Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Beginning with Stephen Crane’s most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), but continuing through his other works, the horror of encountering death is a constant theme. Often, rather than confront death directly, Crane’s characters do their best to avoid it. They walk around dead men lying on battlefields, avoid wounded, or express loathing about touching the dead or the dying. However, in this brief tale, written less than a year before his own death, Crane forces his characters, and readers, to face death squarely. In this story there is no way to avoid the issue, just as there is no way for Lean or the adjutant to avoid it on the battlefield. The story begins with two men struggling to decide what to do. At first neither man seems exactly certain, as both grapple with emotions barely under control. At moments each man lashes out at the two enlisted men, but one senses that their anger is not really directed at the hapless privates. Rather, Lean and the adjutant wrestle with both the reality of death and its meaninglessness.

Each man resists touching the body, but ultimately they must put the corpse into the ground. It is interesting to note that although Lean could order the privates to do the job, he instead decides that he and the adjutant should put the body in the grave. Even though it is not entirely clear whether their motivations are due to their rank, or their relationship to the fallen man, the symbolic aspect of...

(The entire section is 491 words.)