A Mystery of Heroism

by Stephen Crane

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Symbolism in "A Mystery of Heroism"


In "A Mystery of Heroism," Stephen Crane uses symbolism to critique the concept of heroism. The well represents the futility of war, as Collins risks his life for something mundane. The spilled water symbolizes the senseless loss and the randomness of survival in battle, questioning the true value of so-called heroic acts.

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What is the symbolism in "A Mystery of Heroism"?

The most important piece of symbolism in this short story is of course the bucket of water that Collins risks life and limb to go and fetch. Of course, on the one hand, the bucket represents the heroism that he displays by taking such a massive risk to get water for the men. On the other hand, as the fate of the bucket of water shows, it also highlights the utter pointlessness and futility of war:

Suddenly there was an oath, the thud of wood on the ground, and a swift murmur of astonishment among the ranks. The two lieutenants glared at each other. The bucket lay on the ground empty.

Collins risks his life in order to get water, but the fate of that bucket of water shows just how little the lives of soldiers such as Collins were valued. The description of the shells exploding around Collins reveals that whether he lives or dies is down more to luck than any individual skill or bravery. In the same way, the symbol of his heroism is treated with contempt, just as his life is shown to matter little to those in power. Symbolically therefore the bucket is very important to signal the true message about war and the fluid meaning of bravery: it demonstrates how heroism is only a term that men create rather than a characteristic.

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What does the water symbolically represent in "A Mystery of Heroism"?

In "A Mystery of Heroism" the bucket of water is a very important symbol in two respects. Firstly, it represents heroism. Fred Collins shows extraordinary courage in going off to fetch the bucket of water in the heat of battle. The fighting is intense; Fred could be cut down by a bullet at any moment. Yet his thirst is so great that he's prepared to risk life and limb to go get something to drink.

At the same time, the bucket symbolizes the utter futility of war. Fred's heroics are ultimately in vain; soon after he returns from his courageous mission, the bucket lies empty on the ground. Using the symbol of the bucket of water in such completely different ways allows Crane to express his hostility toward war, while at the same time paying fulsome tribute to the immense bravery of those who serve and fight.

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