Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

An essential antiwar message predominates in this sober tale, but Stephen Crane, going well beyond the ethos of combat, infuses it with ideas endemic to the nineteenth century cosmic view, that humanity is but a tiny mote in the universal scheme, an insignificant entity driven by the fates and the winds of haphazard chance. Humankind’s triviality is underscored by the characters not even having names; they are identified as types of people, generic manifestations caught in capriciously unfolding events they cannot control. The characters are unable to exercise freedom of the will; each person is propelled to action by the circumstances and forces about him; no one can direct his own destiny. All life is driven by some inexorable, unpredictable fate, the only apparent certainty being the existence of human suffering. Passion, not rationalism, is the fuel that ignites and unleashes the forces precipitating human movements that occur amid anarchy and frenzy.

The nameless lieutenant is the unfortunate Everyman, powerless to help himself and clearly at the mercy of the forces directing his steps. He also represents the archetypal victim gratuitously marked out for this role within the chaotic forces of war. He is helpless, small, ineffectual. Unable to sheathe his sword, divide the rations, or deter the surgeon, he is dependent on destiny for his existence. In the furious tumult and aimlessness, he joins the figurative march of ants that move in fixed parade, part of an unremarkable species, minuscule but striving toward a mysterious purpose. Crane’s battlefield transcends the Civil War and may be seen as a microcosm of the world, for all life becomes a battle, a struggle to exist against the challenging fates that casually toss obstacles in the daily path. Human beings, nameless to the deterministic forces controlling life, are never the captains of their souls. The prime undercurrent rushing through “An Episode of War” is this philosophy of pessimism that eliminates free will from human option and renders a somber picture of life.