A Mystery of Heroism

by Stephen Crane

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Is Fred Collins a real hero in "A Mystery Of Heroism" by Stephen Crane? Why?

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Yes, Fred Collins in “A Mystery of Heroism” is a real hero because he takes a huge risk on behalf of other people. Despite his doubts about his bravery, his intentions and actions reveal his heroism. Even though he fails in delivering the water, he proves his courage at numerous points in the mission.

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In Stephen Crane’s story “A Mystery of Heroism,” Fred Collins shows that he is a true hero because he risks his life in an effort to help other people. Fred goes for water not just for himself but for his comrades in arms. Although Fred has doubts about his own courage, Crane conveys that heroism is not based in what a person believes about themselves. It is also not evaluated by the results of their actions. Rather, a person becomes a hero because of their intentions and their actions.

Among American troops in combat, Fred is a soldier who needs drinking water. The closest likely source is a well near a house located across the battleground. His fellow soldiers tease him about his thirst, and his captain at first is skeptical about the urgency of his need. Fred decides to take his chances at obtaining the water, and, at his captain’s suggestion, he agrees to take several other soldiers’ canteens as well.

Crane vividly describes the raging battle, including the wounds that the men sustain and mortar shelling as well as gunfire. This description helps emphasize Fred’s courage in taking on this mission. The story discusses Fred’s lack of fear and his self-doubt about heroism. After he fills a bucket with water, on the way back, he gives some to a wounded soldier. Even though there is no water left when he arrives, his sacrifices and actions prove his heroism.

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The Oxford dictionary defines hero as "a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities" and "the chief male character in a book, play, or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize."

In the story, Fred Collins meets most of the requirements for both definitions for the following reasons:

  • He clearly displays much courage when he, in the most atrocious circumstances, decides to collect water from a well in an area which is consistently being bombarded and under enemy fire. The text describes how the house and well have been destroyed by missile fire and how soldiers in the area have been either injured or killed. 
  • Even though his fellow comrades make fun of him and egg him on, they are clearly impressed by the fact that he undertook the challenge, for they believed that he did not have the courage to do so.

“Well, sir, if that ain’t th’ derndest thing! I never thought Fred Collins had the blood in him for that kind of business.”

"The regiment gave him a welcoming roar. The grimed faces were wrinkled in laughter."

  • Even the colonel is surprised by his act and believes it to be foolhardy, because he thinks that it would be impossible for him to succeed.

The colonel was watching Collins’s face. “Look here, my lad,” he said, in a pious sort of a voice—“look here, my lad”—Collins was not a lad—“don’t you think that’s taking pretty big risks for a little drink of water?”

  • Collins took the other men's canteens with him when instructed to do so, which would increase the risk. The extra weight would slow him down. Even though his motive was initially selfish and borne out of pride, he was brave enough to follow through.

"He had blindly been led by quaint emotions, and laid himself under an obligation to walk squarely up to the face of death."

  • When the injured artillery officer asked him for a drink, Collins at first ran on but then, risking death, he turned back to help the fallen man.

'But Collins turned. He came dashing back. His face had now turned gray and in his eyes was all terror. “Here it is! here it is!”'

  • Collins did something that went against his very nature, as the text indicates:

"...he remembered borrowing fifteen dollars from a friend and promising to pay it back the next day, and then avoiding that friend for ten months. When at home his mother had aroused him for the early labor of his life on the farm, it had often been his fashion to be irritable, childish, diabolical;..."

  • It was not Collins' intention to be a hero and he did not see himself as one.

"He was not a hero. Heroes had no shames in their lives..."

  • The story describes Collins' fear throughout the story. In spite of it, he completed his task. He was prepared to face death or serious injury to complete what others believed was an unnecessary and foolish errand.
  • In terms of the second definition Collins is, most obviously, the protagonist and we do sympathize with him; despite his character flaws (being stubborn and foolish), we admire that he did what he had promised to do and faced extreme adversity to do so.

Collins might not be a perfect or a 'real' hero, but he is a hero nonetheless. He had met the requirements for what one would deem a hero, as the text states:

He wondered why he did not feel some keen agony of fear cutting his sense like a knife. He wondered at this, because human expression had said loudly for centuries that men should feel afraid of certain things, and that all men who did not feel this fear were phenomena—heroes. He was, then, a hero. He suffered that disappointment which we would all have if we discovered that we were ourselves capable of those deeds which we most admire in history and legend. This, then, was a hero. After all, heroes were not much.

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