Which aspects of Stephen Crane's story, "An Episode of War," are particularly tragic or unsettling?

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jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Is tragedy the result of excessive pride, or is it the result of a cruel twist of fate?" (http://www.enotes.com/tragedy-reference-guide/tragedy).  This is an old question that perhaps never will be settled.

In the short story, "An Episode of War," by Stephen Crane, the catastrophe that befalls a lieutenant in the American Civil War seems to be no more than a cruel twist of fate.  

At the beginning of the story, the lieutenant is involved in a harmless, mundane activity: he was dividing a big pile of ground coffee into smaller portions for each group of soldiers under his command.  

Suddenly the lieutenant cried out and looked quickly at a man near him as if he suspected it was a case of personal assault. The others cried out also when they saw blood upon the lieutenant's sleeve.

The soldiers, and the lieutenant, are stunned by the randomness of this attack:

[The men were] astonished and awed by this catastrophe which happened when catastrophes were not expected.

The rest of the story describes the lieutenant's long, solitary walk toward a field hospital, the botched bandaging of the wound by a man who claims to know how to bandage wounds, and the eventual amputation of the lieutenant's arm.

When the lieutenant arrives home, his family cries, but he replies:

"Oh, well," ... "I don't suppose it matters so much as all

As it often appears in life, things happen for no apparent reason and one has no idea how to respond.  This is even crueler than the idea that tragedy is a punishment for excessive pride.  In that case, at least, one can learn from one's mistake.  

In this story, Crane has perhaps gone beyond tragedy and entered into what would come to be known as existensialism, a philosophy that stresses, among other ideas, that we live in a world that is totally incomprehensible.  

Read the study guide:
An Episode of War

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