A Mystery of Heroism

by Stephen Crane

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"A Mystery of Heroism" Themes

The main themes in “A Mystery of Heroism” are the nature of heroism, the wanton destructiveness of war, and ambiguity of motive.

  • The nature of heroism: While Collins briefly considers that he might be a hero because of his fearlessness, he decides that his flaws prevent him from being truly heroic.
  • The wanton destructiveness of war: Crane emphasizes the relentless, random nature of the chaos of battle, in which Collins’s quest for water is rendered pointless.
  • Ambiguity of motive: Collins’s reasons for going to the well at first seem simple but soon become unclear even to Collins himself.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Nature of Heroism

As he goes to fetch water from the well, Fred Collins meditates on the nature of heroism. He thinks that a hero is someone who does not feel fear in the way that an ordinary person does and, since he is feeling dazed and numb, decides that he must be a hero. His immediate reaction is not pride but disappointment. If he is a hero, he thinks, then “heroes were not much.” Collins’s conception of a hero is a distant and romantic figure: Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. The distance is part of the point. If one is a hero, he thinks, one must be separate from the sordid nature of everyday life. Heroism is something to aspire to, not to achieve by accident.

It is this idea of separation from the sordid part of life that makes Collins change his mind and decide that he cannot himself be a hero. “Heroes had no shames in their lives.” He thinks of his own failure to pay back a loan and his irritable response when his late mother wanted him to work on the family farm. Even these minor flaws, he believes, are incompatible with heroism and make him “an intruder in the land of fine deeds.”

All the soldiers in the story strike attitudes that might be regarded as heroic, from the stoicism of Privates Smith and Ferguson, and the fat major, to the impetuous daring of the lieutenant of artillery and, for that matter, Collins himself. Collins’s quest for water seems to the other soldiers like the exact mixture of folly and bravado that constitutes heroism, but the reader sees his introspection, in which he rejects this idea. The other soldiers, whose interior monologues remain unknown to the reader, probably do not see themselves as heroes either. If the hero is always a glamorous, distant figure, then no man is a hero to himself.

The Wanton Destructiveness of War

Throughout the story, there is a relentless description of the sheer destructiveness of war and how much of this destruction is superfluous. The wounded officer reflects:

Why, they couldn’t shoot any harder if the whole army was massed here!

The enemy shells he sees are not even killing soldiers. They are massacring “young blades of grass” and flinging up the earth “in monstrous handfuls.” The first image in the story shows the men so caked in the dust their frenetic activity has thrown up that they almost appear to be part of the landscape they are destroying.

Another commentary on the pointlessness and destructiveness of war is provided by the horses, who drag the guns “wheresoever these incomprehensible humans demanded with whip and spur.” Among the human participants in the story, only Fred Collins is given more of an interior life than the horses. The soldiers are described purely in terms of their actions, but the horses have “fluttering hearts” as they observe the “relentless and hideous carnage,” for which they can see no reason and in which they participate unwillingly.

The story ends with a symbolic act of destruction as the bucket of water is overturned and Collins’s daring quest is rendered useless. This is not a malevolent act but a careless, wanton one, a waste of resources appropriate to the frivolous characters of the two young lieutenants. It is a fitting end to a story in which so much of the destruction appears random and motiveless.

Ambiguity of Motive

“A Mystery of Heroism” might equally well be called “A Mystery of Motive.” Heroism may be intrinsically mysterious, but motives are generally regarded as...

(This entire section contains 889 words.)

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relatively straightforward. The more commonplace the action, the simpler the motive. You eat because you are hungry and fetch a drink of water from the well because you are thirsty. Fred Collins begins the story with what appears to be the most transparent of motives: he is thirsty, so he wants to go and fetch a drink. However, as soon as he makes the request, he realizes that his own motives are not that simple. When the colonel asks him if he does not think this is a big risk to take just for a drink of water, he replies that he does not know. The colonel and the captain are equally unsure of whether Collins really wants to go to the well. Perhaps he would have been relieved if they had refused permission.

As he starts off on his quest, Collins feels that he has been “blindly led by quaint emotions” into this dangerous situation:

But he was not sure that he wished to make a retraction, even if he could do so without shame. As a matter of truth, he was sure of very little. He was mainly surprised.

It seemed to him supernaturally strange that he had allowed his mind to manoeuvre his body into such a situation.

Collins is aware that, whether or not he can be called a hero, his action in crossing a battlefield to fetch a drink will become the stuff of legend. It will be said that Fred Collins was thirsty, so he decided to satisfy his thirst, regardless of the danger. The truth, however, is more complicated, and his reasons for volunteering to undertake such a perilous mission will always remain somewhat obscure, even to himself.