A Mystery of Heroism

by Stephen Crane

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"A Mystery of Heroism" Characters

The main characters in “A Mystery of Heroism” include Fred Collins, the wounded lieutenant, and the captain.

  • Fred Collins is the protagonist and a soldier fighting in an unnamed war. He displays both bravery and stubbornness in his quest to fetch water from the well but functions largely as an everyman figure.
  • The wounded lieutenant is a member of Collins’s company who, while dying on the battlefield, asks Collins for a drink of water.
  • The captain is the commander of Collins’s company and gives Collins permission to go to the well.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Fred Collins

Fred Collins is the protagonist of the story. He is the only character given a first name and—aside from Privates Smith and Ferguson, who come and go in a single sentence—the only one who has a name at all. Despite this, the reader knows almost nothing about him in terms of background, age, appearance, or any of the other usual descriptors of character. He is introduced simply as a thirsty man who will do whatever it takes to obtain a drink of water.

Later in the story, Collins is given some psychological depth as the author examines his thoughts and feelings. These, however, merely establish him as an everyman figure who, given the premise, thinks much as the average person would. He is initially angry at the jeers of his comrades. Then he feels foolish when asking the colonel for permission to go to the well. Later he feels surprise at his own actions. Even his reaction to the fallen artillery officer is likely to be shared by the reader. At first he is too frightened to stop on the battlefield, but then, seeing that the man is dying, he relents and takes some water to him, though he cannot hold the bucket steady when he does so. Collins is shown to be a brave man and rather a stubborn one, but beyond this he has emotions and reactions that anyone can readily understand.

Private Smith

Private Smith is “engaged in a heated discussion” with Private Ferguson about “the greatest questions of the national existence” in the midst of a noisy, chaotic, and terrifying battle, where their own lives are in danger at every moment. This suggests that he is a brave man, or a reckless one, and that he has become used to the terrors of combat.

Private Ferguson

Private Ferguson is described in the same sentence as Private Smith, engaging in the same conversation. The two are not differentiated except through their names. Ferguson’s is of Scottish origin and is slightly more unusual than “Smith,” which is the most common name in England and often used as a generic name for an Englishman.

The Wounded Lieutenant

The lieutenant of the battery first appears on horseback, holding his right arm with his left hand “as if this arm was not at all a part of him, but belonged to another man.” Despite his grim circumstances, he retains a sense of the absurdity of the situation and comments on the disproportionate ferocity of the attack.

Another shell kills the lieutenant’s horse, and he is lying, severely wounded, on the battlefield at the end of the story, when Collins returns from the well with the bucket. At this point he is very weak, but he asks Collins for a drink and smiles faintly when Collins gives it to him.

The Lieutenant of Artillery

The lieutenant of artillery rides his horse straight down the hill “with as little concern as if it were level ground.” He is shown to be taking grave risks in the line of duty and seems to regard the battle more seriously than those around him. His courage borders on folly, and his eyes sparkle “like those of an insane man.”

The Fat Major

The fat major is a foil for the lieutenant of artillery. He is shown to be careless and lazy, apparently indifferent to the outcome of the battle.

The Captain

The captain is Fred Collins’s company commander. He laughs when Collins asks for permission to go to the well for water, then asks him if he can wait. He is talking to the...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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colonel at the time and defers to his superior officer in the matter of giving permission. When Collins returns with the water, he refuses the bucket and tells Collins to give it to the men, suggesting that he has a sense of the dignity and responsibility of his position.

The Colonel

The colonel is the highest-ranking officer to whom the author refers and is presumably in charge of the conduct of the battle. He asks Collins whether he thinks it is taking too big a risk to go to the well for water but, when Collins replies noncommittally, allows him to go. The colonel appears to be taking the battle as a matter of course. He addresses Collins as “my lad,” although Collins is not a boy, suggesting that the colonel is an older man, middle-aged at least, and a seasoned officer.

The Two Lieutenants

The two lieutenants are the first to handle the bucket of water at the end of the story. As they play over it, one nudges the other, and the water is spilled on the ground. Both men are young and are portrayed as frivolous and thoughtless, strangely carefree amid the horrors of battle.