity of Scharlach (through Marie-Jeanne’s physical description) and that Scharlach’s death is the result of an individual encounter typical of the Iliad (Vandiver, Stand 229). Then again, Scharlach does not die a glorious death, it is moreover “off-stage,” and there is no glory for Jean in dispatching a much reviled German warrior. What Wharton has demonstrated in “Coming Home” is that she herself is a fine spinner of yarn who has left us to pull the loose threads to entertain ourselves in unraveling her short story. [End Page 16]
Furthermore, Wharton’s deployment of motifs and images of ancient civilizations in her war-related writings places her among other First World War writers who looked to classical literature for ennobling soldiers’ sacrifice and interpreting the war as one in which civilization is at stake (Hutchinson 8). In the heyday of the traditional paradigm of First World War literary criticism, as exemplified by Cooperman’s dismissive verdict quoted at the beginning of this article, Wharton’s heightened rhetoric casts her to the margins. The revisionist writings of the last thirty years, however, have accommodated writers like Wharton and allowed for a variety of responses and representations. They have been at pains, moreover, to understand classical reception and the sometimes diametrically opposed uses of the classics in war literature (Vandiver, Stand 6). This has not necessarily meant an aesthetic reassessment; the use of classical allusions does not guarantee high literary quality (Vandiver, Stand xii). “Coming Home” offered a readership at the time familiar with the classics not simply an experience of aesthetic appreciation but a plethora of conundrums in interpreting the story in the light of the Odyssey. A reader in the post–Vietnam War era might well resist that there is any “light” to be shed on our “moral experience” by a war story. We have only to recall how Tim O’Brien calls attention to the fact that experiences that occur at a time when the normal rules of personal or national interaction are suspended do “not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. . . . If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever” (65). It would be hard to see Wharton give wholehearted endorsement to this nihilistic statement. Hutchinson comes closer to understanding Wharton’s stance in 1915 in seeing her as offering, in Fighting France, “a blend of unease and reassurance, of horror and glory” (86). This captures Greer’s narrative and his difficulty in deciding whether he should be alarmed or reassured by Jean’s smiling face and “good blue eyes” (Wharton, “Coming Home” 256). Greer’s “foggy voice” cannot dispel the mist; it can only evoke the uncertainty of the war zone, affirming the famous words of the Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, that “war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty” (101). It is Wharton’s representation of the inherent uncertainty of the war zone that underscores her effectiveness in deploying Homeric strategies to render a modern war story rooted in the Western tradition. [End Page 17]
maureen montgomery is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Creative Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She is author of Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton's New York and “Gilded Prostitution”: Status, Money and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870–1914.
2. The story did not appear until the December 1915 issue.
5. She refers here to British women’s texts, but this is also true of American women’s writings about the First World War.
6. See Hurst’s discussion of the exclusion of women from the classics (164–68).
8. Wright indicates that the Odyssey was also among the books on board the Vanadis (114).
9. On the other hand, Odysseus’s home does become a battleground between him and the Suitors, something that underscores that home is not necessarily divorced from the effects of war.
10. Campbell discusses the concept of “combat gnosticism” with particular reference to First World War poetry before the broadening of the canon of war literature by the end of the twentieth century. He defines it as “the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of experience that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience” (203). The tendency to privilege male soldiers’ literary representations of war for much of the last century certainly had an impact on the critical appreciation of Wharton’s war writings (see Olin-Ammentorp 1).
11. Four of the five essays described five separate journeys that Wharton made to the war zone to report for the Red Cross on the state of hospital services and to take supplies. The second essay, “In Argonne,” conflates the two trips she made to Verdun in February and March 1915.
12. According to Joseph Butler, an American businessman who visited Gerbéviller in 1916, the residents told him the town had been torched in revenge for the staunch defense of the bridge to the little town by seventy-five chasseurs, who managed to hold at bay twelve thousand Germans for eight hours (ch. 13).
13. As indeed is Odysseus’s.
14. It is not my intention in this article to annotate all allusions to the Odyssey contained in this single story. “Coming Home” is what Machacek would call “densely allusive” (524). My purpose is to draw attention to the complexities of the relationship between Wharton’s alluding text and the Odyssey, with a focus on the reworking of the latter for multiple purposes on Wharton’s part.
15. The opening of “The Daunt Diana” (1909) is remarkably similar. It too has a frame narrative with a second-tier narrator, Ringham Finney, a collector, who is enticed back to the hotel of the first-person narrator to entertain him with an anecdote over cigars. Even more fascinating is the reference to Finney’s ability to bring back “from his raids on Christie’s and the Hôtel Drouot . . . the fragments of human nature he picks up on those historic battle-fields” (731). As Blackall has pointed out, Wharton uses this setup in several stories in order to prepare readers “for a retrospective tale” that will draw them into “time past” (154).
16. All quotations from the Odyssey and the Iliad are taken from the translations of Homer that Wharton owned.
17. The stress on Greer’s style of narration seems to suggest its strong reportorial quality; it is as though Wharton is, in Young’s words, imputing it with “the authority of testimony without the authenticity of actual testimony” (56).
18. See Emlyn-Jones’s discussion of false tales in the Odyssey.
19. There is a parallel here with the opening of the Odyssey with Odysseus’s immobility on Calypso’s island and also with the task of Telemachus to seek news of his father.
20. Another Homeric reference in terms of the role of maids in Odysseus’s household.
21. The presence of the preposition “von” (of) in Scharlach’s name indicates that he comes from a noble family; it parallels the “de” (of) in Réchamp’s name. The old Comtesse mistakes Scharlach’s name for a French one while demoting him to captain. She deduces a link between “Charlot’s” and Scharlach’s “breeding” (247).
22. My ellipsis.
23. This is a pointed volte-face from her previously held staunch opinion that a young girl who lives alone and consorts with foreigners, musicians, and painters cannot possibly marry her grandson (237–38).
24. In A Son at the Front, Wharton’s American protagonist, John Campton, does represent the war as being between good and evil: he finds the war “immeasurably more hideous and abominable than those who most abhorred war had dreamed it could be; the issues at stake had become so glaringly plain, right and wrong, honour and dishonour, humanity and savagery faced each other so squarely across the trenches” (74).
26. An evening of the score is implied earlier in the story when Réchamp admits to “a sort of satisfaction” when “you can tot up your daily bag in the trenches” (232).