Claude and his whole regiment, aboard the Anchises, are off to war, and as they pass the lady in New York Harbor (referred to, interestingly, as “the Bartholdi statue” by Cather, and not as “the Statue of Liberty”), they raise their voices in a leather-lunged rendition of “Over There”. This sounds a bit over the top, as I summarize it, but honestly it feels pretty genuine—at least, it seems realistic that these men would behave this way (although a lot of it is probably an expression of the combined fear and excitement they must feel as they board a ship to brave an Atlantic teeming with U-Boats, heading for a front that has devoured and destroyed a whole generation of Europeans).
Why is Claude heading off to war? It’s no real mystery: it’s the only legitimate escape he can find from a life and a marriage that is wearing him down. Cather is excruciatingly good at depicting the cramped, agonizing melancholy that descends on Claude and Enid in this loveless marriage: she feels a sense of duty to him, perhaps, but she seeks every opportunity to retreat from her husband, both emotionally and physically. Claude swings back and forth between desiring the romantic connection Enid refuses to offer him and wanting to run off into the wildest corners of their acreage and never see her again. Both of them think they extend every reasonable kindness to the other, and neither of them are willing to confront that they are destroying each other in a thousand tiny ways. When Enid’s sister falls ill in China, she can’t pack to leave fast enough, thrilled that there is an excuse to leave. And Claude, in response, can’t give up his farm fast enough–the house he so lovingly built for Enid is now nothing to him, the livestock he tended so closely to provide for the family are sold without a second thought. The town’s gossip about them is poisonous but absolutely accurate.
So, Enid leaves for China in December of 1916, not intending to return home until the following autumn at the earliest. And when unrestricted submarine warfare is declared in the Atlantic, Claude won’t even wait for the war and the draft—he signs up for the army and trains to be an officer. Gladys Farmer, the schoolteacher he always should have married, is finally proud of him…and he seems to have realized (now that it is far too late for a man like Claude….even Newland Archer, a man with far less scruples, couldn’t make a move in this scenario) that she was the one woman who would truly have made him happy. He is troubled, though, by the anti-German sentiments in his old hometown. He springs to the defense of the German-Americans (who would then have been called “Hyphenates”), even as he wears his uniform proudly in public. He visits the family home one last time, and his parting with his mother is the most profoundly emotional passage I’ve read in my journey so far—affecting to the point of misty eyes.
So, it’s the world and the Great War for Claude, which is sure to change him. What I don’t see is what will come of him when he returns. Will Enid be “taken care of” by our author, in order for Claude to find happiness with Gladys? Or will she return from China as transformed as he is, ready to love him as boldly as he will love her? Both solutions strike me as excessively convenient. But I don’t think that Cather’s writing all this so she can pen a concluding chapter in which Claude settles down to that hollow walking death of a life that Claude’s been living. We shall see.