A Mystery Of Heroism Analysis

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This excellent short story represents yet another attempt of Crane to quantify the strange, baffling and dangerous experience of war by debating the true nature of heroism and questioning the overall value of the sacrifices that soldiers make during war. The story opens in the middle of a raging battle in the Civil War. Private Fred Collins is driven to distraction by a raging thirst, and thus decides to risk death to get some water. To do so, however, he must go through a field that would leave him open to enemy fire. His comrades cheer him on as he crosses this field to get to a well, fills an old bucket with water, and then returns to the rest of his company, dodging shells left right and centre. On the way back, however, he passes a dying officer, who asks for some water. Although Collins at first refuses, he then turns back and gives some water to the officer. When he finally makes it back, two lieutenants joke around with the bucket, spilling its contents all over the ground.

The "mystery of heroism" of the title seems to refer to the way in which Collins, without a thought for his own safety, instinctively turns back to give the dying officer some water. This is presented as being more heroic than the run to get some water itself, and Collins does this in "all terror," yet seems to reflect some kind of inner tendency towards heroism that is captured in the story. The fate of the water that so much has been risked for at the end presents us with the theme of fate and destiny. After all the effort to obtain the water, it is wasted, sugesting the futility of human efforts to alter, control or change the course of fate. Note how the story ends:

Suddenly there was an oath, the thud of wood on the ground, and a swift murmur of astonishment from the ranks. The two lieutenants glared at each other. The bucket lay on the ground empty.

The way that the story ends with the picture of the empty bucket lying on the ground seems to mock the attempt of Collins to defy fate and alter the course of events.

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