The narrator, a young man fascinated by war, not in the sense of maneuvers devised by generals but the reality of war, the actual killing. To discover why soldiers kill, and under the influence of what feeling, he volunteers to accompany a Russian regiment on a raid into the Caucasian hills controlled by Tatar tribesmen. A thoughtful, sensitive man, the narrator wishes to grasp the meaning of bravery and discusses the issue with the captain of the regiment, whom he admires greatly. During the action, the narrator is able to observe men risking their lives for reasons of vanity, curiosity, and greed: The truly brave man is he who, like the captain, simply and quietly “does what he ought.” The narrator paints a portrait of war as often fascinating and gallant but as ultimately futile, vain, and destructive, with no clear or worthwhile goals achieved.
Captain Pavel Ivanovich Khlopov
Captain Pavel Ivanovich Khlopov (PAH-vehl ee-VAH-noh-vihch KHLOH-pov), a gray-haired, elderly captain, severely wounded four times over the course of long years of service in the Russian army. A quiet, brave, and unassuming man surrounded by vain and loud younger officers, the captain wears a very unmartial-looking shabby coat and smokes cheap tobacco. He writes his mother dutifully once a year and, to protect her, has never revealed that he has been seriously wounded. In battle, he is calm and alert, the men under his command fighting so well and so professionally that they seldom need an order from him. A man with no illusions about war—for he has seen too many die—he serves in the army because he believes that a man must serve his country. To the narrator, it is the captain who is truly brave.
Ensign Anatol Ivanich Alanin
Ensign Anatol Ivanich Alanin (ah-nah-TOHL ee-VAH-nihch ah-LAH-nihn), a young and ardent soldier a month out of the Cadet Corps, killed during his first action on his first campaign, needlessly leading a charge into the woods during an orderly retreat. A beautiful, black-eyed youth with only the first indications of a mustache, Ensign Alanin is delighted to be going into action for the first time so that he can prove his bravery and devotion. As the Russian soldiers are being harassed on their retreat, Alanin keeps riding up to the captain and begging permission to charge. Not receiving permission, he disobeys orders and is killed.
Lieutenant Rosencranz, a vain, dashing, and desperate daredevil, filled with hatred, vengeance, and contempt for the human race. Tall and handsome, Lieutenant Rosencranz rides a large white horse and bedecks himself in the finery of war: swords, daggers, pistols, and Asiatic costume. An avid killer, during combat Rosencranz rides his horse up and down the cordon of soldiers, shouting out orders incessantly in his loud, hoarse voice. An extraordinarily vain man, he shapes his life on the basis of literary heroes out of the works of Mikhail Lermontov. He traces his ancestry to the Varangians, the first rulers of Russia, and thinks of himself as a pure Russian.
The general, a stylish, pompous, and vain imitator of an antiquated French chivalry. During the heat of battle, the general is fond of speaking in trivial French phrases with his junior officers.