Death and the Child by Stephen Crane

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A university-educated correspondent named Peza arrives on the scene of a mass exodus of peasants who flee an approaching battle between Greek patriots and Turkish invaders. Although assigned to cover the event for an Italian paper, Peza identifies with the Greek people because his father was a Greek. Moved by the sights of war, he wishes to become immediately involved in fighting rather than in merely observing. His adventure, however, carries him through a moral process that changes his feelings about the war and himself.

Divided into seven sections, each of which focuses on a crucial event in Peza’s transformation, the story begins by establishing the pattern of the events into which Peza is drawn. It opens with the great human torrent that sweeps down the mountainside away from the threatening booms of artillery. Moving counter to this wave of refugees, Peza walks up the mountain. Overcome by pity and awe at the sight of such misery, Peza is inspired to join the fight. A young lieutenant returning to the front agrees to become Peza’s guide into the war. The contrast between these two characters foreshadows the difficulty Peza will have in his attempt to become involved in the war’s action. Although young like Peza, the lieutenant has already experienced battle and knows it is not the romantic adventure that Peza imagines it to be; he finds Peza’s fervent patriotism and heroic innocence at once amusing and contemptible.

The second section of the story, although not directly concerned with Peza, introduces the child whose image will bring about Peza’s ultimate transformation. The child has been left behind by his parents in their rush to escape. He plays tranquilly at his homesite on a mountain overlooking the plain on which the fighting rages. Though the lines of battle are moving imperceptibly closer, the boy shows only minimal interest in such distant action. It is too childish an affair for one who, like himself, is “dealing with sticks” in a pretend-game of sheepherding. Unlike Peza, who is caught up in causes—in ideals and abstractions—the child’s involvement in his play is direct, immediate, and concrete.

Sections 3 through 6 follow Peza as he further engages the experience of war. At the beginning of section 3, he is struck by the war’s failure to erase the “commonness” of familiar objects. The “immovable poppies,” images of nature’s endurance in the midst of human upheaval, also impress him. Seeing that the torrent of peasants has now become a stream of fatigued and wounded soldiers, Peza discovers that “pity ha[s] a numerical limit”; he is no longer moved by the sight of the wounded, but instead his vision becomes “focused upon his own chance.” At this moment, the lieutenant parts company with Peza, leaving him alone and unguided to “wander helplessly toward death.” Unable to see the troops for the trees, Peza moves blindly forward. When a shell shatters a nearby tree, he perceives the previously “immovable” natural world now “astounded,” “bewildered,” and “amazed” at its own vulnerability. He realizes that he is in this spot not primarily because of his conscious decision or noble ideals, but “because at a previous time a certain man [the lieutenant] had smiled.”

As section 4 opens, Peza inflates his influence on the war, personifying it as a “barbaric deity” that he must “surprise” so as not to give it pretext for further vengeance. His arrival at a company of peasant soldiers, however, inspires no extraordinary act. The soldiers ignore him, while he imagines them as dumb puppets ignorantly carrying out the superior will of great men. Approaching a captain of the battery, Peza reasserts his desire to fight, but the officer and soldiers only want from him political news of the war. In the midst of their civilized conversation, shells fly overhead and far beyond their position. Peza is elated that the shells “kill no one”...

(The entire section is 1,010 words.)