A Mystery of Heroism

by Stephen Crane

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Stephen Crane had a short but prolific literary career at the end of the nineteenth century, publishing five novels, three collections of short stories, and two collections of poetry before he died in 1900 at the age of twenty-eight. He is best known for his writing about the American Civil War, particularly his novel The Red Badge of Courage. “A Mystery of Heroism,” which is one of six war stories in Crane’s first collection, The Little Regiment, deals with several of the same themes as the novel, including the nature of courage and the grim reality of war. Crane experimented with various literary styles in the 1890s, and “A Mystery of Heroism” is an example of what was to become his dominant strain, American Naturalism.

The writing in “A Mystery of Heroism” is full of vivid imagery. One of the first aspects to strike the reader is the sheer number of similes. The flames of an exploding shell “seemed like lances,” and the noise is “like an imprecation in the face of a maiden.” A shell cuts through the sky “like a monstrous bolt of lightning.” Eyes shine like beads or like pieces of metal. The column of soldiers moves in unison, like an animal with four hundred eyes. Fear cuts the senses “like a knife” and comes upon the heart “like a grasp of claws.” The dying artillery officer’s arm “bent like a twig,” and his head “drooped as if his neck were of willow.”

The effect of these comparisons, however, is the opposite of that achieved by extended Homeric similes, which vary the monotony of battle by taking the reader away from the action for a line or two. Crane’s similes intensify the action, taking only a few words to distill the essence of the experience into a sharp, clear image. For the reader as for the protagonist, there is no escape from the battle. Aural and visual imagery are constantly combined to emphasize the chaos. In the brief opening paragraph, the author mentions the colors red, white, and blue (the gunfire, the men’s uniforms, and the sky) as the battery “was arguing in tremendous roars with some other guns.”

The arguing guns are just one instance of the way in which the weapons are personified and given malevolent intention. A beautiful green meadow suffers “a massacre of the young blades of grass,” which fall victim to “the red hate of the shells.” The wounded artillery officer’s cries are “heard only by the shells, bullets.” There is personification, too, when Fred Collins is struggling to fill the canteens at the well. “The stupid water derided him.” The bucket is lazy and uncooperative. Again, these literary elements do not detract from the realism of the story but enhance it psychologically. Any soldier is bound to think of the shells and bullets flying around him as malevolent and intentional or to feel that the water and the bucket are being recalcitrant when one will not flow into the other at a moment of great danger.

The flashes of humor and absurdity in the story are equally realistic. Collins runs across the battlefield with his bucket “in the manner of a farmer chased out of a dairy by a bull.” There is nothing inherently absurd about thirst, which can be as deadly as a bullet. However, it takes days to die of thirst, whereas Collins and his fellow soldiers are in immediate danger from the shells and bullets flying around them. In such circumstances, an activity as normal as fetching a drink of water seems like insanity. Normal life...

(This entire section contains 863 words.)

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has become abnormal. This is emphasized in the paragraph:

From beyond a curtain of green woods, there came the sound of some stupendous scuffle, as if two animals of the size of islands were fighting. At a distance there were occasional appearances of swift-moving men, horses, batteries, flags, and, with the crashing of infantry volleys were heard, often, wild and frenzied cheers. In the midst of it all Smith and Ferguson, two privates of A Company, were engaged in a heated discussion, which involved the greatest questions of the national existence.

It is notable that Smith and Ferguson are the only two characters apart from Fred Collins who are given names. The other soldiers are identified solely by their military rank, from private to colonel. These two soldiers are conducting the sort of political discussion one might expect any two men to have over dinner or in a bar, or in any social setting. The irony is that they are debating “the greatest questions of the national existence” at a time and in a place where their individual existences are immediately threatened by “two animals the size of islands.” In this respect, their conversation parallels Fred Collins’s quest for water. It is absurd and perversely courageous to carry on such a discussion under such circumstances. Smith and Ferguson remain human in their folly. This is why they are accorded the honor of individual names by the author, in a story where their comrades, with the exception of Fred Collins, have made themselves anonymous parts of the monstrous machine of war.