Why did Crane choose to have the lieutenant remain nameless? Does the lieutenant's namelessness heighten or lessen the emotional impact of the story? Please explain.

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jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Stephen Crane's short story, "An Episode of War," a Civil War lieutenant is hit by an enemy bullet while he is dividing up piles of coffee beans for his soldiers.  

For most of the rest of the story, the lieutenant is treated more like an object than a person.  He walks alone to a field hospital.  Along the way, he is scolded by an officer who feels that his wound has been improperly bandaged.  Upon reaching the hospital, a doctor looks at the newly-bandaged wound and says:

"What mutton-head had tied it up that way anyhow?"

The doctor agrees to treat the lieutenant's wound, but "his
voice contained the same scorn as if he were saying, 'You will have to go to jail.'"

The doctor promises the lieutenant that he will not amputate his arm, but he does.  

When the lieutenant returns home, he is finally greeted with some real, human sympathy:

his sisters, his mother, his wife sobbed for a long time at the sight of the flat sleeve.

The lieutenant however, has already been dehumanized: 

"Oh, well," he said, standing shamefaced amid these tears, "I don't suppose it matters so much as all that."

Although the story might have had more emotional impact if the lieutenant had a name and a personal history, Crane leaves him anonymous throughout the story.  This strengthens the story's theme that the casualities of war are random and banal.  Casualities of war occur without reason, and often while the victims are engaged in the most mundane, everyday, banal activities, and the victims are treated more like lumps of meat than like individual human beings.  By leaving his main character nameless, Crane has made him into a prototype of all victims of war.  

Read the study guide:
An Episode of War

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