In "A Mystery of Heroism," is Collins a real hero or not?

In Stephen Crane's "A Mystery of Heroism," Collins decides that he cannot be a hero, since he has often acted in a petty, ignoble fashion. Crane makes the point that heroism is something romantic and mysterious. This means that one cannot be a hero in one's own estimation, and once you get close enough to a hero, the heroism disappears.

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In Stephen Crane's short story "A Mystery of Heroism," Fred Collins crosses a battlefield in order to obtain a drink of water from a well. He does this, he says, because he is thirsty. This seems like an act of reckless bravado, courageous and foolish in equal measure, to Collins's captain and his fellow soldiers, but his motives are never quite clear to the reader or to Collins himself. He muses as he walks to the well:

He was, then, a hero. He suffered that disappointment which we would all have if we discovered that we were ourselves capable of those deeds which we most admire in history and legend. This, then, was a hero. After all, heroes were not much.

Collins then decides that he cannot be a hero. He is an ordinary person, with typically human failings. Once, he borrowed money and avoided the lender for ten months so that he would not have to pay it back. When his mother used to try to make him work on the family farm, he often reacted in a childish, irritable manner, quite incompatible with the glamor of heroism.

Crane's story makes the point that if heroes are remote and mysterious figures like Julius Caesar or George Washington, then no one can ever be a hero to himself. Introspection makes one all too aware of cowardice, pettiness, and any number of other unheroic qualities. A hero must always be someone about whom one does not know too much.

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