This is Edith Wharton’s idea of an “atrocity story,” fiction’s equivalent of the propaganda newsreel crafted to touch nerves and stir up emotions. It’s beautifully written, it’s exquisitely plotted, but it’s agenda-driven writing with two purposes: advertising German atrocities and making the point that “there is something to be said for the new way of bringing up girls.” It’s a girl who saves the estate near the front–a save that further undermines the realism of the story with melodramatic pandering to the reader: atrocities have their limits. It’s all “sentiment and cinema scenes,” those words Wharton uses derisively at the beginning of the story, returning to them as if self-consciously trying to neutralize her own doing: “I know you affect to scorn the cinema, and this was it, tremolo and all.” It is it, the front’s version of Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers,” but not as emotionally accomplished.
Jean de Rechamp, 27 or 28, wants news of his family at Rechamp, and his girlfriend Mlle Malo. He fought, was wounded and put out of action (though he can still drive), and gets to know Greer, an America supply man who refers to the Germans as “brutes” and whose “eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice obscures.” The narration is his.
Wharton gives the backstory of Rechamp and his girlfriend, a free-spirited artist who’s lived alone after being fostered by a rich man. Jean asks his parents and grandmother permission to marry Malo. They refuse. She lives alone. She travels. She’s never been married. Ergo, harlot. But she wins his heart. Malo is the New Woman, a Wharton hero.
“Soon after Mlle. Malo’s return to Paris he followed her and began to frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had ever seen—or conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the artistic-emancipated. I don’t know much about that set myself, but from his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent Americans, except that they don’t seem to keep art and life in such water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl. Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type, which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me, in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married woman—and yet has kept the Diana-freshness—think how she must have shaken up such a man’s inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far more than make Réchamp fall in love with her: she turned his world topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.”
Jean’s attempt to win permission is described in the same language of trench warfare. He’s up against “a heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures, village tattle,” all based on a maid’s sing single slander: That Mlle Malo slept with her foster father. But he disproves the slander and wins the family’s approval. During the war she improbably stays with the family.
And so back to the present, Rechamp’s quest for Rechamp, the road trip with Greer as they hear “the stories we all refused to believe at first, and that we now prefer not to think about….”
“But you know well enough,” I insisted, “that the Germans are not all alike—that it all depends on the particular officer….” Greer tells Rechamp. Thy speak of one German in particular, the murderous Scharlach.
As they approach the front all the old landmarks down to the names and distances on mile-stones have disappeared, as have village church steeples, as have villages. Rechmap thought he knew where he was. He was where he thought he was, a village neighboring his own. But the where was no longer there. “The place looked like an abandoned stoneyard. I never saw completer ruin. To the left, a fortified gate gaped on emptiness; to the right, a mill-wheel hung in the stream. Everything else was as flat as your dinner-table.” They run into an old woman whose house was spared because the Germans used it to bivouac. She tells them of various atrocities.
They drive on. But Rechamp is intact: the whole family is there. They all credit Yvonne Malo for saving them with her wiles after Scharlach shows up. Those wiles are never described in details: she wined and dined them, but the implication is that she did more than that: she screwed the German to save the village. She’s happy to see Jean but eager to see him leave on the improbable excuse that he’s not ready to know of the horrors yet, as if he hadn’t seen them–unless she means the horrors she performed. Jean and Greer leave. On the way they pick up a German wounded from a French hospital. The German dies on the way, though he wasn’t supposed to: the car runs out of gas, Greer has to walk on to get some, Jean may have killed the German during Greer’s absence. Murdered him. The German is supposedly Scharlach. Talk about schematized. The story by this point is held together by very thick nails and sledgehammers.
Scribner’s, December 1915edith-wharton-coming-home-analysis