Style and Technique
With admirable, conscious artistry, Crane brought to his episode a confluence of literary impressionism and symbolism, a major triumph revealed in the abject anonymity of all of his characters. These human theory representations are fused into hectic actions that roll across a continuously exploding landscape roiling with menace and motion. The language is unremitting in its bleak, suggestive violence: “the slant of glistening guns,” the “maniacal horses,” the shooting that “crackled like bush fires.” Within and against the colliding forces that reverberated with thunder and suffocated under rolling smoke is the solitary, wandering, wounded lieutenant, delicately holding his fragile, bleeding arm as if it were made of glass. The nameless officer, carrying his wounded arm, is thus described as already separated from the limb, bearing it as an independent part no longer attached to his body. The finality is clearly foreshadowed at this point, the diabolical lie of the surgeon notwithstanding.
The wounded arm, symbol of the lieutenant’s separation from his essential self and his troops in wartime, is emblematized in civilian life by the empty sleeve, marking him as less than a complete human being. Both symbols also denote the end of the man’s illusion—that the temporary arm of authority he once possessed was real, that he was in control of action and choice. The final picture Crane paints of the lieutenant finds this stammering veteran shamefaced, perhaps at what he now recognizes as his sin of pride in even momentarily believing he had the ability to fashion life. The missing arm is now a permanent reminder of his, and humankind’s, impotence.