The action takes place in 1890-1918. The work is written in the form of the author’s memories of his peer, a young English officer who died in France at the very end of the First World War. His name appeared in one of the last lists of those who died on the battlefield, when hostilities had long ceased, but the newspapers still continued to publish the names of those killed: “Winterbourne, Edward Frederick George, captain of the Second Company of the Ninth Battalion of the Fodershire Regiment.”
George Winterburn believed that his possible death would hurt four people: his mother, father, wife Elizabeth and Fanny’s mistress, and therefore their reaction to the news of his death would hurt his pride, although at the same time it would ease the soul: he would have understood, that in this life he did not have debts left. For the mother, who spent time with the company of the next lover, the tragic message became only an occasion to play a woman who was heartbroken to give the partner an opportunity to console herself by satisfying the sensuality spurred by the sad event. The father, who by that time was ruined and struck a religion, seems to have lost interest in everything worldly-after learning of the death of his son, he only began to pray more earnestly, and soon he himself went to another world, getting under the car. As for the wife and mistress, then, while George fought in France,
It is possible that, entangled in personal problems, tired of the war, being on the verge of nervous exhaustion, George Winterbourne committed suicide: after all, the company commander does not have to let himself get a bullet in the forehead – it’s enough to climb full-length under machine gun fire. “Such a dunce,” said the colonel about him.
Then the events in the novel return almost three decades ago, to the youth of George Winterbourne the elder, the father of the protagonist, who came from a wealthy bourgeois family. His mother, an overbearing and self-willed woman, suppressed in her son all the rudiments of masculinity and independence and tried to tie her to her skirt more tightly. He learned to be a lawyer, but his mother did not let him go to London, but forced him to practice in Sheffield, where he had almost no work. It all went to the fact that Winterbourne Sr. will remain a bachelor and will live near the dearest mother. But in 1890 he made a pilgrimage to the patriarchal Kent, where he fell in love with one of the many daughters of retired Captain Hartley. Isabel conquered him with her liveliness, a bright blush and a flashy, though slightly vulgar beauty. Imagine that the groom is rich, Captain Hartley immediately agreed to a marriage. Mother George, too, did not particularly object, perhaps having decided that tyranny of two people is more pleasant than one. However, after the wedding, Isabella was waiting for three bitter disappointments. On the wedding night George was too clumsy and grossly raped her, bringing a lot of unnecessary suffering, after which she tried all her life to minimize their physical intimacy. The second blow she experienced at the sight of an unsightly house of “rich”. The third – when she learned that her husband’s lawyer practice does not bring a penny and he is dependent on parents who are hardly more wealthy than her father. Disappointment in the marriage life and constant quibbles of his mother-in-law forced Isabella to turn all her love to the first-born of George, while his father spat at the ceiling in his office and vainly urged his mother and wife not to quarrel. The final collapse of the lawyer practice of George Winterbourne Sr. came at a time when his former classmate Henry Balbury, returning from London, opened its own law firm in Sheffield. George, it seems, was only happy about this – under the influence of conversations with Balbury, the unfortunate lawyer decided to devote himself to “serving literature.”
Meanwhile, Isabella’s patience burst, and she took a child and ran to her parents. The husband who came for her was met by the family of Hartley, who was disobedient, who could not forgive him that he was not a rich man. Hartley insisted that the young couple rent a house in Kent. In compensation, George was allowed to continue his “literary activity.” For a time, the young blessed: Isabella could nest her own nest, and George was considered a writer, but soon the family’s financial situation became so precarious that only the death of Father George left them a disaster, leaving them a small inheritance. Then began the trial of Oscar Wilde, finally disgusting Winterbourne, the elder of literature. He again started practicing law and soon became rich. They had several more children with Isabella.
Meanwhile, George Winterbourne Jr., long before he turned fifteen, began to lead a double life. Having understood that the true movements of the soul should be concealed from... adults, he tried to look like a healthy savage boy, used slang words, pretended to be fond of sports. And he himself was sensitive and subtle in nature and kept in his room a volume of poetry Keats, stolen from the parent bookcase. He was happy to draw and spend all his pocket money for the purchase of reproductions and colors. In a school where they attached special importance to sporting successes and military-patriotic education, George was on bad terms. However, some people already saw in him an extraordinary nature and believed that “the world will still hear about him.”
The relative well-being of the Winterbourne family ended on the day when the father suddenly disappeared: having decided that he was ruining, he fled from creditors. Actually, his affairs were not so bad, but the flight ruined everything, and at one point the Winterbourne turned from almost rich to almost poor. Since then, the father began to seek refuge in God. The family had a difficult atmosphere. One day, when George, returning home late, wanted to share his joy with his parents – his first publication in the magazine – they attacked him with reproaches, and eventually his father told him to get out of the house. George went to London, rented a studio and began painting. He earned his living mainly by journalism; he had extensive acquaintances in a bohemian environment. At one of the parties, George met Elizabeth, also a free artist, with which he immediately established a spiritual, and then a physical intimacy. As passionate opponents of the Victorian foundations, they believed that love should be free, not burdened by lies, hypocrisy and forced obligations of fidelity. However, hardly Elizabeth, the main champion of free love, had suspicions that she was expecting a child, as she immediately demanded to register a marriage. However, suspicions were in vain, and nothing has changed in their lives: George stayed in his studio, Elizabeth – in his. Soon George got along with Fanny, and Elizabeth, not knowing about it, also found a lover and immediately told George about everything. Then he should have confessed to his wife in connection with her close friend, but on Fanny’s advice he did not, which he later regretted. When the “modern” Elizabeth learned about the “betrayal”, she quarreled with Fanny and in her relationship with George, too, came a chill. And he rushed between them, because he loved both. In this state, the war caught them.
Confused in his personal life, George joined the army as a volunteer. He experienced the rudeness of non-commissioned officers, the drill in the training battalion. Physical deprivation was great, but even worse were moral torments: from the environment where the spiritual values were placed above all, he fell into an environment where these values were despised. After a while he was sent to France as a member of the engineer battalion to the German front.
In winter there was a calm in the trenches: soldiers of opposing armies fought with one enemy – the cold; they were ill with pneumonia and tried in vain to keep warm. But with the onset of spring, fighting began. Battling on the front, George tens of times was a hair’s breadth from death – fell under the fire of enemy batteries, was subjected to chemical attacks, took part in battles. Every day he saw death and suffering around him. Hating the war and not sharing the cheers and patriotism of his comrades in arms, he nevertheless honestly carried out his military duty and was recommended to the officer school.
Before starting his studies, George received a two-week vacation, which he spent in London. It was at this moment that he felt that he had become a stranger in the once habitual environment of the capital’s intellectuals. He broke his old sketches, finding them weak and apprentices. I tried drawing, but I could not even hold a confident pencil line. Elizabeth, carried away by her new friend, did not pay much attention to him, and Fanny, who still considered George an excellent lover, also barely managed to find a minute or two for him. Both women decided that he had greatly degraded since he was in the army, and everything that was attractive in him died.
At the end of the officer’s school, he returned to the front. George was burdened by the fact that his soldiers are poorly trained, the position of the company is vulnerable, and his immediate superior does not know much about military craft. But he again harnessed himself to the strap and, trying to avoid unnecessary losses, directed the defending company, and when it was time he led her on the offensive. The war was coming to an end, and the company was fighting its last fight. And when the soldiers lay down, pressed to the ground with machine-gun fire, Winterbourne thought he was going crazy. He jumped up. A machine-gun burst lashed him across the chest, and all was swallowed up by the darkness.