What to do with John Campton? The famous painter at the center of Edith Wharton’s novel, A Son at the Front, is a perplexing gent. An American expatriate living in Paris on the eve of World War I, Campton is likeable and sympathetic in many ways—his love for his son is sincere. His confusion about war in such a civilized society is sympathetic. And we see him work to understand George, whose idealism diverges dramatically from his father’s. Campton is soulful, elegant, and sophisticated.
And yet. John Campton is also prickly, small-minded, and vengeful. We learn that he abandoned his family to paint in the countryside. After his wife divorces him, he continues to pursue painting, and not provide for his son, while George’s wealthy—and by all accounts, doting—stepfather supports and raises him. This mercy is met with contempt throughout the novel.