A Mystery of Heroism

by Stephen Crane

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"A Mystery of Heroism" Summary

A Mystery of Heroism” is an 1895 short story about a soldier who risks his life for a drink of water.

  • Fred Collins, a soldier in an unnamed war, obtains permission to cross a raging battlefield in order to fetch a drink of water from a well.
  • As he crosses the battlefield, Collins wonders if he is a hero for feeling no fear but decides that this cannot be, as heroes should also feel no shame.
  • When Collins returns, having stopped to give a drink to a dying man, two lieutenants accidentally spill the bucket of water on the ground.

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“A Mystery of Heroism” was Stephen Crane’s first published story about war. In this story, a young soldier named Fred Collins must grapple with his previously conceived definitions of heroism.

As the story opens, a battle in an unnamed war is raging all around Fred. Two armies are in the midst of a savage confrontation. Cannons are blasting the fields, uprooting the sod in huge clumps of earth. Gunshots exploding from both sides appear as “monstrous” bolts of lightning. Horses and soldiers who are caught in the middle have fallen to the ground. As this is going on, Fred Collins states that he wishes he had a drink and wonders if there is some source of water near him.

In the distance, what remains of a house leans in splinters; portions have been torn by shells as well as the axes of soldiers seeking firewood. The well-house off to the side is still smoldering. Farther away, a “frightful duel” is taking place. The men in Fred’s company watch and listen to the sights and sounds of the battle. Officers shout as the white-legged, uniformed soldiers run one way and then another. The sound of steel upon steel echoes across the field. When an officer from another regiment rides by in his horse, the man notices how carefully he holds his right arm in his left hand, as if the arm does not belong to him and might fall away from his body. The man’s face is dirty and wet with perspiration. Ironically, he smiles grimly when he notices the soldiers looking at him.

Again Fred states that he wishes he had a drink. When he stares across at the all-but-destroyed house, he adds that he bets the old well still has water in it. Someone agrees but asks Fred how he plans on getting it; the meadow between them and the house is under heavy fire. The wounded officer on the horse exclaims that the enemy is shooting at the field as if it were filled with soldiers, which it is not. Just then, a large shell explodes on the house, lowering even more of it to the ground.

Someone teases Fred, asking him why he does not go get some water if he is so thirsty. The wounded officer on the horse is hit with yet another shell. He falls from his horse and lies with his face pointed to the ground, one foot still in the stirrup of his saddle. His horse is on its side and looks dead. Shells are still falling all around them. Fred is not paying much attention to the officer. Rather, he is busy arguing with his fellow soldiers, who are teasing him about running across to the bombed-out house. He tells them he is not afraid to go. Then he sees his captain and goes to the officer to ask permission to go. The captain asks if Fred can wait. Fred says he cannot. The captain explains that he thinks it is foolish but if it is what Fred wants to do, he should take some of his comrades’ canteens with him and fill them all up.

As he crosses the field, Fred feels as if he is in a dream. He can barely believe he is walking out there so unprotected. He has little understanding of why he felt compelled to get the water; he was not that thirsty. He also wonders why he feels no fear. He then recalls once reading that men who felt no fear were called heroes. This must mean that he must be a hero. The...

(This entire section contains 887 words.)

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thought does not sit well with him. He feels disappointed. He had admired heroes he read about. However, now he realizes that if he were considered a hero, then to be a hero does not mean as much as he had once believed. Heroes are not supposed to feel shame, and yet he has a lot about which to be ashamed. He is not a hero, he knows. Rather, he is “an intruder in the land of fine deeds.”

Fred finally reaches the well but the water filling the canteens is flowing too slowly. Now fear overwhelms him. He tries to force the water to work more quickly but is unsuccessful. Rather than fill the canteens, Fred decides to fill a bucket he finds at the well. His hands tremble as he pulls it up, then he starts running back across the field.

As he nears the far edge, he passes near the officer who is dying on the field. The officer asks for a drink of water. At first, in his haste for shelter, Fred shouts out that he cannot stop. A few feet past the dying man, Fred stops and turns back. He tries to give the officer a drink, but in his anxiety he pours the water too fast and it splashes all over the officer’s face.

Fred runs on. When he reaches the other side, he offers the first drink to his captain. The captain tells him to give the water to the other soldiers. Two men taunt one another over the bucket. A noise is heard. All the men look in the same direction: they see that the bucket has fallen to the ground and is now empty.