What is a summary of "An Episode of War" by Stephen Crane?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"An Episode of War" by Stephen Crane exemplifies the author's Naturalistic beliefs as there is a certain detachment in the narration, an impersonal tone, and a sense of the indifference of the universe to human life.  

The narrative of Crane's story begins benignly enough as a young lieutenant sits placidly dividing the rations of coffee for his soldiers and, Crane writes with subtle satire, is "on the verge of a great triumph in mathematics." Then, suddenly, the lieutenant is a victim of an arbitrary fate as a stray bullet lands in the lieutenant's arm.

Reacting to this attack upon his person, the lieutenant grabs his sword with his left hand, but holds it awkwardly and is even unable to place it back into its sheath. The orderly-sergeant respectfully takes the sword and gently replaces it into the scabbard. He leans backward, afraid to touch the officer "lest he hurl him at once into the dim, grey unknown."

Holding his wounded arm with his other hand, the lieutenant begins his trek to the medical tent. As he passes from the line of battle, the officer, who is no longer a participant in the war, now becomes a mere observer, and he witnesses things that he has not seen before. He also notices more keenly the sounds of war:

The wild thud of hoofs, the cries of the riders shouting blame and praise, menace and encouragement, and, last the roar of the wheels, the slant of the glistening guns, brought the lieutenant to an intent pause....The sound of it was a war-chorus that reached into the depths of man's emotion.

As the battle continues, some stragglers emerge from the woods. Fortunately, they point out to the lieutenant the way to the field hospital. Then, at a roadside the lieutenant happens upon a brigade that is "making coffee" as his brigade might have done. Some officers approach him, and one scolds him for not having his arm wrapped as he should; so he cuts the lieutenant's sleeve and wraps the wound.

When the lieutenant reaches the field hospital, he witnesses the commotion of two ambulance drivers who argue as the wheels of their wagons have become interlocked; wounded soldiers move back and forth, "gesticulating and berating." A preoccupied surgeon passes the lieutenant, but stops.  

"What mutton-head had tied it up that way anyhow?"
The lieutenant answered, "Oh, a man."

The surgeon regards the arm "disdainfully"; this look worries the lieutenant, who meekly says, "I guess I won't have it amputated." The physician replies, "Nonsense man! Nonsense! Nonsense!"

"Let go of me," said the lieutenant, holding back wrathfully, his glance fixed upon the door of the old school-house, as sinister to him as the portals of death.

In the end the arm has been amputated, and when the soldier returns home, his mother and his sisters and his wife all weep. In an effort to console them, he says, "I don't suppose it matters so much as all that." For he is but one man in an indifferent universe. 


bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The short story "An Episode of War," by Stephen Crane, describes an incident common to soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War: the wounding of a comrade. During a lull in the fighting, a young lieutenant is dividing the morning's ration of coffee for his men when a shot rings out. A bullet has struck the officer's arm, and his men crowd around to view the damage. As the lieutenant makes his way to the rear for medical assistance, he sees all about him--a general, an artillery battery, some stragglers--in a new light. Another officer stops to redress the wound. When the lieutenant finally reaches a surgeon, the doctor assures the wounded man that amputation will not be necessary. Of course, it is only to calm the man, and when the lieutenant returns home to recuperate, his relatives cry at the sight of his flat sleeve. He tells them, "I don't suppose it matters so much as all that." It is, indeed, only a minor matter in the overall horror that is war.

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An Episode of War

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