Summary:

Set in Paris during the First World War, A Son at the Front focuses on the life of American painter John Campton. The novel's offers a wide array of characters: George Campton, John’s French-born son; Julia Brant, John’s former wife; Anderson Brant, George’s stepfather and a wealthy American banker; Madame Lebel, the French concierge; Madame Olinda, a Spanish
clairvoyant; Harvey Mayhew, delegate to the Peace Congress; and, many others. Through the tangled relationships of these characters, a portrait of Parisian life during the war emerges.

The novel opens on an auspicious date: July 30, 1914. Europe stands on the brink of the Great War. John Campton, however, is absorbed in his plans to vacation with his son George, whom he loves deeply. This trip would offer a welcome reprieve from painting portraits of the insipid wealthy, but their trip is canceled because George must report for military service. His
parents are both Americans who were living in France when he was born; therefore, despite the fact that he does not have any French blood, he is a French citizen and must serve in the army. While his parents try to use their social influence to keep him from the front, George Campton secretly joins the infantry. Without giving away the novel’s surprises, George’s perilous situation and his father’s intense reactions are central to the novel’s development. John Campton wrestles with his son’s conscription, the war’s threat to his adopted country, and his uncertainty about the artist’s role in wartime.  Campton witnesses the toll that the war exacts from French society and the varied responses among his American compatriots.

The novel explores such themes as the consequences of sexual and familial bonds, the value of art in wartime, national allegiances and cultural values, and the nature of warfare. Wharton satirizes many characters, including peace delegates, society women who dabble in charities, and the wealthy expatriates who frantically seek diversions. This novel offers a
panorama of life behind the front lines during the First World War.

Discussion Questions:

1. Which characters do you most admire? Least? Which are the object of Wharton’s scathing satire? Consider not only the major characters, such as John Campton and Mme. Lebel, but also minor ones, such as Harvey Mayhew and
Cyril Jorgenstein.

2. Why should George Campton, an American born in France, be required to become a French soldier? What is the development of John Campton’s view on this subject? What are the reasons for his change of heart?

3. How do the family lives of the Americans and French differ? Compare the Campton family with that of Fortin-Lescluze (see Part I, Chapter VI). What is the nature of the relationship between John and George Campton?

4. What roles do women play in wartime? Consider the lives of Madame Olinda, Julia Brandt, Madge Talkett, Madame Lebel, and Adele Anthony?

5. Is this a war novel? What do you consider some criteria for a war novel? Does it change your ideas about what a war novel should be?

Suggested Reading:

Benstock, Shari. Introduction to A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1995. Reprinted from New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923.

Benert, Annette Larson. "Edith Wharton at War: Civilized Space in Troubled Times." Twentieth Century Literature 42:3 (Fall 1996): 322-43.

Condé, Mary. "Payments and Face Values: Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front." In Women’s Fiction and the Great War, edited by Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

Gallagher, Jean. "The Great War and the Female Gaze: Edith Wharton and the Iconography of War Propaganda" Literature Interpretation Theory 7 (1996): 27-49.

Sensibar, Judith L. "‘Behind the Lines’ in Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front: Re-Writing a Masculinist Tradition." In Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe, edited by Katherine Joslin and Alan Price. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

--Contributed by Mary Carney, University of Georgia