Stephen Crane

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In "A Mystery of Heroism" by Stephen Crane, what is the irony at the end of the story?

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In this story, Collins, to the surprise of his officers and fellow soldiers, agrees to risk his life in the midst of battle to get water for the parched men. He takes five or six of their canteens and facing enemy fire, he heads for well. As he gets to well and begins to fill the canteens, he is terrified:

And now as he lay with his face turned away he was suddenly smitten with the terror. It came upon his heart like the grasp of claws. All the power faded from his muscles. For an instant he was no more than a dead man.

The canteens are filling so slowly that he abandons them for a bucket he sees lying near the well. He fills it, hurries back as best he can without spilling the water, tries to give some water to a dying captain, and at the captain's request, hands the bucket to the thirsty men. Instead of drinking the water, two of them joke and jostle, spilling the water.

The irony, or unexpected outcome, is that the men, just by fooling around, spill the water that Collins risked his life to get for them. All of Collins's efforts have been for nothing.

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Let us remember the three different types of irony that there are in literature before examining the end of this story. There is dramatic irony, which is when one of the characters and the audience knows something that other characters do not. There is verbal irony, when the opposite of what is meant is said, and finally there is situational irony, when the opposite of what we expect to happen occurs.

Thinking about the end of this excellent wartime story therefore, we can see that the way in which Fred Collins risks his life in the middle of battle with being blown apart all for one bucket of water automatically makes us assume that this costly prize will be enjoyed by the soldiers he is with. However, the precise opposite happens. The bucket full of water is dropped by two lieutenants who are joking around with it and the precious liquid falls to the ground. This is a classic example of situational irony.

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