Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623
Crane’s writing is often appreciated for its brevity, spareness, and attention to realistic detail. In “The Upturned Face” the reader may note all these elements. The story is one of Crane’s final, and finest, efforts. What is particularly notable about “The Upturned Face” is the vivid nature of the scene created in just fifteen hundred words. For example, the reader senses that bullets are whizzing by as a continual threat, but Crane only once mentions that they “snap” overhead, bullets are “spitting” overhead, and, at the opening, that bullets are cracking near their ears. The crisp effectiveness of these concise images forces the reader not only to perceive a tangible danger, but also to consider the importance of anything that requires enduring such a risk. Why is this so important to Lean and the adjutant?
Crane depicts death realistically, often describing wounds in bloody detail, or the odd positioning of a dead person’s limbs, perhaps emphasizing a certain revulsion to death, perhaps reflecting the realistically alien nature of the state. In this story, however, Lean’s and the adjutant’s sense of horror is expressed through the spare, yet focused image of the “chalk-blue” upturned face of their comrade. The reality is made into something alien and horrible not by its unnaturalness, but by its terrible immediacy.
The tension between the lieutenant and the adjutant, as well as the tension of each toward the dead man, skillfully builds from their initial debate over what to do. The first line describes the adjutant as “troubled and excited,” and it is another example of Crane’s art. At first these seem like antithetical states, yet soon we discover that the body of a fallen friend, coupled with the need to bury him as bullets fly close by, makes Crane’s opening remark an excellent summation. From this initial tension, caused by the conflict between the need to act quickly and the inability to quite face the situation, Crane leads the two men through a series of almost meaningless rituals that serve both to delay the outcome and to heighten the anxiety caused by the delay. The adjutant lets out a strange laugh that shows his mounting tension as they are faced with the reality of actually burying the body. However, first they must set it in the grave. This brings new levels of disgust to Lean and the adjutant, and they are “particular that their fingers should not feel the corpse.”
In an almost comedic moment they decide that some words should be read over the body, but neither can remember the service. This further delay, coupled with the sense of futility at the few meager words finally said, causes Lean to erupt against the innocent privates as he “tigerishly” commands them to throw in the dirt.
Then, the tension that has been building to this point is momentarily released as the first dirt falls on “Bill’s” feet rather than his face. Lean thinks “How satisfactory!” However, the respite is brief, for the private is wounded and Lean must finish filling in the grave himself.
Lean and the adjutant have ordered a grave to be dug, searched the body, dragged it to the grave, arranged it inside, read a snatch of scripture, and then, finally, run out of options. Crane propels the reader not only toward the inevitable point of burial, but also to a release of the stresses building in Lean throughout the narrative. Finally, they are released in a shovelful of dirt that covers the upturned face of their friend and ends the story. The unadorned “plop” of the dirt as it falls adds to the realism of the portrayal, while at the same time suggesting death’s finality.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161
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